Phil Hay’s big match verdict: Leeds United’s six-week run reels in the top six

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In the gloom of Brentford six weeks ago Leeds United lagged 10 points behind Sheffield United.

The gap is suddenly down to one after the 1-0 weekend win over Norwich City and the last of the Championship’s top-six clubs can feel the breath on the back of their neck. Calm has returned to Elland Road as losing becomes a habit elsewhere.

Pontus Jansson heads in the winner against Norwich. PIC: Simon Hulme

Pontus Jansson heads in the winner against Norwich. PIC: Simon Hulme

There is the sound of the cavalry coming at Leeds; of out-of-sorts footballers playing their way out of mediocrity, of others escaping obscurity and of ideas clicking in a way which the club believed they would.

Thomas Christiansen’s prediction of a return to the top six will be met if his players beat Hull City this weekend. Pontus Jansson’s promise of more goals from set-pieces was met by his first-half winner against Norwich City. The utterings of those at Elland Road no longer sound like upbeat white noise.

Jansson at his best has embodied Leeds at their best for the past 18 months and whatever was dragging the centre-back into a trough of form earlier this season has been readily cured.

The abrasive streak was there when Norwich’s Nelson Oliveira squared up to him in the second half on Saturday, ending in Oliveira feigning a headbutt in the face, and a ruthless touch showed itself on 41 minutes as a deft free-kick drew the most accurate of headers, guided into the net by Jansson with a ricochet off the far post.

Pawel Cibicki takes on Marco Stiepermann. PIC: Simon Hulme

Pawel Cibicki takes on Marco Stiepermann. PIC: Simon Hulme

“It was a brilliant header, really clinical,” said Norwich City manager Daniel Farke, attempting to be gracious after a game which saw enough chances to go either way. Leeds wanted to be more clinical at set-pieces, the sole reason why the club employed a reputed specialist in Gianni Vio in October, and their dead-ball threat has been climbing steadily.

Jansson scored from a corner in a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa at the start of the month and Kalvin Phillips and Luke Ayling had both failed to put away useful deliveries against Norwich before Jansson finished Pawel Cibicki’s free-kick.

Jansson’s grasp of Italian after two years at Torino has allowed him and Vio to speak in depth about set-piece routines. The Swede said in the matchday programme that he “felt more dangerous now” and it was through their free-kicks that Leeds found a way of wobbling Norwich during a pedestrian first half.

In Cibicki, Christiansen found a player in the second half of United’s 3-1 win at Queens Park Rangers a week earlier. On Saturday he discovered a wicked delivery.

Samuel Saiz gets away from Marco Stiepermann. PIC: Simon Hulme

Samuel Saiz gets away from Marco Stiepermann. PIC: Simon Hulme

“Defensively I’ve been good since my first game last year,” Jansson said, “but offensively I had much more to work on. With Gianni, he is Italian so we talk a lot in Italian language in small details and he’s good for me.

“He works a lot so that we put the balls where I am and he makes it more easy for me to feel dangerous. That’s a natural feeling. It was a good goal and a good ball from Pawel also. We trained on it the other day so it was nice to score in the game.”

Farke was more sceptical about Vio’s influence, arguing that Jansson’s winner was in essence “a really good delivery and an outstanding header”.

“I don’t think it is more complicated than that,” he said. Either way, his players were troubled in those moments and Ayling headed another Cibicki free-kick into the hands of goalkeeper Angus Gunn prior to Jansson’s goal, a forgiving effort from six yards.

Phillips stabbed Gjanni Alioski’s hanging cross against a post seconds before Jansson struck via the opposite upright.

“Gianni is one of the best in his job,” Christiansen said. “This is why we brought him here. But it takes time for the players to adapt to a new coach and new systems.

“The delivery of the ball has to be good but the movement, the timing – everything is going well. We created three very dangerous opportunities.”

Norwich took 45 minutes to do likewise from open play and there is something enigmatic about the squad under Farke.

The German has talent and flair at his disposal but a sense too of unexplained limitations which leave the club down in 16th. They barely figured until injury-time before the break when Felix Wiedwald parried a shot from Oliveira and James Maddison smashed the rebound over the crossbar.

Wiedwald, like Cibicki, has Christiansen at his back and the keeper vindicated his head coach’s pre-match defence of him by excelling in a very different and dicey second half.

Humiliated by a bad mistake at QPR, he resisted Norwich’s attempt to throw caution to the wind with two saves from the ever-watchable Alex Pritchard, the first a strong point-blank block after Liam Cooper failed to cut out a cross on 48 minutes and the second a diving stop to push away a looping effort which was dropping into the net.

“He showed his character,” Christiansen said. “After QPR and the mistake he made he saved the team and today he made good saves again. It’s another clean sheet on his account and he may be one of the best goalkeepers in this league on clean sheets.”

There were near misses aplenty as Pritchard curled and ingenious shot against Wiedwald’s bar, and with time running out, Samuel Saiz dinked the ball against the inside of the far post after anticipating a poor backpass from Grant Hanley.

Pablo Hernandez came off the bench to put a calming hand on shoulders around him, failing by inches to curl home a shot in injury-time. Jay-Roy Grot came off the bench to be met by jeers and taunts as, in keeping with his other cameos, so little went right for him. The 19-year-old is caught in a harsh crosswind; so obviously lacking at this juncture but too young to be deserving of such blatant cynicism.

Christiansen stood up for him in his post-match press conference, as he has done for almost everyone in the periods of this season where a voice of reason was called for.

In light of a scenario in which Leeds have it in their hands to spend Christmas Day in the play-offs, he was almost angry at Grot’s treatment.

“I’m very pleased with the performance and the three points,” he said.

“It’s a victory that gives us more confidence that this is where we belong, close to the top six.

“We want to try and finish the first (half of the season) in that position.”

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