Reading’s Mo Barrow is, believe it or not, the same Mo Barrow who many in Leeds would struggle to recognise in the street and if it felt as if Saturday’s game at Elland Road turned on his second-half appearance, the facts bear that impression out.
In 25 minutes, Barrow had more touches of the ball and as many shots on goal as Pierre-Michel Lasogga had in 77. His chances and his 85th-minute winner made you think that the problem with Barrow’s anonymous loan at Leeds United last season was not necessarily the player himself. Wrong time, wrong scenario or maybe the wrong club. But not altogether his fault.
Even without the evidence of his contribution, Saturday highlighted the disconnect which is developing between the lines in Thomas Christiansen’s team. In well over an hour on the pitch, Lasogga laid a foot or a head on the ball 12 times, one touch every six-and-a-half minutes. His replacement, Jay-Roy Grot, made only three fewer.
There was a close-range header and a speculative shot from 20 yards in the first half, and a chance which caught him by surprise from a corner in the second. They were slim pickings for a centre-forward and Lasogga, as a result, spent precious little time inside Reading’s box.
There is an automatic requirement for the German to involve himself more but at a time when Leeds are in need of solutions, it might be that he is suffering from a degree of confusion behind him.
Thomas Christiansen’s 4-2-3-1 is not precisely conventional. In tackling the dilemma of Samuel Saiz versus Pablo Hernandez, Christiansen chose to play both, using Hernandez as what could be termed a false 11 – a left winger in principle, but a playmaker who roams by trading positions with Saiz and Kemar Roofe or whoever starts on the right.
Against Burton Albion, when the understanding and interaction was perfect, the balance was right and the pieces fell into place. Even Nigel Clough conceded that football so good would get Leeds promoted.
What Reading discovered was the extent to which Hernandez’s tendency to drift negated the threat and the flow of play down the left, particularly in the absence of an overlapping full-back. Once Leeds strayed deep into Reading’s half, the Spaniard’s positioning was closer to that of a No 10, in where Saiz likes to play and congesting the zone behind Lasogga. Saiz is installed as the string-puller but it was Hernandez with more time on the ball, more passes and more involvement. Saiz’s superior influence with what possession he had cried out for Leeds to go to him more.
Hernandez’s temptation to revert to type was doubtless brought on by the state of a sluggish first half, but the variety which demolished Burton has looked like predictability since then. Further back, Christiansen’s midfield have strayed into tired territory and all the while it appears that Leeds are suddenly doubting their ability to play from front to back, or to release the ball with enough speed to stop a side like Reading setting themselves first.
Reading were ridiculed for their low-lying, lateral movement at Elland Road last season so it is only fair to record that no player on the pitch on Saturday made more passes than Liam Cooper.
There is only so far Christiansen can go in using his squad ... but he has ways of varying his style and challenging a Bristol City side who invariably go 4-4-2 at their own ground.The YEP’s Phil Hay
Confidence, as Christiansen said, is a factor in this but not only in the way that United’s head coach meant. The conviction in the football his team are playing is naturally at risk when four defeats in five games follow a compelling run to the top of the Championship.
The question for Christiansen, however, is whether poor results led to a breakdown in his system or whether a breakdown in his system led to poor results.
Heads have dropped at Elland Road, as anyone who watched Hernandez’s horribly nervous penalty on Saturday could see.
There is, no doubt, frustration over a rapid loss of form but there are shades, too, of players who know the current strategy – temporarily or otherwise – isn’t working for them.
Uwe Rosler, who lost his job as United manager two years ago today, had this problem at Elland Road. Rosler’s players on the whole liked him and respected his methods.
They applied themselves to his form of 4-3-3 but found it beyond them. Those were different days at Leeds and Rosler was sacked before he had the chance to properly prove his capacity to adapt.
He also had nothing like Christiansen’s better results behind him but confidence in under-performing players comes from coaches who show an appreciation of telling deficiencies and show a talent for addressing them. It was Garry Monk’s switch to one up front and, with the help of Pep Clotet, some concerted work on defending set-pieces which got Monk out of a fix this time last year. It was also the absence of an alternative plan which saw Monk’s Leeds grind to a halt at the very end of last season.
Christiansen is yet to show his hand beyond 4-2-3-1, even away at a venue like Millwall where Leeds always need blood, sweat and the strongest line of defence they can find. Bristol City don’t summon the same venom against United but they rarely allow visiting teams to take liberties at Ashton Gate.
There is only so far Christiansen can go in using his squad – it is obvious, for instance, that Jay-Roy Grot is very wet behind the ears in comparison to a striker like Lasogga – but he has ways of varying his style and challenging a Bristol City side who mix it up away from home but invariably go 4-4-2 at their own ground.
Every pony in the Championship needs a few tricks. This is a time for Christiansen to show the range of his.