Leeds United’s recent history is littered with false dawns and Pontus Jansson has already seen two, in less than three years with the club.
The desperation for a season which holds itself together was why Leeds threw the highest wage they could afford in Marcelo Bielsa’s direction last summer.
For many months, during Jansson’s first year in Yorkshire, Leeds thought they were in safe hands with Garry Monk; driving towards the Championship play-offs until the wheels came off in the final month. It fell apart much earlier under Thomas Christiansen last season but United led the division for a time and were in a top-six position at Christmas. Little over a month later, Christiansen was dismissed.
Bielsa has carried Leeds closer to Elysium than both of his predecessors, in second place with 15 matches left, but Jansson’s comment yesterday that he and the squad at Elland Road think “this is our year” could have been taken as a defender tempting fate despite being bitten twice before.
Jansson, though, justified his confidence: better football with Bielsa in situ, better results to date and numerous performance indicators which suggest that Leeds are as good as their ranking in the table. In short, the Sweden international sees a group of players more equipped to break the Premier League’s threshold.
“There’s a huge difference with this team compared to last year and two years ago,” Jansson said. “How much more fit we are, and the football we play is much better.
“I know Marcelo and his staff like to look at statistics and I do too. We’re at the top of almost everything (across the division): creating chances, not conceding chances, expected goals and things like that. All of that gives you more confidence to believe in what you’re doing and I trust him a lot. If we keep on doing what we’ve done for 30 games, it’s going to be good.”
The investment in Bielsa’s methods by the players he inherited and the few Leeds signed after his appointment has been almost absolute. Jansson is a popular figure with United’s support, bullish and charismatic in a way the city understands, but his temperament has not always been perfect.
This season, though, he has kept his nose clean and his football straight, with the exception of a harsh red card away at Stoke City last month. Aside from two bookable offences there, he has been cautioned four times and played at a consistent, dependable level. In terms of his fitness, he has hardly missed a game.
Jansson became a father for the first time last year and said his life was “in a good place”. Like everyone at Thorp Arch, his physical condition has been hiked up by Bielsa’s uncompromising standards. “I think I’ve grown as a person and grown as a player,” Jansson said. “I know the league, I know the country and I know what’s expected from me.
“I also think I’m more fit. That’s the biggest reason. I feel strong for 90 minutes in almost every game and I’ve had almost no injuries. I feel good and my life’s in a good mode with my baby and my wife, and playing here for Leeds which I really like. All the pieces are in a good place.”
Jansson talked at length last week in a Swedish podcast about Bielsa’s training regime, discussing features such as the ‘killer-ball’ session which the Argentinian organises every Wednesday, an 11-versus-11 game where players are expected to run themselves ragged. The headline which came from the podcast, In England at least, related to Jansson saying that Bielsa’s methods left his players “tired before games” but Jansson said his comments were lost in translation and intended to talk up the impact Bielsa was having.
“In this interview, I said 25 or 30 things about Marcelo which were positive,” Jansson said. “I said I loved him, and I do. Then they find one thing to make a negative about.
“In every game we play, especially with Leeds, it feel like 90 minutes of war. It’s normal sometimes to feel tired in this league. That’s the same with Marcelo, Garry (Monk), Thomas (Christiansen) or Paul (Heckingbottom). But I also talked about how we score goals late in the games and how that gives you energy to do all this work in training. I wanted to tell people how good Marcelo is. That’s why I did it.
“When it gives you results, it’s so much easier to do the work he demands of you. We know that everything we do has a reason. He wants us to be fit and he wants us to know exactly what we’re doing in games.
“What he’s done with this team is amazing. A year ago everything was like a nightmare. We couldn’t win anything. What he’s done with almost exactly the same team is unbelievable so if he wants me to train for three hours every day I’ll do it, I don’t care, as long as we get the results and get back to the Premier League. That’s the only thing I want.”
Bielsa is not and has never been, a touchy-feely coach. His interaction with his players is limited and entirely concerned with football but his emotional detachment has not been detrimental. Leeds, since their relegation in 2004, have never held a stronger position in the Championship after 31 games and have rarely been so free of internal politics. Bielsa’s quiet, withdrawn manner has kept an entire club in check.
“I respect him a lot,” Jansson said. “For me, he’s one of the best coaches in the world and he’s respected by the other top coaches. If you ask Guardiola or Pochettino, they rank Marcelo as one of the best.
“He’s not really that close (to the players), which we normally are with the coaches I had before: Gary, Thomas and Paul. I was a little bit closer with them and had a closer relationship but with Marcelo he wants to have it like this. When you talk to Marcelo it’s always about football. That’s probably all he’s living for. He loves football. But every time he talks to you, you try to really understand what he means.”
As the Championship shakes down, Bielsa could reasonably expect players like Jansson to draw on their experience of previous seasons which promised so much but went wrong. Jansson made his 100th club appearance in December and has received a detailed education about the Championship during the past two years. It is, invariably, a league for marathon runners rather than sprinters and a division where a strong constitution counts.
“When we come down to the last five or four games, more things than football that come into the picture,” Jansson said. “But right now you just focus game to game.
“Marcelo always tells us to focus on the next game but he also asks the more experienced players to take care of the others who haven’t been in this position before. People are relying on us to get back to the Premier League now. This city has woken up and there’s going to be more pressure on every game that comes. The more experienced players need to step forward, and I’ll do that.”