Phil Hay: Leeds United coach Christiansen passed Bristol City test with flying colours

Thomas Christiansen.
Thomas Christiansen.
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There is a modern trend of footballers using social media for self-flagellation, and online mea culpas have a habit of provoking two reactions: appreciation of the honesty involved or the view that apologies made at the touch of an iPhone are an easy alternative to playing better.

Pontus Jansson made headlines by describing a number of his performances as “s***” and it must be said that there comes a point where plain language beats politically-correct analysis, but for Thomas Christiansen it was almost too literal.

Pontus Jansson.

Pontus Jansson.

Jansson was dropped before Leeds United’s win at Bristol City on Saturday and Christiansen later addressed Jansson’s Instagram post by saying he would rather the defender refrained from hanging himself out to dry.

“You don’t need to expose yourself to the media,” Christiansen said. “The thing to do is work hard for the team and come back.”

Taking on a character like Jansson takes a backbone and, as Garry Monk discovered in the final weeks of last season, a player as good and effervescent as him is best kept onside.

Christiansen will need the centre-back and need him at his best, but football, at Championship level anyway, does not readily tolerate individualism and, over the past fortnight, it has been plain to see who is in charge at Elland Road.

Kalvin Phillips.

Kalvin Phillips.

Christiansen’s tone of voice, his delivery and his personality, make him sound like everyone’s friend, but the first interview I carried out with him, while Leeds were on tour in Austria in July, gave something else away; a reluctance to allow himself to be trodden on, going back years.

There was the story of him forcing Hannover to properly investigate the injury which ended his playing career, and the account of Christiansen giving up an agency job after the company he worked for asked to him to stitch up other agents by illegally touting their players around.

“It was not my job,” he said. “I didn’t want to dirty my name.”

Resigning was a big decision then, at a time when Christiansen had no easy avenues of alternative work, and these are big decisions now: omitting the club’s best centre-back and most saleable player (as a new five-year contract proves) on a weekend when Leeds badly needed a win, seven days after benching his preferred goalkeeper, Felix Wiedwald.

It is easy to admire any head coach who murders the league around him, but there is usually more to be learned from their management and treatment of mediocre form.

Ronaldo Vieira’s inclusion at Bristol City was a blindingly obvious solution, as any straw poll would have shown, but Matthew Pennington’s selection and Kalvin Phillips’ deployment at number 10 were examples of tactical wit. Therein lies the answer about the availability of plan B.

The result at Ashton Gate told Christiansen, and those watching him, two things: that almost no-one in his squad is indispensable and that some of the players who were waiting for a chance genuinely felt they would impact on the performances.

Wiedwald’s replacement, Andy Lonergan, is a good example: tidier with the basics of goalkeeping but also pragmatic in his management of the game on Saturday. The weather was awful, and perhaps Christiansen had purposely reassessed his side’s distribution from the back, but all but one of Lonergan’s passes at Ashton Gate went long; 97 per cent in total.

Against Reading, a game Leeds lost 1-0, the percentage was more like 50. Leeds gave up the larger share of possession to Bristol City and leant on their strengths: a stronger midfield which City were incapable of playing through and pace on the counter-attack.

It felt a little like a head coach pressing the reset button.

There is a temptation to ask, when Lonergan is firmly installed ahead of Wiedwald so early in the season, why Leeds did not cling on to Rob Green?

He and Lonergan are relatively like-for-like and, in bringing Lonergan forward, Christiansen has shown more understanding of a league which evolves year on year but never abandons its roots.

There is much admiration of Wolverhampton Wanderers at present but those who are watching them closely say the skill of their squad is backed up by a necessary amount of physical strength. Their flair has not made them look like a soft touch.

Coaches can have their ideas, but they cannot change the Championship, any more than social media posts can alter a player’s form.

Bristol City was a test of Christiansen, on the inside at Leeds and outside.

Conclusion: Passed with distinction.