CAPTAIN Liam Cooper believes that had his disallowed goal stood against Aston Villa then Leeds would have been cruising at 2-0, but the draw nevertheless confirmed United’s improvement. Phil Hay reports.
Professional Football feeds on fine detail and Leeds United added Gianni Vio to their backroom team with the belief that his set-piece expertise would be worth up to 12 additional points each season.
Leeds, under Thomas Christiansen, rely heavily on goals from open play – 25 of the 30 they have scored in the Championship – but Pontus Jansson’s header against Aston Villa continued a trend which the club’s head coach has seen develop since Vio joined his staff in October. An effort like that was coming, Christiansen said, at the end of Friday’s 1-1 draw.
Vio acquired the nickname ‘The Little Wizard’ in Italy on account of a reputation and track record for improving individual clubs’ strike-rates from set-plays. Vio’s attempts to be innovative, and his success in doing so, took him from Catania to Fiorentina and AC Milan before Brentford and their statistically-minded owner, Matthew Benham, asked him to address an attacking shortcoming in 2015.
His routines at Brentford, to the naked eye, could be weird and wonderful; walls in front of walls and players in unconventional positions, all with the aim of unseating the opposition defence. One comparable situation was evident in the second half of Leeds’ defeat to Sheffield United a month ago, a chance wasted when Kalvin Phillips lost his footing and hooked a free-kick into the crowd, but a change in Leeds’ tactics at corners has been more obvious.
At Barnsley 10 days ago, Christiansen’s players followed a consistent plan; swarming en masse to the back post before filtering out across the penalty area as every corner arrived. Leeds took to placing two players over the dead ball, allowing for a last-minute decision on an inswinging or outswinging delivery, and Jansson made their preparation pay on Friday when he fended off Chris Samba and drove home a 20th-minute header at Villa’s near post.
Midway through the second half Christiansen’s other centre-back, Liam Cooper, was adjudged fractionally offside as he ran in ahead of Jansson to convert a Kemar Roofe free-kick. It was a crucial moment, denying Leeds a second goal and helping Villa fight back for a point, but Cooper said: “Gianni has been on to us in training about making those runs.
“We can create problems and we can be much more of a threat from set-plays. I’m due a goal. Seemingly I was inches offside. Pontus said he was definitely off but he wasn’t sure about me. Someone saw the video and told me after the game that I was by a couple of inches. Sometimes you get that luck but we do look a threat.”
Vio and Christiansen had not crossed paths on the coaching circuit previously but the Italian was recommended to United’s head coach by Leeds and their sporting director, Victor Orta. Christiansen agreed to add Vio to his staff, saying he wanted “the best with me”, and United estimated on the basis of Vio’s prior performance that his set-piece ideas could earn the club the equivalent of four wins a season.
Speaking to the YEP last month, managing director Angus Kinnear described Vio as “a renowned coach” and said the opportunity to target that area of the game “made sense”.
Gianni has been on to us in training about making those runs. We can create problems and we can be much more of a threat from set-plays.Leeds United’s Liam Cooper
Jansson’s goal was the fourth scored by the club from a set-piece this season, a ratio of less than nine per cent. Bristol City and Ipswich Town are already into double figures and Wolverhampton Wanderers, for all their fluent attacking play, have claimed a quarter of their goals from set-plays. Kinnear said: “Gianni came through the contacts we’ve got and he’s renowned as being one of the best set-piece coaches in the world. We know that what he does should be worth six to 12 points a season so to secure that type of talent made sense. We’re trying to improve in every aspect.”
With a month of Vio’s input behind them, Christiansen felt that a goal like Jansson’s was in the post. The Swede took up position in front of Villa goalkeeper Sam Johnstone and turned a flying header into his net from close range after wrestling himself away from Samba.
“I believe that the team have improved in these situations,” Christiansen said. “In all of the games we’ve had one clear opportunity where we leave one man alone with the goalkeeper. We didn’t put some of them in but we scored this one and we hope it will continue.”
Villa manager Steve Bruce turned Friday’s match with the aid of a stronger bench, introducing Henri Lansbury and Jack Grealish midway through the second half. Lansbury equalised from long range on 72 minutes, shooting past Felix Wiedwald after Jansson and Neil Taylor flew into a challenge. Leeds were left to rue Cooper’s earlier disallowed effort and a cross from Samuel Saiz which evaded Roofe and Gjanni Alioksi by inches as Christiansen’s side pressed for a 2-0 lead.
“I was gutted my header didn’t count,” Cooper said. “At 2-0 we would have been cruising but in the end the point is a good one against a good Villa side. For long parts we were the better team.
“We had chances and the one (Saiz) put across the box, I gave the ball to him out wide. I kept going, got a bit of a nosebleed and I said to him afterwards that the pull-back was on but he went with the lads in the box and they were unlucky not to get a touch.
“The manager had been on to us to do that – to get people in the box. It causes the opposition problems.”