Phil Hay: The curious case of Pontus Jansson - is he really as bad as he thinks?

HEAD IN HANDS: Pontus Jansson agonizes after missing a chance against Reading on Saturday.
HEAD IN HANDS: Pontus Jansson agonizes after missing a chance against Reading on Saturday.
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The naked eye is not seeing the best of Pontus Jansson and Jansson himself, in trademark fashion, is making no bones about his own form.

The centre-back used Instagram on Monday to describe his recent performances as “s***”, the type of industrial analysis which footballers are used to reading on social media.

DREAM TEAM: Kyle Bartley, right, and Pontus Jansson were one of the most formidable defensive partnerships in the Championship last season. Picture: Simon Hulme.

DREAM TEAM: Kyle Bartley, right, and Pontus Jansson were one of the most formidable defensive partnerships in the Championship last season. Picture: Simon Hulme.

Felix Wiedwald, United’s German goalkeeper, carried the can for the club’s downturn in results as Thomas Christiansen dropped him for Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Reading but the wobble at Elland Road is a collective issue in which verve and confidence has quickly waned. Jansson’s remarks, nonetheless, make the point that a stable Leeds side requires the Sweden international in the frame of mind which earned him a place in the Championship’s team of the year in May.

The comparative numbers between this season and last do not reveal a marked difference in Jansson, with one glaring exception. That exception underlines the perception that Jansson, in patches of this campaign at least, has shown less bite or aggression than Leeds are used to.

The centre-back’s yellow card count in 2016-17 was the highest at Elland Road and the second-highest in the Championship, behind Preston North End’s serial offender, Ben Pearson. Jansson avoided red cards but his routine cautions for offences ranging from fouls and celebrating with the crowd to dissent and diving led to three separate suspensions, the last of which carried into this season.

Towards the end of last term, and on more than one occasion over the summer, Jansson spoke of the need to reform his record. “It’s not good,” he said. “It’s something I have to work on this year, to not take that many yellow cards.” To date he has been as good as his word: 10 appearances and not a single booking. His foul count is below one a match and brushes with match officials have been nonexistent.

Last season, there were few more dependable pairings in the Championship than Jansson and Bartley. Leeds need that consistency now in front of whichever goalkeeper Christiansen prefers.

Phil Hay on the defensive conundrum facing Leeds United.

When Garry Monk, Christiansen’s predecessor as head coach, tackled the subject of Jansson’s discipline, his criticism of “silly bookings” was tempered by a reluctance to see Jansson scale back his combative attitude. “If it (a yellow card) is from a competing point of view, I’d never take that away from a player,” Monk said as the 26-year-old hovered on the verge of a three-match ban in February. “It needs to be in their game.”

Statistically, Jansson’s performance levels are fairly consistent. He is less competitive in the air – fewer than four aerial challenges a game compared to almost six last season – and slightly down at 8.8 on a previous average of 10.1 clearances, the major string to his defensive bow. But he is committing to an increased number of tackles and as many blocks as he did in his first year at Elland Road. No goals have come his way but he has so far seen an identical number of chances. The past five games are also obscuring the fact that in Jansson’s first six appearances, Leeds did not concede once.

Injury affected him briefly after Leeds’ defeat at Millwall last month, a thigh strain which forced Jansson to miss United’s home win over Ipswich Town. Christiansen said he was fit to play against Ipswich but the advice from United’s medical staff was to rest Jansson for one game and lower the risk of him aggravating the muscle.

As a result of intermittent absences, Christiansen has already used four different centre-back partnerships and the Leeds boss is asking for increased levels of passing and distribution amongst them. Under Monk, and despite Jansson’s bans, the Swede and Kyle Bartley played together in 33 league games. Those fixtures yielded 18 wins and almost three quarters of the club’s league points. There were no frills to their defending and no complications. Liam Cooper called the combination “unbelievable”.

Leeds United's Liam Cooper has shown encouraging signs of developing a solid partnership with Pontus Jansson.
 Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Leeds United's Liam Cooper has shown encouraging signs of developing a solid partnership with Pontus Jansson. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Leeds, who took Bartley on loan from Swansea City at the start of last season, wanted to sign the ex-Arsenal trainee on a permanent basis but were powerless once Swansea decided that Bartley’s form at Elland Road was worth a chance in the Premier League. There is an argument, despite the improved form of Cooper, that Jansson is missing Bartley’s contribution. Cooper contests around three aerial battles a game. Bartley, over 45 league appearances, was involved in twice as many. Jansson, as a free man from set-pieces, wracked up more clearances but Bartley chipped in with close to eight a match. Much as the synergy between them faded badly in their final month together, there were few more dependable pairings in the Championship.

Leeds need that consistency in front of whichever goalkeeper Christiansen prefers, the consistency the club enjoyed briefly while Jansson and Cooper were settled alongside each other. Jansson is capable of being more abrasive and domineering. He is capable of being sharper in possession. If “s***” is taking criticism too far then he is some way down his own performance scale. But it seems highly unlikely that this rut of results is solely about him.

Leeds United boss, Thomas Christiansen. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Leeds United boss, Thomas Christiansen. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

Leeds United captain Liam Cooper shows his frustration after the final whistle at Wolves.

Wolves 4 Leeds United 1: ‘No gulf in class’ between teams insists Christiansen