Daniel Chapman: Pontus Jansson was box office for a while but he and Leeds United have both moved on

Former Leeds United defender Pontus Jansson in action for Brentford. (Getty)
Former Leeds United defender Pontus Jansson in action for Brentford. (Getty)
0
Have your say

For as long as Leeds United stay in the Championship we’ll be trapped by our past.

From Wigan Athletic on Saturday to Pontus Jansson on Wednesday, with a documentary in between to remind you how these things hurt us last season.

Only promotion to the Premier League can save us, as long as Billy Sharp, Frank Lampard and Daniel James aren’t still there.

The catastrophe of Pontus Jansson’s exit to Brentford this summer could be read in his face as he posed in the red and white hair shirt of his new club.

Boy, did he look itchy and, if he was itching to get going, it was to go somewhere far away from Griffin Park as soon as possible. Like Kemar Roofe, he has taken a bizarre sidestep in his pursuit of a Premier League dream. Only time will tell if it leads to a great leap forward.

That’s Jansson’s problem now.

The concern at Elland Road was about how Leeds would cope without him against the big, physical centre-forwards that roam the Championship’s lower reaches, hoping their prehistoric roaring will be heard by Neil Warnock, and his chequebook.

Curiosity about how Jansson would be replaced gave way to mystification when he wasn’t, except by a meek youth on loan from Brighton, Ben White.

Wigan had a brute up front on Saturday, six-feet-five of Kieffer Moore, but there was little sign of him Nikola Žigic-ing his way to easy goals past our callow centre-half and his crackers keeper.

It helped that Wigan had only 10 players in total for most of the game, but that was less significant than Marcelo Bielsa’s belief that if you keep the ball and keep attacking, defending will take care of itself.

That theory has worked in the last two games.

Nottingham Forest didn’t complete a single pass into United’s penalty area at Elland Road; Wigan managed only two. At the other end, Leeds passed into Forest’s box 15 times, and 20 times into Wigan’s.

An opponent’s aerial superiority doesn’t amount to much if they haven’t got the ammunition.

Defending has changed, and VAR will change it even more, with an inevitable trickle-down effect into the still pleasantly lawless EFL. Video reviews will reduce the already-limited amount of physical contact allowed in the modern game, and battering-ram forwards will be blunted by replays.

Jansson used his height and strength to clear and bully, and losing that is a risk for Leeds, but anticipation, pace and skill are more important now, especially in Bielsa’s team.

Judging by his first few games, White is better than Jansson at the things he’ll be spending most of his time doing.

Leeds do miss Jansson’s personality although, by the sounds of things, Bielsa doesn’t. His reception by the crowd tomorrow will be interesting, as will his response.

He split opinion in the end but, at the start, Jansson changed the club by uniting the fans behind his charismatic leadership. We’d craved that presence during the desperate years of Giuseppe Bellusci and Scott Wootton, when we wished they could somehow be more anonymous.

Jansson was box office at Elland Road, unusual for a defender, but perfect for him and, for a while, for us.

In every moment, good or bad, we would watch Jansson for a cue. He could galvanise the support with his passion, celebrating a crunching tackle; he could reflect and increase our misery, sulking down the tunnel.

He cared, and it had felt like a long time since anyone cared.

Ben White doesn’t have that charisma, but his mild demeanour is a gift for Bielsa in his quest for the ideal, programmable player. He can make of White what he wants.

The force and leadership is still there alongside him, thanks to Liam Cooper, who has diligently exorcised his own demons of May, starting the season as a more influential figure now that Jansson is gone.

May’s ghosts were the first that had to be laid to rest this season, and an unbeaten start was the right way to do it. There will be plenty more between now and next May and, knowing Leeds, new horrors to contend with.

That’s always part of this club: our history means we are always taking on more in every game than just the 11 players on the other team.

But that’s the important thing to remember about Pontus Jansson’s return on Wednesday night. Whether we’re a better team without him or not, he can only influence us now if we let him.

Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice.

He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.