The last international break was a godsend for Leeds United but the interlude which started today struck Garry Monk as bad timing. His reluctance to retreat to the training ground for two weeks is a sign of the times and the most positive indictment of a constructive month behind him.
Monk finished August in the pouring rain at Nottingham Forest, tearing his hair out over everything from poor results to the concept of defending set-pieces. September and the first day of October have been considerably kinder. “It’s a shame the break comes now,” Monk said. “With the last one we felt it came at the right time but with this one we want to keep the games coming. I’m a bit disappointed in that sense.”
By the standards of the Championship, it ranks as a first-world problem for a head coach whose job is under control. Leeds edged through a tight derby against Barnsley on Saturday, fluent in periods, at full-stretch in others but on the right side of a 2-1 scoreline, and a squad who were ragdolled in parts of August have learned to throw their weight about. Eleventh in the table as the campaign pauses, season-ticket refunds no longer seem like such a sure thing.
The predictability of the opening months – the errors, the nerves and the concessions from corners – have been replaced by predictability of a more healthy sort. Monk is beginning to count on clean sheets and if not those, the next best thing. No team scored more than one goal against his in the seven games between the international breaks. Leeds are taking enough of their chances to keep the Championship ticking over and all around are players who understand the plan.
“I’d say we’re improved,” said Monk, by way of an understatement. This time four weeks ago he and Leeds had four points. “There’s a clearer understanding of the league.
“It’s still early days and I’m a new manager with different methods to what was being done here before, but the players are buying into it. We’ve done everything right in this period of seven games and we’re doing well but there’s always that want for more. The players should want more.”
Monk steadfastly refuses to single out individuals but there are some who have helped him take hold of the club. Pablo Hernandez scored again on Saturday, establishing a 2-0 lead in the second half and inviting Leeds to put Barnsley to the sword. Their failure to do so when, as Monk put it, they “sensed blood” allowed Barnsley to reply through a Charlie Taylor own goal and assault United’s net for the last 20 minutes.
Kyle Bartley, who drew first blood in the opening half, has exerted himself gradually in the centre of defence. Next to him, Pontus Jansson simply jumps from masterclass to masterclass. He was, true to form, a magnet to the ball and in the right position to hack a Josh Scowen cross off the goalline in the final minutes of the match. United’s victory depended on it.
Monk stressed that Jansson, who played despite pulling a hamstring earlier in the week, was “one cog in the group”. “The team’s not one man,” Monk said. But there is something endearing about Jansson’s competitive attitude and something which taps into Leeds’ long-standing culture.
Hard, uncompromising, ambitious; the ethos of Don Revie, whose son Duncan died last week and was honoured with a minute’s applause before kick-off. Hints of booing from the away end did not manage to spoil it.
Monk revealed that he had first encountered Jansson during his playing days at Swansea in 2013.
City thrashed Malmo over two Europa League legs but Monk said: “Pontus was playing for Malmo at the time. As a centre-half myself I was on the bench but I always used to watch my position in the opposition team. It’s natural that you do that.
“I remember him and I thought he was a good player. When he came on our radar here I remembered back to that. We knew what he could offer and we’re very pleased to have him here. But he’s very pleased to be here too.”
It seems imperative that Leeds succeed in keeping him; that the right to buy which came with his season-long loan from Torino is exercised as soon as possible. Bartley, too, is thriving with Jansson alongside side him. The first half on Saturday was something and nothing, a half in which Barnsley played most of the football without getting anywhere near Rob Green.
“We weren’t at full throttle,” Monk admitted. But without much warning, Bartley found a way through on 37 minutes when he met Hernandez’s corner with a side-footed finish.
Having had more of the match, Barnsley were having one of those weeks; forced on Thursday to sack assistant manager Tommy Wright over financial allegations published in the Daily Telegraph. Between that and accusations made against Massimo Cellino, the Telegraph’s coverage might have painted Saturday as the corruption derby but it boiled down to a meeting between two able teams, both of whom will think that they have got the measure of the Championship.
Leeds picked Barnsley off again in the 56th minute when Hernandez anticipated a long ball in behind the visiting defence, beat the offside trap and drew Adam Davies before curling the ball around him.
Barnsley were already in the process of losing their nerve and Chris Wood and Eunan O’Kane had between them failed to punish a critical loss of possession second earlier.
Amid the wobble, Monk looked for a third goal.
“The way we started the second half, those 20 minutes, was some of the best football we’ve played,” he said. “We were aggressive and looking threatening all the time.
“We got the second goal but at that point you sense blood and a third would have killed the game. The problem was that for one moment we switched off. Mentally, we relaxed too much.”
In the 70th minute, Barnsley finally found a way past Luke Ayling on the right as Adam Hammill and Cole Kpekawa passed their way through pockets of space. Kpekawa’s low cross was turned into the net by Taylor, who had the impossible choice of converting an own goal or leaving the ball and allowing Sam Winnall to bury it behind him.
“We were so on top but they got the goal and momentum,” Monk said. “You see it in football a lot but we defended very well.” As Barnsley came forward, a late volley from Conor Hourihane was saved by Green with his legs. Scowen’s goalbound shot soon after found a breathless Jansson three yards in front of the line, waiting to hoof the ball into the air. Monk has seen games like this go against his side this season. “I said ‘unlucky’ to the lads afterwards but then I took it back,” said Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom. “You’re never unlucky. If you lose, you lose.”
For a month or more Leeds spent Saturday nights thinking like that, stuck in a cycle of frustrated reflection. “We’re pleased with the result and we’re pleased with the way this period has gone,” Monk said, before heading off to see what a letter from the Football Association had to say about his touchline dismissal at Bristol City last Tuesday.
The cost of any fine will feel like small beer.