‘Together’, read the mosaic in the East Stand before kick-off, and Leeds United are hanging in. One big result was all Thomas Christiansen felt he needed to turn the tide and Middlesbrough, with Garry Monk in the dug-out, were as much of a scalp as the Dane could have asked for.
It became about Monk in the days before kick-off, the former Leeds boss who walked out of Elland Road in May for reasons which remain in dispute, but yesterday’s game was always about Christiansen and his battle to return to sturdy ground. An isolated victory will not take him there but a strong, concerted and maddening defeat of Middlesbrough kept his head above water; a message which said far more than Elland Road’s colourful mosaic.
Leeds made their support of Christiansen clear last week, sending out managing director Angus Kinnear to argue the case of a head coach whose record showed seven defeats from nine Championship matches, but the 44-year-old was in dangerous territory with a big week ahead of him. Leeds were at risk of dropping six points behind the play-offs over the weekend. Instead, they are back in the frame, in seventh place and behind Monk’s Boro on goal difference. Kinnear’s insistence that Christiansen was not losing the faith of his players was borne out by a timely, invigorating win.
Pablo Hernandez, one of Monk’s old stalwarts at Leeds last season, set it up with a 24th minute goal, ghosting in at the back post to take advantage of a deflection which picked out his overlapping run. Boro had gone close in the moments beforehand, denied by a save from a goalkeeper in Andy Lonergan who, like Christiansen, needed a good afternoon, but Monk found Leeds on the front foot in spite of their recent retreat down the Championship.
As the second half started, the sequence repeated itself. Marcus Tavernier, Boro’s Leeds-born teenager, wasted a glaring opportunity at one end and had barely caught his breath when Gjanni Alioski slid into finish off a beautiful low cross from Hernandez with 54 minutes gone.
Monk found the knack of winning at Elland Road with Leeds but there was no way back from Alioski’s finish and playful chants of ‘sack Garry Monk’ bounced around the ground, replacing some less repeatable songs from earlier in the day. All jokes aside, Christiansen need not look over his shoulder in quite the same way.
He was forced to sweat, however, by the contentious award of a penalty to Boro after a tangle between Luke Ayling and Daniel Ayala on 76 minutes. Given by one of referee Keith Stroud’s linesman, despite Ayala appearing to drag Ayling down before Ayling yanked his leg in return, Britt Assombalonga’s conversion of it set Elland Road on edge in the time that remained. Christiansen’s players stood up and and saw him home.
His line-up was the team which started the second half at Brentford prior to the international break, minus an ill Pierre-Michel Lasogga. United’s boss tried hard to find solace in that period of the game at Griffin Park, regardless of the 3-1 defeat that ensued, but another attempt to fall on a solution was made without the benefit of time on his side.
If Monk wanted a result in the face of a going-over from the crowd, Christiansen needed one badly.
Monk took some choice abuse but not as much as the build-up to the game suggested he might. His quiet, head-down walk to the dug-out and the sporadic bursts of attention on him – peaking, as it was bound to, after both Leeds goals – pointed to the fact that he and United have other things to dwell on. History it was, and somewhat bitter, but history nonetheless.
His side and Christiansen’s flew into the game with that attitude, going at each other from the off. Boro were screaming for a penalty after nine minutes when Gaetano Berardi dragged down Assombalonga beneath Stewart Downing’s corner but Leeds did not allow their attitude to expose the cracks in their confidence. The football was fierce and erratic but compelling either side of the opening goal. A mis-hit shot from Gaetano Berardi was all the first 20 minutes conjured as Kemar Roofe, United’s centre-forward in the absence of Lasogga, tried to make himself large between the tall frames of Ayala and Ben Gibson either side of him.
As the 20th minute passed, Boro suddenly clicked into gear. Assombalonga broke away on the right and sent in a low pass which Tavernier failed to reach from a position where a touch would have beaten Lonergan. The ball came back to Stewart Downing whose shot was pushed wide one-handed by United’s keeper, the guilty party in two bad errors at Brentford. Leeds took those close calls as their cue to score.
Monk’s defence was cut open on 24 minutes by a half-hit cross from Alioski which Kalvin Phillips made something of by throwing himself at it. A touch with Phillips’ head sent the ball to the back post where Hernandez rifled a sliding finish into the roof of the net. Christiansen had been praying for that. Monk dug his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground.
The 38-year-old saw enough of Elland Road last season to know what would follow. As Leeds took the initiative and played, Samuel Saiz passed up the chance of a second goal when he attempted a difficult lob over Darren Randolph rather than smashing a deflection off Pontus Jansson on the volley. Boro did not come again before half-time and Monk was forced into the sort of pointed interval team-talk which often did the trick during his tenure at Leeds. He was lucky that Liam Cooper failed to widen the scoreline with a header which dropped wide in the 43rd minute.
Boro’s most productive spell came after the restart but they were sold short again when Tavernier’s control let him down and a good chance sailed into the South Stand. Within moments, Roofe skipped by a couple of tackles and invited a wonderful cross from Hernandez which dropped perfectly for Alioski. Like Hernandez in the first half, the Macedonia international was too close to miss.
Inevitably, the cut-and-thrust of the first hour gave away to end-to-end football. Saiz smacked a shot against the inside of Randolph’s right-hand post while Ayling’s timely header stopped a Braithwaite header sneaking into United’s net. Assombalonga, who had not been allowed to let his £15m price tag show, whipped a shot wide on 70 minutes but was gifted a goal 13 minutes from time after Ayling was penalised for a trip on Ayala as Leeds hooked a corner out of their box.
Arguments raged and some of the flags which Leeds had laid out in the South Stand before kick-off rained down on the linesman who talked Stroud into award a penalty. Pontus Jansson was forced to intervene and calm the crowd down.
Assombalonga held his nerve and stabbed his spot-kick past Lonergan, creating the tense finish which Christiansen had desperately hoped to avoid.
The tension was palpable as a late volley from Braithwaite deflected fractionally wide and made worse by the award of seven minutes of injury time but Leeds made it through the woods.
Has Christiansen turned the corner again?