THE sound of Thomas Christiansen talking nervously about his job was a tacit admission that he and Leeds United were on the ropes.
It looked that way from a distance but the club’s head coach spoke on Saturday like a man who was hanging on, pushed towards the edge by the same old handicaps which invited a hiding from Cardiff City.
For a while there was a supportive board behind him at Leeds, a board who stood by him when punches came in bunches earlier this season, but the opinion of United’s directors about the squad he controlled no longer tallied with the Championship table.
Angus Kinnear, the club’s chief executive, wrote in Saturday’s programme about “restating our play-off ambitions” and of a team which he and owner Andrea Radrizzani “believe is strong enough to secure a play-off place.”
Then Cardiff tipped up and drove a bus through that optimism.
Leeds are in a rut and no mistake: seven points short of sixth place with fixtures ahead of them which could easily widen the margin. The unbridled, play-with-abandon style of the first month-and-a-half of the season – Christiansen’s sparkling introduction to English football – was wearying to the point where the Dane was flogging the same tactics, the same style and the same tired horse. He reached the vulnerable stage on Saturday of speculating about his future and he was sacked last night after 35 games in the job.
“We know my situation depends on the results, on the chairman, on Victor (Orta, Leeds’ director of football-stroke-transfer governor) and on what they think is best for the team,” Christiansen said after Cardiff took his side apart. “I do the best for the team, I want the best for Leeds and this is my work.
“If it’s their decision that that they want to find somebody better then I cannot do anything about that. This is their decision and I will then go away but with my head high, that I have done the best for the team and the club.”
If the buck stop was destined to stop with anyone it was always going to stop with him first but the responsibility for a wilting season stretches further than Christiansen’s office at Thorp Arch.
United’s hierarchy might think they own a top-six squad, and the football from their vantage point might have a one-dimensional feel, but it does not look like one and it has not been playing like one for several weeks.
The club’s injury list is reaching nightmare proportions and their disciplinary record helped to hang their head coach.
Four red cards in five games – Gaetano Berardi the latest, for two first-half yellow cards against Cardiff – is an inexcusable record, pointing more and more to underlying frustration.
“We need to be intelligent,” Christiansen said after Berardi, already on a booking, dived in on Gary Madine in first-half injury-time but the penny is not dropping and Christiansen’s attempts to read the riot act were making no discernible difference. Should his players not have learned that lesson by now?
“Of course they should,” he replied, “but it’s difficult for me as a coach to be in their minds.” Berardi’s transgression was no more terminal than Leeds’ failure from the outset to manage Cardiff’s strategy, all of it tied into the height and aerial power of Neil Warnock’s team.
Christiansen had warned his players about it, to no avail. “We didn’t go into the game in the right way,” he said. “It was a bad day, a very bad day.” Confusion caused by deliveries into Leeds’ box had already shown itself before Armand Traore picked up the scraps from a ninth-minute corner and crossed for Callum Paterson to head in at the far post.
Short of players and with two less to work with after Berardi incurred a two-match ban and Pontus Jansson twisted an ankle in a tangle with Sol Bamba on the half-hour, Christiansen’s defence was on the verge of packing up. Jansson’s injury naturally brought the conversation around to Leeds failing to sign a centre-back before the January transfer deadline. With round pegs in holes of any shape, Junior Hoilett slid in a second goal on 35 minutes after Paterson outpaced Matthew Pennington and scuffed a shot to the far post. Sean Morrison then buried a free header in first-half injury-time, seconds after Berardi was sent off. The goals were almost unopposed.
There was misfortune too, as there often seems to be. At 1-0, Cardiff goalkeeper Neil Etheridge tipped a Pierre-Michel Lasogga shot onto a post before Lasogga made a hash of a point-blank header, smacking it against the underside of the crossbar. Gjanni Alioski caught the rebound poorly but still forced Etheridge to claw the ball away from the corner of his net. Leeds have not felt the rub of fine margins since Boxing Day. They have not reacted well to them either.
Elland Road witnessed the mother of all fightbacks during United’s last home game, their warrior-poet defeat to Millwall, but Cardiff were too far out of sight and too disciplined to let Leeds back in, even after Bamba slid a cross from Stuart Dallas into his own net in the 54th minute. More telling was Bamba’s clash which brought the stretcher on for Jansson. “We both slipped and I caught his ankle,” Bamba insisted. “It was an accident. I’ve been in to apologise and I hope he’s not too badly injured.”
Cardiff sat and sat until United’s spirit went and with two minutes to go, Paterson’s low cut-back proffered a fourth City goal, a tap-in for Anthony Pilkington. Elland Road was already emptying and Pilkington’s finish quickened the exodus.
Many had lost patience 12 minutes earlier when Christiansen withdrew Lasogga and sent on Hadi Sacko, aggravating the crowd and prompting chants of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’
I can understand the fans.They can come with their opinion and I think it’s not so much about the substitution, who it was or how it was. It was more about how the result was. It’s tough, it’s sad and I’m disappointed.Leeds United head coach, Thomas Christiansen, speaking on Saturday.
“I can understand the fans,” Christiansen insisted. “They can come with their opinion and I think it’s not so much about the substitution, who it was or how it was. It was more about how the result was.
“It’s tough, it’s sad and I’m disappointed. You feel a little bit impotent that you cannot start and finish the game with 11 players.
“Injury-wise also we have problems but I have to bring back the confidence in the players.”
Players were letting Christiansen down as Christiansen let the crowd down and in the midst of the debacle of Saturday was a referee in Graham Scott who gave Berardi what was coming his way but seemed indifferent to some of Cardiff’s industrial tackles. In all it would have taken a stroke of genius from Christiansen to make something of Saturday’s derby at Sheffield United. His successor will not have an easy start.
The Dane avoided excessive scrutiny when Leeds were wading through a run of seven defeats in nine games in October and November. Back then he had time on his side and the confidence of his board too; sufficient protection against questions about whether he could bring the campaign or his squad to heel. On Saturday even he seemed uncertain about how this dip would play out.
“I’m convinced that we will be there,” he said when asked if Leeds could genuinely make the top six but there was no evangelical tone to his comment and nothing in his body language which projected the confidence or variety of ideas his players are lacking.
There was merely a melancholy look to the man on the bridge: hit by a perfect storm and about to sink.