Games come thick and fast in the Championship which can be draining for players physically, but Liam Bridcutt reckons it’s also a good opportunity for teams to get back on track quickly. Phil Hay reports.
If Saturday’s defeat to Barnsley is the start of a test of Leeds United’s backbone, Liam Bridcutt feels ready for it.
The club’s play-off credentials are not in question but a spate of five games in 16 days will demonstrate their ability to last the pace.
United’s loss at Oakwell also underlined what Bridcutt and his head coach, Garry Monk, have been saying for some time: that the difficulty of individual matches will intensify as Leeds go further along the Championship run-in.
Events at Barnsley in the lead-up to Saturday made the South Yorkshire club look vulnerable but their 3-2 win over Leeds said otherwise.
“When we play like that another team are going to have to play well to beat us,” said Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom.
It might serve as a useful lesson for Leeds as they tackle a spell of fixtures which looks favourable on paper. Nottingham Forest, who visit Elland Road tomorrow night, have been dragged down by mediocre results and the antics of their owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi. They are 19th in the table and without a manager. Blackburn Rovers, who Leeds meet at Ewood Park next Wednesday, are 23rd. In between, Monk’s side meet non-league Sutton United in the FA Cup’s fourth round on Sunday, a tie in which they are overwhelming favourites.
Next week’s derby at Huddersfield Town is the only fixture in which Leeds can play without undue expectation.
Bridcutt warned before Saturday’s trip to Oakwell that “the higher we sit up the table the harder the games are going to get” and the intensity of that contest made the point for him.
“When you’re at the top of the table teams want to beat you that bit more,” the midfielder said, looking ahead to tomorrow’s meeting with Forest. “They try that little bit harder so we’ve got to adapt to that and look forward to the test.
“This is why you become a footballer. You want to be at the top of your game and to be to at the top of your game you’ve got to be able to handle the pressure of people chasing you all the time. If we want to be at the top of the table at the end of the season then these are the games we need to be winning.”
There were signs of fatigue in Leeds’ performance at Oakwell, not least in Pablo Hernandez who took a heavy blow to one shin midway through the second half and looked shattered in the closing minutes, but the defeat was their first in the Championship for five weeks and only their second since the middle of October.
Monk’s side almost escaped with a point when Kemar Roofe slid a glorious chance wide of a post from point-blank range in injury-time.
Monk, who was again forced to field three right-backs in his back four, blamed defensive weakness for a result which turned on three Barnsley goals in nine minutes either side of half-time. Pontus Jansson will return from suspension to strengthen Leeds in that area tomorrow.
Bridcutt, however, said the loss should be viewed with perspective in the midst of an impressive season.
“I think it would be harsh to call people out,” Bridcutt said. “The run we’ve had has been unbelievable.
“The manager knows how to work with the players, he knows how to speak with the players. He came in and said ‘look, it was a bad game but we’re not going to dwell on it’.
“We know it wasn’t a good game for us and we’re not going to make excuses.
“We’ve lost one out of however many so you just look at it and think ‘we need to put this right on Wednesday’.
“This is why I love the Championship, because you’ve always got another game around the corner. I think the boys are looking forward to Wednesday even more now. We know with the stage of the season we’re at that we need to start picking up points. It’s another massive game and a massive test for us but we’re in a great position still.”
If Monk recalls Jansson against Forest, as United’s head coach seems certain to do, the centre-back will reach 22 appearances for the season, allowing Leeds to take up an option to sign him permanently from Italian club Torino.
United insisted on an appearance-related clause as a test of Jansson’s fitness following knee injuries suffered by the Sweden international earlier in his career but Jansson’s conditioning and form has held up superbly since he arrived from Torino on a year-long loan in August.
Leeds will need to pay a fee of around £3.5m to make the move permanent, although the option agreed with Torino would allow them to delay a full-time deal until the end of the season.
Jansson’s agent Martin Dahlin, however, told the YEP that the defender has already agreed the terms of a three-year contract at Elland Road.
The permanent signing of Hernandez from Al-Arabi in Qatar – a transfer completed on January 9 – is Leeds’ only significant transfer deal to date this month but Monk remains hopeful that the club will secure a new striker and winger before the transfer window closes.
Asked if the squad at Elland Road would benefit from additions to it, Bridcutt said: “That’s out of my hands and I don’t have anything to do with it.
“That’s down to the owners and down to the manager and if they feel they need to strengthen the squad then I think they will.”