After a bright start to the season, Leeds’ season has slowed on the back of three successive away defeats. Here, Phil Hay looks in ways in which United boss Thomas Christiansen could get things back on track.
The word ‘soft’ was Thomas Christiansen’s choice.
In his press conference at Hillsborough on Sunday it was pointed out to him that he had used it to describe Leeds United several times. “If you can give me another word, it will be fine,” he said after a third straight away defeat.
His shift from quiet confidence to close introspection as been quick. Leeds were unbeaten a fortnight ago, in both the Championship and the League Cup, and top of the table with results and performances befitting that league position.
Christiansen was sharp enough to warn then that “this moment will come for sure, some bad results” but there was a tone of surprise in his reaction of Sunday’s defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.
The Championship table makes less concerning reading than the club’s recent form. Leeds are fifth with 20 points, three points behind Wolverhampton Wanderers and a point further back from leaders Cardiff City, despite their sudden dip.
Here, the YEP looks at the issues behind United’s problems away from home:
Christiansen committed himself to a 4-2-3-1 system at a very early stage of pre-season. In the main he has the players for it and many of those left behind by Garry Monk made the same formation work last season.
It was working for Christiansen throughout August and up until Leeds’ game at Millwall but the structure of his midfield has been exposed away from home and Christiansen stuck to his guns in circumstances where Leeds were treading water.
The club’s head coach made like-for-like substitutions after a gruelling first half at Millwall and swapped wingers for wingers again at Hillsborough on Sunday, introducing fresh legs but failing to significantly alter the structure of his team.
Leeds can afford to be more reliant on their preferred style at home, where crowds of 30,000 help to set the tone, but Millwall, Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday were all able to overwhelm his team at crucial periods, allowing Sol Bamba to cruise through 90 minutes as a defensive midfielder and giving Barry Bannan the freedom of Hillsborough.
The fact remains that Leeds were good for 25 minutes in Sheffield but when the wheels came off, there was no tactical remedy and no thought of matching up to Wednesday’s 4-4-2.
And again there was the theme of intensity forcing cheap, avoidable errors.
A midfielder short?
Kalvin Phillips and Eunan O’Kane have dovetailed well and both reserved their poorest performances of the season for Hillsborough (although in that respect, they were part of a large club).
Phillips’ tally of tackles is among the highest in the Championship but his performance data shows an increased number of shots on goal in comparison to last season and he has scored more goals in 11 matches than he had in his previous 52.
The naked eye can sees he has been told to take himself beyond the boundaries of midfield. O’Kane’s creation of chances has also increase and at their best, the pair have allowed Samuel Saiz and Christiansen’s front four to do their thing.
But an out-and-out number 10 has been made to look like a luxury in United’s last three away fixtures.
There is an argument for Christiansen fielding another central midfielder in games where the opportunity to play might be limited – but a recognition too that any formation must find a way of accommodating Saiz.
Even in the ashes of Sunday’s performance, the Spaniard stood out as the playmaker who everything should go through.
Leeds knew when they lost Rob Green that they were losing a very good goalkeeper; a 37-year-old, admittedly, but a keeper who was as consistent as any other in the Championship during the second half of last season.
There was, all the same, some logic to recruiting a replacement for him. The club and Christiansen wanted a player who could mimic the sweeper-keeper role and distribute the ball accurately from the back (in Leeds’ 5-0 win over Burton Albion, Felix Wiedwald made more passes than any Burton player).
Distribution was never Green’s strength but he had other facets to his game: the ability to dominate his box, safe hands and a penchant for effective shot-stopping.
The highest praise he could be given was that the defence looked very happy in front of him.
Wiedwald is a continental keeper with a continental style: very happy to use his feet but liable to stay put on his goalline at set-pieces and, so far, less able to control his area in the way that Green did. Both Cardiff and Ipswich Town were effective at negating the German’s passing with a high press.
His reluctance to clean out Gary Hooper for Sheffield Wednesday’s first goal was not flattering and the entire defence had a tense, uncertain feel on Sunday. Christiansen’s promise that he would analyse Wiedwald’s influence was an admission that all was not perfect at the back, though it should not be forgotten that Green’s excellent year at Elland Road was a slow burn to begin with.
Little sympathy exists for Charlie Taylor in these parts but his contentious move from Leeds to Burnley does not change two things about him.
Firstly, that Taylor in the right frame of mind was a very competent Championship footballer.
And secondly, that he was a left-back in the truest sense: positionally sound, defensively strong and constantly appearing on the overlap as modern full-backs should. Leeds signed one recognised left-back in Cameron Borthwick-Jackson during the summer but the 20-year-old is very much on the periphery of Christiansen’s line-up.
Gaetano Berardi and Vurnon Anita have been trading the left-back position so far and as September wore on, that area of Christiansen’s team was targeted to good effect.
It was not that Berardi was any worse than any of the defenders around him at Hillsborough – the errors among them were endless – but Ross Wallace and Jack Hunt created huge pressure down United’s left and there is definite vulnerability there.
It adds to the perception of a side who need to re-assert themselves away from home.