On the subject of where this season had gone wrong for Leeds United, a rueful Pontus Jansson said he could “sit here for hours and talk”. Leeds are consumed by a smell of exasperation, so steep has their decline since Christmas been, and questions like that are no longer possible to avoid.
The club, as Jansson succinctly put it, are: “in the middle of nowhere, fighting for nothing.”
This time last year they were in the process of losing the plot but their season was live and even now its sour end is painfully incredible. Seventh place, much as it hurt, had the potential to be a stepping stone to the Championship play-offs.
Instead, in Jansson’s second year in England, they have pedalled backwards and lost all contact with the division’s top six.
Jansson is as well placed as anyone to analyse the regression; a prominent player in both seasons and informed enough to spot the difference. Leeds, as a club, changed fundamentally during the summer inbetween: a new owner, a new head coach – one of two since Garry Monk quit the job – and a clutch of signings to supplement the players who stayed on and compensate for those who left. Chris Wood, with 30 goals behind him, sought a new club. Kyle Barley, Jansson’s regular partner at centre-back, left the building at the end of his loan from Swansea.
Leeds, in a footballing sense, have gone backwards in almost every respect: goals scored, goals conceded, clean sheets, home wins and league position. Outwith the club, much focus is on recruitment and the failure to nurture a team who finished seventh, turning it into one which is tailing off into the bottom half of the table. Jansson himself suggested that the squad on Monk’s watch was more suited to the Championship than that which was given to Thomas Christiansen last June and passed on to Paul Heckingbottom when Christiansen was sacked in February.
“There’s a lot of new people in the club – a new owner, a lot of new players and we started the season good,” Jansson said. “Maybe we were thinking it was too easy. This league is one of the toughest leagues in the world. We went into a bad run in October but came back from it and started to win games again. Then, after new year, I don’t know.
“It’s difficult to say and point out what’s gone wrong. For me there’s a lot of things but the players on the pitch have to take responsibility for it. If I talk from my perspective, last year there was a lot of credit and positive things when we won games. So now, when we don’t win, I have no problem to stay at the front and take a lot of responsibility. No problem at all.”
Angus Kinnear, United’s managing director, talked last week of “learning lessons” which implied that the club saw mistakes in the manner of their preparation for this season.
Leeds recruited heavily from abroad last summer, the first under the ownership of Andrea Radrizzani, but did so with a restrained budget.
The club argued for a long time that they were equipped to qualify for the top six but two wins since the start of 2018 have silenced that confident opinion. Jansson was asked if the team had gone backwards since the end of the 2016-17 season or if the senior squad in general was worse.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s something you have to talk about with higher people in this club.
“If you ask me, we had a really good team last year, maybe a team who were suited better in the Championship than the team we have this year. But these are questions you have to ask people higher than me.”
What Jansson was clear about was his opinion that none of the blame should lie at Heckingbottom’s door. Christiansen’s sacking on February 4, after 35 games as head coach, opened the door for Heckingbottom, who left Barnsley’s impending relegation to fight the fire which had broken out at Elland Road.
Despite his input, the campaign has continued to burn on the fuel of five defeats from 10 games with Heckingbottom in charge. Sunderland, on Saturday, is a perilous fixture: one which Leeds will earn modest credit for winning but one which will incite the masses if the afternoon goes wrong.
“I like him a lot,” Jansson said. “He’s a good one so people can’t blame him. There are 11 players who he chooses to play and these are the players who have to take responsibility for this bad run we’re in. I can say only good things about Paul.
“It’s easy to blame the coach but the players on the pitch, we can change things. That’s what we have to do.”
The defender commiserated with the thousands who travelled to London for Tuesday night’s 2-0 defeat to Fulham.
“We don’t deserve those fans,” he said. “They’re too good for us right now. You see Fulham away, four or five thousand people when we are in the middle of nowhere and fighting for nothing. They support us anyway. That’s a huge respect from myself.”
On a personal level, Jansson has other things to console him. He will become a father later this year and last month, in a friendly against Romania, he captained Sweden’s national team for the first time.
“That was ‘sick’,” he said. “It was one of my biggest football moments so far. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, not only my career.”
He added: “I think it was even bigger for my family and friends. My father was crying at home.”
Jansson’s form in his second season with Leeds has not compared to the brash, naked aggression of his first but he is expected to be part of Sweden’s squad for the World Cup in June. The only obstacle, barring a change of tack on the part of Sweden coach Janne Andersson, would be an injury suffered in the last final weeks of the Championship season.
“My only thing now is building my confidence and my form and to be in good shape when I go to the camp before the World Cup,” he said.
“It’s not like I am going out on the pitch and trying not to get injured. That’s not how I am. I go 100 per cent into every game.”