These are early days for Thomas Christiansen and the staff around him but Leeds United have so far avoided the teething problems which often infect new regimes at Elland Road.
The first month of his reign – the club’s best in the second division since the second coming of Peter Lorimer – cast away all thoughts of a gradual transition from one head coach to the next.
Concerted recruitment pushed Leeds to this point, a steady stream of transfers, technical and managerial appointments and contract extensions from the day of Andrea Radrizzani’s buy-out, but Christiansen’s influence has not been slow in taking hold. Others who held his job, including Garry Monk last season, craved the results United’s boss produced from a standing start in August.
Christiansen described Leeds’ 2-0 win at Nottingham Forest, a third straight victory away from home, as “probably our best game so far”, spotting the significance of the result at a venue where United rarely fare well. The club’s form as a whole exceeds anything seen at Championship level since Eddie Gray’s first stint as manager in 1984: five games played, 11 points accrued, two goals conceded and four clean sheets in the bank. Two carefree routs in the Carabao Cup have been an added bonus.
Gray’s squad, with Lorimer back amongst it and a young Tommy Wright scoring at will, began their Division Two season 33 years ago with four straight wins, serving notice of a challenge for promotion which petered out after Christmas. The club showed similar consistency at the start of Gray’s first year as manager, the 1982-83 season, but Leeds are not in the habit of dominating the division from the off.
In three decades, only four coaches – Gray, Kevin Blackwell, Simon Grayson and now Christiansen – have emerged from the first five games with points in double figures.
Blackwell took 10 in 2005, the first step of a run to the Championship play-offs. Grayson amassed the same number in 2010 and was headed for the same target until his players lost their grip on sixth place in the final month. Against an average return of less than seven at Leeds, Christiansen’s initial record stands up credibly in a league where leaders Cardiff City presently hold the only other unbeaten record.
The initial tranche of matches has exposed few weaknesses in United’s system: a defence as organised as at its best under Monk, still reliant on Pontus Jansson’s aerial dominance but unaffected by enforced changes. An attack who have countered ruthlessly away from Elland Road and mixed up their play out wide and through the middle. At first glance, the pace of Leeds’ exchange of possession is quicker than it was under Monk in the final third and more searching, or less conservative. At the City Ground, Leeds amassed 18 efforts on goal to Forest’s five. They have scored inside half an hour in all of their away fixtures. Over the course of last season, Leeds struck just 12 times in the first 30 minutes of their league fixtures.
United concentrated solely on the front end of their team in the latter stages of the transfer window, signing three forwards in the final week. Jay-Roy Grot and Pawel Cibicki arrived on permanent deals from NEC Nijmegen and Malmo respectively, while Hamburg agreed to send Pierre-Michel Lasogga on a season-long loan to Elland Road in a move which will see the Bundesliga club subsidise a high percentage of his £50,000-a-week wage.
Christiansen admitted after the win over Forest that United’s defensive record – maintained in spite of injuries to Matthew Pennington, Gaetano Berardi, Liam Cooper – was allowing his players to express themselves.
“I try to be organised,” Christiansen said. “What we always say is that a house is built from the ground and if we are strong (defensively) it’s possible to attack and score goals. That’s what’s making us very strong at the moment.”
Lasogga and Cibicki trained with United’s squad for the first time yesterday after the club’s existing players returned from a short break. Those away on international duty will travel back later this week in time for Saturday’s meeting with Burton Albion.
Leeds have a perfect record away from home but are yet to register a league win at Elland Road after goalless draws with Preston North End and Fulham. Burton is the first of two back-to-back home games, the second against Harry Redknapp’s Birmingham City next Tuesday. In an attempt to maintain high attendances, Leeds cut a third off the prices for supporters buying tickets for both games.
“It’s important to start well,” Christiansen said as he reflected on United’s form in August. “It doesn’t matter which league you’re in.
“The pressure you have, or the pressure you put on yourself – right now I have the confidence of the chairman (Radrizzani) and Victor (sporting director Victor Orta) but I put pressure on myself and I want us to improve. How it’s going is very satisfying but we need to do well now in the games we have at home.”