There’s no easy fix for a footballer’s loss of form. Sometimes there’s no explanation for it either.
We’ve all been there and it’s one of the most infuriating parts of the job. You never need to be told that you’re failing to pull up trees. Any player with a smidgen of self-awareness can feel it.
The managers I played under took their own approach to helping you. I worked with some who left me in the team in the hope that I’d play my way out of it. I worked with others who dropped me with the intention of letting me sort myself out away from the firing line. Even now I’m not sure which theory worked best.
Basically, hard work and time will see you right. That’s as much of a silver bullet as you’ll find. All I looked for in those periods was good man-management; some forewarning about the fact that you were doing to be dropped, rather than finding out as you practiced shape on a Friday morning. ‘I’m wearing a bib? Marvellous. Thanks for the warning.’
It can be a bit like primary school where all eyes are on you and everyone is waiting to see how you react. Forewarned is forearmed and a good manager will give you a quiet heads-up.
That brings us onto Pontus Jansson. To an extent it brings us onto Felix Wiedwald too but the difference between dropping Jansson and dropping Wiedwald is that only one of them is an established figure at Leeds United. That doesn’t mean the decision about Wiedwald wasn’t a big call from Thomas Christiansen – his second with goalkeepers after replacing Rob Green in the summer – but Wiedwald is new to all this: the club, the league and the country. Jansson was borderline player of the year last season and at times made himself look untouchable.
What he brought to Elland Road was everything Leeds had been missing for ages: a dominant, vocal, assertive centre-back (although like buses, the club got a second in Kyle Bartley).
The way Jansson played has created expectation of him. If I’m being honest, I don’t think he was been alone in playing poorly before the Bristol City game but to be frank, Jansson is being judged by a higher standard of performance. You look at his weaker displays and automatically think ‘what’s happened to him?’
It’s kind of ironic that in the first week when Jansson was dropped on the basis of form, Leeds gave him a five-year contract. It’s also a good thing, a ringing endorsement of a player who possibly needed an injection of confidence. Regardless of how he’s been playing in the last few weeks, Jansson is good enough to deserve a deal like that. He’s someone who could be at the centre of a good Leeds United team for a long time. The adage of not becoming a bad player overnight applies in this case and I’d expect him to be back in the frame before long.
Then again, you can’t count your chickens when you lose your place in the team. When a manager drops you, you have it in your head that it’s for one game or a couple at the most. Then you sit on the bench, watch the team play well and realise that getting back in might be much harder than that.
To Christiansen’s credit, at least he had the gumption to pull Jansson out before anything went seriously wrong. The alternative is what happened to Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren against Spurs: a performance so bad that Jurgen Klopp was forced to hook him after half-an-hour. No question about it, what happened with Lovren had to be done but I felt for him because the humiliation is horrible.
Yes, it’s a team game. But when a centre-back’s being hauled off as early as that, the narrative is all about him and coming back from that is pretty challenging.
Jansson’s Instagram post, describing his form as ‘s**t’, in many ways made Christiansen’s decision for him. For one thing, it’s hard for Jansson to argue the toss when he’s openly admitting that he’s not been up to scratch. But beyond that, it possibly made Christiansen wonder where Jansson’s head was at.
I admire the honesty because there’s a culture in football of no finger-pointing these days, even though finger-pointing is sometimes needed, but maybe Jansson sowed the seed in Christiansen’s mind. Maybe Christiansen felt like it was the right time to rely on somebody else.
What interests me most about all this – Jansson’s form and his absence from the team – is his disciplinary record. So far it’s been absolutely impeccable. Ten games and no yellow cards. Last season there were periods where he was almost going at a rate of a booking a game. He promised to clean up his act and without doubt he has but the massive disparity between this season and last is quite a revelation.
Of the offences he was booked for last season, fouls are fouls, dissent is daft, celebrating with the crowd is down to pure emotion and diving is complete b******s. It’s quite an array but I have to be honest and say I loved his attitude; the attitude that neither he nor Leeds were going to be made to look like pussies. The club seemed to thrive off his energy and his edge and when you look at him now, that’s almost what’s missing.
It’s Catch 22 because last season people were criticising the fact that his yellow cards were taking him out of the team through suspension. He’s cut out the bookings this season but dropped out of the team anyway.
I’m not suggesting any footballer can be lawless but you wonder if he needs to let himself off the leash again and let his old persona take hold. Leeds need an on-song Jansson and Friday’s defeat to Sheffield United very much underlined that fact. Knowing him, he’ll prove before long that form is temporary.