A Leeds United side that’s been on the slide on Sunday meets Middlesbrough who are currently on an upward curve under Whites’ former head coach Garry Monk. Phil Hay considers all the angles.
The difference in the trajectories of Leeds United and Middlesbrough was demonstrated by their management of the international break. Boro’s players were afforded a few days off last week after three wins on the bounce and a return to the Championship’s top six. Thomas Christiansen took Leeds in the opposite direction with double training sessions and additional work designed to plug his squad’s trickle of defeats.
Christiansen retained the confidence of his board and his chairman in the wake of a 3-1 loss at Brentford on November 4, United’s third back-to-back defeat, and the reaction at Thorp Arch was rigorous enough to imply that the club’s head coach sees a way out of the slump. “We’ll work hard to come back,” Christiansen said as the dust settled at Griffin Park. “Now we need to work the mentality.”
Garry Monk, Middlesbrough’s manager, liked to talk about ‘mentality’ during his time in charge of Leeds and the psychological shift at both his former club and his current employer gives him the upper hand ahead of Sunday’s game at Elland Road. The 38-year-old will encounter as much hostility as opposition managers do in Leeds – the legacy of his startling resignation in May – but Boro’s improving results are quelling criticism closer to home.
Boro were 13th in the Championship before their win at Reading on October 28, far below their own target. In the space of eight days, Monk’s side climbed to fifth. Their form is a mirror-image of United’s and the Teesside club sat below the play-off positions throughout the month-and-a-half in which United held a top-six place. There was an ample amount riding on this fixture before a ball was kicked in August – the fundamental question of whether Monk’s decision to cut and run from Elland Road was astute or misjudged – but in Christiansen’s mind, the involvement of his predecessor is of more minor relevance.
The bigger picture shows a window of four games which look critical not only for Christiansen but in demonstrating Leeds’ credibility as candidates for promotion. The clash with Boro is followed by a game at league leaders Wolves on Wednesday, the one side showing the potential to run away with the title. Leeds then head to Barnsley, the scene of many hard days and nights and a venue where only one United manager – Brian McDermott – has avoided defeat in the past decade. Aston Villa are further down the fixture list, due at Elland Road on December 1.
By the end of the meeting with Villa, Leeds will have played every one of the current top-eight clubs in the space of 12 games. Their run of seven defeats from nine league fixtures has coincided with a steep increase in the standard of opposition in front of them. This time last season, with Monk as head coach, the club were three points better off in a division which was every bit as tight. It was through the months of November and December that Monk’s players began to make the Championship sit up.
Leeds’ resolute faith in Christiansen since Brentford and their refusal to be ruthless in the face of spiralling form gave the Spaniard two clear weeks to work on the confidence of his side and address the creep of expensive errors. A handful of his players departed for international duty and he will not have a full squad at Thorp Arch until later this week, but winger Stuart Dallas escaped with bruising on one ankle after a bad tackle in Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Switzerland. Dallas was passed fit to play in the second leg on Sunday and should be available for this weekend’s clash with Boro. Pontus Jansson is flying back after the conclusion of the play-off between Sweden and Italy last night and Eunan O’Kane will return after the Republic of Ireland settle their tie against Denmark in Dublin this evening. Caleb Ekuban is back in full training two months after breaking a foot bone in a 2-0 win at Sunderland and left-back Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was United’s only other absentee during their 3-1 defeat at Brentford, sidelined by an ankle problem.
Ekuban and Dallas are two of the attacking options which Christiansen is yet to seriously tap into. Ekuban limped out of his league debut and has been missing ever since while Dallas, despite an encouraging pre-season, has started only twice in the Championship. United’s slide has focused attention on the quality of their squad and the success of a very specific summer recruitment plan, but Christiansen has ways of tweaking his line-up. Pablo Hernandez has been a substitute in the last four games but made a meaningful impression in the second half at Brentford. Mateusz Klich, Leeds’ Poland international, is yet to see an extended run in the centre of midfield.
Much of United’s squad will be unrecognisable to Monk, so sweeping were the changes at Elland Road during the close season, but there are a number of players left over from his year in charge and several, like Hernandez, who signed for Leeds on his watch.
Sunday’s game is the sort which focuses attention and United’s training schedule last week was Christiansen’s way of throwing the kitchen sink at it.
The commitment to turning the ship around was there in Christiansen’s final words before he departed Brentford 10 days ago: “I know it’s not good enough.”