Two red cards in seven days shone a spotlight on Leeds United’s discipline and whatever Thomas Christiansen’s view of it, the excesses of his squad are complicating his job. He has dealt with more dismissals than any other manager in the Championship and the most recent have come at an excessive cost.
Kalvin Phillips played down the problem after Saturday’s defeat to Ipswich Town, describing red cards as “what happens in football”, but it cannot have failed to dawn on Christiansen that the club’s most recent were easily avoidable.
Christiansen defended Eunan O’Kane after the midfielder was sent off for headbutting Jonas Knudsen on Saturday but the clearest replays of the incident showed O’Kane flicking his head at the centre-back. Christiansen spoke up for Samuel Saiz after the Spaniard was red-carded for spitting during an FA Cup tie at Newport County 10 days ago but was contradicted when Saiz apologised 24 hours later. O’Kane misses three games while Saiz sits out six, absences United’s head coach can barely afford to contend with. The 18-man squad used at Portman Road was all that remained of his first-team pool.
Across all competitions no Championship side has accrued as many red cards as Leeds and only two exceed their tally of 62 bookings. They hold the worst score in the Football Association’s Fair Play league table for the division. O’Kane’s dismissal was their fifth of the season and their fifth in the space of three-and-a-half months. The club felt aggrieved by Knudsen’s reaction to O’Kane’s headbutt, annoyed by the Dane over-exaggerating the contact, but the absence of any appeal from Elland Road before yesterday’s noon deadline was an admission that O’Kane had crossed the line.
In the case of both O’Kane and Saiz, their offences were in full view of the match officials. Referee Robert Jones was a few yards away from the clash between O’Kane and Knudsen and Saiz was seen spitting at Newport midfielder Robbie Willmott by one of Mike Dean’s assistants. Spitting carried the stricter punishment and Saiz will not be available until Leeds play Derby County on February 20. O’Kane is out until after Cardiff City’s visit to Elland Road on February 3. Phillips, despite his defence of Leeds’ discipline, is himself a booking away from a two-game ban having been cautioned towards the end of Saturday’s 1-0 defeat.
The overall trend is one of untimely misjudgements, stretching back to the first red card of the term shown to Liam Cooper at Cardiff in September. United’s captain was already on a yellow card when he dived into a first-half tackle on Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and left the field with Leeds 2-0 down.
Christiansen admitted that he should have prevented Ronaldo Vieira’s dismissal for a second booking at Wolverhampton Wanderers in November having watched the young midfielder commit a number of risky fouls earlier in the game. Gaetano Berardi’s red card at Bristol City in October, meanwhile, was the equivalent of O’Kane’s: a headbutt thrown at Matty Taylor while Leeds were closing out a 3-0 win.
Every one of those dismissals came away from home and only one was softened by the result. O’Kane’s misdemeanour was particularly expensive, committed in the 37th minute of a match which Leeds were dominating. Pawel Cibicki and Kemar Roofe had both missed good chances and United were exploiting gaps in behind a high Ipswich defence. With a numerical advantage, Bersant Celina picked off Christiansen’s side 22 minutes from the end but United’s chances in the second half were more evidence of what might have been.
“I believe that if we play 11 versus 11 we take the three points for sure,” Christiansen said. “Everyone in the stadium recognised that it was not right to lose this game.” At a ground where Leeds have won once in 11 visits, they have rarely handled Ipswich so well.
United’s disciplinary record is not yet on the scale of the 2014-15 season, when the club amassed seven red cards between Championship, League Cup and FA Cup fixtures, but it is worse than last season and leaving Christiansen short in areas where he previously had cover. Leeds have five central midfielders, including Conor Shaughnessy who came off the bench at half-time at Ipswich, but Vieira missed that defeat through injury, O’Kane is out for the next three weeks and Phillips will join him if he incurs another booking. Sunday brought fresh links to Middlesbrough’s Adam Clayton, despite sources at Elland Road repeatedly insisting that they are not looking to re-sign a midfielder who left Leeds in 2012.
Vieira should be fit for this weekend’s clash with Millwall and Stuart Dallas was in the squad at Portman Road, for the first time in two months. Left-back Laurens De Bock is likely to make his debut having signed from Club Brugge last week but Luke Ayling is facing a lengthy recovery from ankle surgery and Caleb Ekuban’s comeback from a fractured foot is still to be scheduled.
Phillips said he would not tailor his game to counter the threat of a 10th booking and a two-match ban. “I don’t really think about it,” he said. “I just play football and if I get another one then I get another yellow card.
“You get red cards and yellow cards and injuries come and go. Players getting injured gives a chance to players who haven’t been in the squad to express themselves. I think we’ve got a very strong squad.”