For Leeds United this international break promises to be more sobering than the last. The league table still has a pretty look about it but Thomas Christiansen would be fooling himself by thinking that his squad have their act together.
Pontus Jansson wanted Leeds to “go out like animals” at Hillsborough yesterday but United look increasingly prone to being eaten themselves away from Elland Road. Sheffield Wednesday inflicted their third defeat in four games, stripping Christiansen’s defence of all the composure and bite which took the club to the top of the Championship.
Mistakes crept in as September wore on and Christiansen’s job in the next fortnight is to weed out the misjudgements which gave Gary Hooper, the Owls’ in-form striker, two of the easiest goals he will bank all season. Leeds were 2-0 down by half-time against a club who, from the outside looking in, were beset by faltering form and questions about the future of their manager, Carlos Carvalhal needed a win and his second Yorkshire derby in eight days served it up. An 81st-minute volley from Kieran Lee was a bonus at the end of a grim week in this quarter of Sheffield.
Wednesday’s boss, whose side were embarrassed by Sheffield United a week earlier, and his £20 note live to fight another day after an afternoon when his goose might have been cooked. Christiansen, in contrast, will spend two weeks considering how to stop a lightning start to the season losing its impetus. Bullied at Millwall in mid-September and worked out by Cardiff City last Tuesday, Wednesday and Hooper left Leeds to reflect on three straight losses away from home.
A shot from Pierre-Michel Lasogga which struck the post at the start of the second half might have changed a wet afternoon in Sheffield and United had their share of chances but they did not disguise the simplicity of Wednesday’s goals or the complete loss of organisation which followed their first on 25 minutes. The excellent Barry Bannan was given the run of the midfield. Christiansen’s defence and goalkeeper gave him plenty to chew on.
The frustration for United’s head coach was that chinks in Wednesday’s defence were apparent and apparent as early as the fourth minute when Samuel Saiz met a through ball from Gjanni Alioski and pick out Kalvin Phillips at the far post. Phillips miscued an unmarked header and sent it wide but the attack told Leeds that Wednesday were prone to being stretched. For most of the game United were made to look badly out of shape.
The direction which Christiansen’s players had lacked at Cardiff and previously at Millwall came immediately from Saiz, diminutive in size but strong enough to hold off Wednesday’s initial attempts to stifle him. A shot from the Spaniard flew over the crossbar and his distribution brought Alioski and Kemar Roofe into the game on either side of the field.
Alioski should have taken advantage of a glorious piece of play from Saiz in the 14th minute, set up at the back post after Saiz danced through Wednesday’s midfield and hung up a delivery beyond Joe Wildsmith’s right-hand post. Alioski was waiting but nodded a header into the side netting, wasting a chance to test Wednesday’s 21-year-old goalkeeper.
Saiz was one of four players recalled by Christiansen after a midweek visit to Cardiff which went badly wrong. Matthew Pennington replaced the suspended Liam Cooper in the centre of defence and was given only a curt examination for the first 20 minutes.
Before Hooper struck, Wednesday’s best effort saw Adam Reach draw a parry from Felix Wiedwald with a deflected shot through a crowd of players and threatened to wrong-foot the German.
Wiedwald has settled in quietly at Leeds since his arrival from Werder Bremen in July, largely hidden by a defence which went through the first month of the season without suffering much more than a scratch, but his reactions and his dominance of his box were called into question after Wednesday killed the spring in United’s step by scoring on 25 minutes.
Tom Lees met a hanging free-kick with a downward header and, given the opportunity to clear out Hooper and the ball, Wiedwald delayed, allowing the forward to stab an easy finish into the net. Five minutes later it was Leeds’ good fortune that the flag came to their aid as Lee sprinted into the box and drilled the ball low past Wiedwald. Replays showed Lee to be comfortably onside.
Before long Christiansen’s defence were in disarray, allowing Steven Fletcher a free header at the far post which the Scot guided across goal and inches wide. From that position it was harder to miss. Christiansen needed half-time long before it came and a strong penalty claim was waved away by referee Andrew Madley five minutes before the break after a cut-back from Hooper struck Pontus Jansson’s arm. Madley’s leniency only delayed the inevitable.
With 41 minutes gone, Leeds were unlocked again by another high ball into their box, headed on by Fletcher towards Hooper who slipped away from Pennington and angled a header inside Wiedwald’s far post. As concessions go, neither looked pretty.
United urgently needed the reply which nearly came their way three minutes into the second half. Lees failed to hack away a cross from Alioski and Lasogga steadied himself before driving the ball off the base of a post, beating Wildsmith but narrowly failing to squeeze the ball into the far corner. Pablo Hernandez and Hadi Sacko came off the bench after the hour but Wiedwald was forced into good save from Hooper on 64 minutes, denying the striker a hat-trick by rushing out to meet him after a clever pass from Barry Bannan.
A third goal would have killed the derby, just as a reply from Leeds would have lit the fuse. Jansson was close on 67 minutes with a header from a corner which Ross Wallace knocked away from the goalline and Saiz curled an effort inches wide at the end of the next attack. Before long, Jansson was stretchered from the pitch after a collision with Kalvin Phillips and, having used all of his substitutions, Christiansen was forced to watch Phillips hobble on for the time that was left.
Saiz’s late failure to punish an error by Wednesday’s Liam Palmer signed off a day when nothing came good and Bannan’s strike against a post with nine minutes left at least appeared to have averted a worse scoreline, but when Eunan O’Kane’s risky chipped pass tempted Lee to shoot, the midfielder found the bottom corner with a sweet volley from 20 yards. In injury-time, Hooper – on a hat-trick – shook Wiedwald’s crossbar and despite much expectation to the contrary, the difficult questions afterwards were not faced by Carvalhal.