Christmas at Elland Road is not so unlike Christmas at Elland Road a year ago: a relatively new coach with a relatively new squad and the carrot of promotion dangling in front of them.
Leeds United have been nothing if not consistent for 18 months, a dog in the fight for the Championship play-offs for all but the briefest of periods.
The top six got away from them in the second half of last season, in a way which no-one was ever able to explain, and the challenge for Thomas Christiansen is to hold onto the chance which Garry Monk surrendered in the end.
Leeds are two positions and two points worse off than they were after 22 games of last season but the scenario is essentially the same. A play-off position is in United’s hands if the club have the stamina and the players to retain it.
Luke Ayling was a pillar of the team who went close under Monk, United’s established right-back and the value signing of the previous summer. His form was so good that suspension and the birth of his first child were the only reasons why Monk had to find a replacement for him, but Ayling did not see the same depth under Leeds’ previous head coach as he does under Christiansen.
That opinion is in spite of some significant losses during the close season: Kyle Bartley, a close friend of Ayling’s, who returned to Swansea City after an exemplary season on loan. Chris Wood who scored 30 goals and was sold to Burnley for £15m. Rob Green was another significant departure, the club’s established goalkeeper and the only player in Monk’s squad with an ever-present Championship record. Despite all that, Ayling thinks the incoming recruitment gave United more strings to their bow.
Leeds’ intention in the summer transfer window was to create a squad which gave Christiansen two viable options in every position. The success of their signings has been hit and miss – excellent in the case of a player like Samuel Saiz, underwhelming in respect of Mateusz Klich, Jay-Roy Grot and others – but a recent run of injuries has not stopped United picking up form. Pawel Cibicki came from nowhere to compensate for the absence of Pablo Hernandez out wide. Caleb Ekuban was able to fill in up front while Pierre-Michel Lasogga carried a calf strain.
It is far from clear yet whether Christiansen’s resources are strong enough to survive 46 games but Ayling, who saw a promotion season in League One with his old club Bristol City, said Leeds were better placed to avoid the loss of energy and nerve which ruined their run to the play-offs in April. The club had 72 points with five games to play. They finished with 75 and down in seventh position.
“It became very hard towards the end of the season,” Ayling said. “Players were playing in every game and our squad wasn’t really that big. It wasn’t like it is now or how it feels to me now.
“We’ve got 22 players here who all think they should be playing whereas last year you could probably name eight of the starting XI every week. And after that, there wasn’t the same competition.
“Now we’ve got real competition for places. There are players in every position who can step in no problem. That should keep us hungry and fresh for a long season and for the part of the season where you need to stay in there.”
Christiansen’s bench has looked weak during the past month, though at no great cost to the club’s results. Hernandez missed one game with a pulled hamstring but Lasogga has been absent for six games and Stuart Dallas last appeared in Leeds’ 4-1 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Ekuban, meanwhile, fractured a foot bone at QPR and will not be fit until the end of next month.
Despite those issues, Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Norwich City was a fourth win in six games and Leeds’ confidence about the players on their books is likely to limit their transfer business in January. The club have already struck a deal for Japan international Yosuke Ideguchi but will send him out on loan while he waits to qualify for a work permit. They are also targeting a young centre-back and do not intend to make substantial changes. And Ayling is optimistic that the club have a stronger chance of a top-six finish this season than they did 12 months ago.
“I do feel that,” he said. “We did lose a few players, two really big ones in Kyle Bartley and Chris Wood.
“But we signed 14 players in the summer and some of them have come in and done so well – Samu, [Gjanni] Alioski and others. They’ve chipped in with goals and they’ve probably changed the way we’re playing. Things are going well and I’d say we’ve probably got a better chance.”
There was some similarity between Saturday’s win over Norwich and the sort of results Leeds dug out in the Championship around Christmas last year. Elland Road was cold and gloomy and a slog of a fixture was settled by Pontus Jansson’s first-half header direct from a Cibicki free-kick. Football goes like that in this period and Ayling saw United’s stubborn display as the right performance at the right time: “Games around Christmas are always hard-fought,” he said.
“We’re quite a long way into the season now and there are games all the time. You don’t get too many where you’re 100 per cent at your best.
“But Saturday was a really good win and a clean sheet, which was our first in a while.
“It’s going to be vital for us to keep more clean sheets than we have been doing but it was a hard-fought win and now we go on to four games in eight days – which is always nice!”