Marcus Antonsson found himself talking about the 2018 World Cup this week, and talking specifically about his chances of taking part. He was realistic about the possibility but the idea itself must be nice. At the start of this season he was as far away from Sweden’s national team as he’d ever been.
Leeds United hoped to discover a striker of international calibre when they signed Antonsson from Kalmar in 2016 but it has taken a loan to Blackburn Rovers for his game to show through. Five goals in five appearances last month won him the PFA’s League One player-of-the-month award for November and caught the eye of Swedish journalists who are wondering how national coach Janne Andersson plans to piece together his squad for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Antonsson’s first year at Leeds last season gave him little hope of inclusion. He was in and out of United’s team and did not play once after the end of January. “I’m realistic and I understand that I moved further away (from a Sweden call-up) when I was in a tough spell,” he told Swedish newspaper Kvallsposten on Tuesday. “If I continue to score and show good form, I know I have a style of play like many in the national team.”
His chances of breaking through with Sweden might be better than his chances of immediately re-establishing himself at Leeds. Antonsson is on loan at Ewood Park until May and while his contract with Blackburn is understood to give Leeds the right to recall him during the January transfer window, Thomas Christiansen is unlikely to do so. Antonsson, whose deal at Elland Road ends in 2019, was surplus to requirements when United accepted an approach from Blackburn to sign him in August.
The club are now of the mindset that a settled forward showing definite signs of improvement would benefit from remaining at Ewood Park with a view to returning for another chance with Leeds in pre-season next July. Antonsson’s impact at Blackburn speaks for itself: eight goals in total, a handful of assists and a versatile streak which was not always obvious during his appearances for United.
The 26-year-old was categorised at Elland Road as a centre-forward most suited to playing in a front two and lacking the physique to lead the line on his own. A brief challenge to Chris Wood’s status as first-choice under Garry Monk was very quickly negated.
At Blackburn, Tony Mowbray has moved him from his favoured position to the left wing. The experiment was enforced by injuries to Harry Chapman and Craig Conway but it worked to good effect. Rovers are on a run of five successive league wins and, for the first time, are threatening League One’s automatic promotion places. Antonsson scored five goals in November, defender Charlie Mulgrew claimed four and Bradley Dack has three in two games.
All three players made the long list for the PFA’s player of the month award and Antonsson got the nod from a shortlist of six.
“This role out wide is new to me,” Antonsson said, “but the more I play there the more comfortable I feel. I feel there’s more to come even after five goals and one assist last month.
“The goals are important for my confidence. That’s how it grows for me. When I score goals I feel better with the ball and make better decisions on the pitch.”
Goals were what tempted Leeds to invest in Antonsson originally. He was the leading scorer in the Swedish top flight when he moved to England from Kalmar and there were brief flashes of his finishing early on with United; a sharp, last-minute equaliser in a League Cup game at Fleetwood Town and a well-taken header away at Sheffield Wednesday in the first month of last season. Only one more goal followed, though, and while Wood was stretching towards 30 for the season, Antonsson’s last game with Monk as head coach came in a debacle of an FA Cup defeat to non-league Sutton United on January 29.
Leeds are not so blessed up front this term as they were with Wood at the top of their team but Christiansen appears satisfied with his options, and satisfied enough to rule out the early return of Antonsson. Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Kemar Roofe have claimed five and six goals respectively and Lasogga is back in full training after five games out. Leeds are hopeful that fears of Caleb Ekuban facing another long absence will be allayed by a series of scans on his injured foot.
Antonsson’s form has registered at Elland Road, though, and a strong season in League One might give him another crack of the whip at Elland Road when the final year of his deal begins next summer. The Swede said he was relaxed about his future, telling Kvallsposten: “It might be a boring answer but I have a contract with Leeds and belong to them. I’m professional, I’m on loan and really enjoying it. You cannot run and wonder where you’ll end up.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence from the coach (Mowbray) and that was what happened in Kalmar. I feel I have the level in me but I also felt that in the Championship. The confidence to play every week is so important.”