Four defeats in five league matches has seen the confidence drain from Leeds United’s team. Here club legend Eddie Gray talks to Phil Hay about ways in which the Whites can get back to winning form.
Leeds United are 25 years on from their last league title in any division so it was hardly necessary to remind the club that the Championship is never won in September. Better starts than Thomas Christiansen’s have given way to stress and self-doubt.
A month ago United’s head coach was a long way ahead of the curve set by previous managers at Elland Road, a stadium where new brooms can be broken in half in no time at all, but the Championship is dragging Leeds back into the real world.
Away at Bristol City this weekend, Christiansen will fight against the threat of a fourth successive defeat.
He would not be the first Leeds boss to endure a run so severe. Neil Redfearn, Brian McDermott and Neil Warnock all experienced the same form or worse but only at the stage where their tenures were as good as over.
Christiansen is still new to the job, 12 league games in and four months on from his appointment, but he goes to Ashton Gate with pressure on him to produce a coherent answer to United’s loss of form.
Eddie Gray, the former Leeds manager, saw in last Saturday’s meeting with Reading a dearth of confidence which manifested itself in slow approach play, a lack of clear chances and a 1-0 defeat, Leeds’ first loss at Elland Road this season.
Christiansen allowed his team the freedom to play off the cuff in the first two months of the season, to generally impressive effect, but Gray believes the club’s poorer results should encourage more pragmatism.
“You’ve got to have a certain amount of physical strength in this league,” Gray said.
“That doesn’t mean you can’t play or you can’t accommodate players with flair but most Championship games are a hard, physical challenge.
“There was a lack of confidence against Reading, I think we could all see that, and the football was too slow. You cause trouble for teams, and in fairness this Leeds side have caused trouble for teams, when you get in behind them but we’re finding that harder to do.
“For me it comes down how well the players are dominating games. We’re not overpowering teams in the midfield and I think Thomas might have to have a rethink now. Personally, I think there are times when we need three in the middle of the park – another body to make sure that if it is a battle, we can win it. It’s that extra bit of strength and insurance and in my opinion, that means playing (Ronaldo) Vieira.”
Vieira, United’s 19-year-old midfielder, has been the notable absentee from much of United’s season. He carried a minor knee injury through the recent international break and, according to Christiansen, was left out of the squad against Reading on that basis, but he has played for less than an hour in the Championship so far. Three starts in the Carabao Cup failed to bring him into contention as an alternative to Eunan O’Kane or Kalvin Phillips.
Gray questioned whether Christiansen might be moved to start all three at Ashton Gate, where Bristol City are as yet unbeaten. He also expects Christiansen to look closely at the pace of United’s build-up play, something United’s head coach himself criticised at the end of Saturday’s game.
Reading snatched three points through an 85th-minute goal from Mo Barrow and survived an injury-time penalty which Pablo Hernandez failed to convert but Gray said Leeds had no argument with the result. A neutral looking on would say that Reading, as the away team, deserved the win,” he said.
“The penalty at the end would have been a bit like getting out of jail and I think Thomas would have been very happy with a point.
“He wants his team to pass out from the back, you can see that, but the passing has to be quicker. It was slow coming out and every time, players were picking their heads up and seeing Reading lined up in front of them with no space in behind. With the type of player we’ve got, we have to be moving the ball at pace.
“Confidence helps but the confidence is probably down because the system isn’t quite working. The season’s settled now and teams have had a chance to have a good look at us now. The teams we’ve played recently knew what to do.”
Christiansen has committed to a 4-2-3-1 system without exception since the first weekend of the season but was bold enough on Saturday to drop goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald after a series of displays which brought the German’s form into question.
Wiedwald made way for Andy Lonergan, who made his first league appearance for Leeds since the club sold him to Bolton Wanderers while Warnock was manager in 2012.
Lonergan pulled off two impressive saves from Barrow and Sone Aluko but was beaten five minutes from time when Barrow slipped a close-range chance under him.
The 33-year-old is expected to retain his place at Bristol City after Christiansen admitted after the defeat to Reading that it was Wiedwald’s turn to “be on the bench and wait for his opportunity again”.
Gray said: “It was the right decision. I’ve heard people say it was a big decision but to my mind it wasn’t. If you’ve got an outfield player who isn’t performing, you leave him out. That’s why you’ve got a squad.
“Thomas had to make that change and Lonergan did well - certainly well enough to stay in the team.”