As Thomas Christiansen let his emotions go on Tuesday night, a supportive message came from above him. Results as poor as Leeds United’s beg the question of what the man at the top is thinking, but from Andrea Radrizzani’s perspective, the can was carried by Simon Hooper after a 2-1 defeat to Derby County.
Christiansen’s impassioned post-match press conference, in which he was visibly upset and briefly lost for words, said everything about his own understanding of the scrutiny he is under, but Radrizzani laid the blame for Tuesday’s loss at the door of Hooper, the referee whose decisions played a pivotal part in the result.
Hooper’s refusal to award Leeds a penalty while Christiansen’s side led 1-0 in the first half was badly compounded by Derby’s receipt of one 10 minutes from time, for a foul by Hadi Sacko outside United’s box.
“We played well and deserved much more,” Radrizzani tweeted after full-time. “You can all watch the footage and make your judgement.
“It’s time to support even more. We are building a solid project. I believe in my team.”
Since acquiring full control of Leeds from Massimo Cellino in May, Radrizzani has invested his faith in that team: Christiansen as head coach, Victor Orta as head of recruitment, a clutch of signings from across Europe and a large backroom team which increased again this week with the appointment of Gianni Vio, a set-piece specialist who worked for AC Milan and Fiorentina and recently spent time at Brentford.
The internal structure has kept Leeds in a play-off position for all but two weeks of this season but the club dropped to seventh last night after Preston North End’s game against Aston Villa, and six defeats from eight league games left Christiansen in a position where even he was classing Saturday’s visit to Brentford as a must-win game. The patience Radrizzani is trying to show him will not be unconditional or limitless.
Cellino’s primary failing, in the eyes of many, was his inability to stick with anything, until Garry Monk’s performance as head coach and Radrizzani’s emergence as a potential buyer of United last year softened the trend of impulsive management at Elland Road.
By this stage of Cellino’s first season as owner, he had already gone through two managers. Christiansen was Radrizzani’s man, his first pick as head coach after Monk quit Leeds for Middlesbrough in May. Orta, too, was given authority to direct the club’s transfer strategy and pick players up from a range of European markets.
Seven games in, as United sat at the top of the Championship, there was ample appreciation of both of them. The club’s eight matches since then have created doubts about the quality of United’s squad and Christiansen’s ability to take the season in hand again.
The 44-year-old – an unknown personality in England when Leeds appointed him – sold himself to Radrizzani during an interview in Madrid in June. United set certain criteria for the coaches they were interested in as replacements for Monk: Championship experience, a tangible desire for the job and a recent track record of success. David Wagner and Jaap Stam made it onto the list but were unattainable.
Despite Christiansen having no Championship background, Radrizzani respected his performance during three years of management in Cyprus and was deeply impressed by a presentation given by Christiansen in Madrid.
Part of that presentation included analysis of where and how results went wrong as Leeds, with Monk in charge, bombed out of the Championship’s play-off zone in the final month of last season.
From those abstract circumstances, Christiansen is now faced with the challenge of providing the same solutions on the job. Hooper’s influence on Tuesday’s loss, in which Winnall scored twice in the last 18 minutes, was very real but the game had turned against Leeds in the 10 minutes before Craig Forsyth burst down the left and laid a gem of a cross at Winnall’s feet.
From a position of comfort, and after a very organised first half, Leeds lost control of the game. Christiansen looked powerless to change it. “Impotent” was how he described himself, on the basis of Hooper’s contentious decisions.
The United boss insisted the dip in his side’s performance in the last half-hour was not a concern. “I don’t worry about that,” he said.
“The goal for 1-1 we could have done much better, I agree about that, but I’m satisfied with the team.
“It’s difficult when you get situations you can’t control which could have changed the direction of the game.”
Asked if he retained confidence in the quality of his squad, Christiansen said: “Yes. I do.”
The Dane implied that comments made by Derby manager Gary Rowett towards Hooper in the tunnel had had an effect on the official’s performance but Rowett gave a revealing insight into his perception of Leeds afterwards, saying he predicted that Christiansen’s players would fail to “react well” to a second-half equaliser.
Christiansen placed great weight on the first goal beforehand and Pierre-Michel Lasogga scored it with eight minutes gone. Derby rode their luck when Andre Wisdom went unpunished for a 44th-minute challenge on Gjanni Alioski inside the box – a moment which Christiansen argued could also have earned Wisdom a red card – but Winnall’s first strike appeared to be coming before he tucked home Forsyth’s cross on 72 minutes.
Eight minutes later, Sacko was punished for a trip on Lawrence – a foul committed a yard outside the box – and Winnall sent Andy Lonergan the wrong way from the spot.
Rowett said: “They made a big thing in the week about scoring the first goal and how important it is to Leeds, but I just felt it didn’t matter to us because we’ve shown character all season.
“If we’ve gone behind we’ve stayed in games.
“Leeds want the first goal so badly because they’re a good counter-attacking side. They drag you into areas and break with pacey players. We stayed in the game and we kept our patience and the (first) goal was an excellent goal.
“Once we’d got it, for me, I’d said to the players at half-time ‘if you score, I’m telling you now, they won’t react well’. That’s what I felt like. We were the much stronger team once we scored.” Radrizzani must have noticed that but the message from him on Tuesday was that he would not be rushed into a game of stick-or-twist or go nuclear with his head coach.
“It cannot go on like this,” said an anxious Christiansen, and he was not paying lip-service to the situation he is in. Brentford on Saturday is an examination like no other so far.