INJURIES are biting at Leeds United but Thomas Christiansen is not quite at the point of pulling on his boots. He is down on strikers and light on centre-backs but there are players in his squad who continue to angle for more time on the pitch.
Stuart Dallas is one of them, a squad member who caught Christiansen’s eye in pre-season and convinced Leeds that the recruitment of another winger on top of Gianni Alioski and Hadi Sacko would not be necessary. Dallas scored three times in United’s summer friendlies but, to the surprise of him and others, did not make the bench for their first Championship game at Bolton Wanderers. He is yet to start a league fixture.
On Saturday, away at Sunderland, Dallas made his point with a headed goal in the 74th minute, sealing a 2-0 win 12 minutes after replacing the injured Caleb Ekuban. Christiansen might be counting heads up front and at the back but across his midfield and on either flank he is blessed with players in form.
United’s performance in the first half at the Stadium of Light was driven by Gianni Alioski, the tricky Macedonia international who had a hand in both goals. Over 90 minutes most appreciation fell on Samuel Saiz, a busy number 10 whose £3m transfer fee looks like a steal. Saiz scored Leeds’ first with a neat, low finish on 21 minutes and set up Dallas with a bullet of a cross from the right wing, a chance which Dallas dispatched brilliantly.
A fifth game unbeaten with Christiansen as head coach means the Dane’s selection policy is not open to debate. Dallas himself sees no reason to question it.
“I’ve got to bide my time, be patient and do everything I can to try and force my way into the team,” Dallas said. “I’ve got the goal but I’m my own biggest critic and some of my overall play (at Sunderland) could have been better.
“I worked hard and that’s all I can do – give 100 per cent on the pitch as I always do, and that will never change. Obviously I want to start as many games as possible but I’m not a selfish player. I respect that the team comes first and things are looking good for us.”
Saiz’s influence at Sunderland was easy to appreciate: creative and threatening but aggressive in a midfield which pressed Sunderland effectively after the hosts hit the crossbar midway through the first half. The Spaniard, who claimed a hat-trick in a League Cup win over Port Vale on August 9, drew first blood with a neat finish across goalkeeper Jason Steele and appeared at the end of Alioski’s counter-attack to lay on a finish for Dallas.
Christiansen insisted afterwards that Saiz’s match fitness was still not at its peak, suggesting that the 26-year-old had more to offer.
“I don’t think I need to explain how good he is,” Dallas said. “He’s a class act and he’s only going to get better when he gets fitter. He is still adapting to the game, there’s still a lot to come, but he’s scored again. Personally I can only see him getting better.”
Leeds are not far enough through their fixture list to pay the Championship table much heed but their start and Nottingham Forest’s good form has made this weekend’s meeting at the City Ground a game between fourth and fifth.
United finished the first month of last season at Forest, losing 3-1 as their initial weakness from set-pieces caught up with them again. By the end of August Garry Monk’s squad had four points on the board, compared to eight accrued under Christiansen so far.
“We have to be realistic,” said Christiansen after the club’s win at the Stadium of Light. “There’s a lot of work to do and we haven’t achieved anything yet.”
It did not change the fact that Leeds, with a new horse for the 2017-18 course, have settled into their season quickly.
“It’s been a really good start,” Dallas said. “There’s a confidence that when we go into games we’re going into win. Maybe before we were thinking ‘we’ll do well to get a point here’.
“We’ve got a different mentality and that started last year. That team last year, throughout the season we were good. We fell short (of the play-offs) at the end but there was a lot of belief at the start of this season again.
“There’s been a shake up in the background and the club have brought new players in – positive signings, good players. It’s made the competition a bit more intense.”
Christiansen’s attention will divert to the Carabao Cup tonight as Leeds host Newport County in what was, technically, an away fixture.
Newport were drawn at home to United but are currently relaying their pitch at Rodney Parade.
The EFL granted the League Two club permission to contest the tie at Elland Road and Leeds have agreed to a near 50-50 split of gate receipts this evening.
Christiansen made nine changes in a first-round win over Port Vale and will make many more tonight with Matthew Pennington, Gaetano Berardi, Pablo Hernandez and Caleb Ekuban all likely to be missing through injury.
Dallas, who completed 90 minutes against Port Vale, could be among the starters.
“The cup is a big thing for us,” he said.
“We want to win every game we enter and we’ve got a big enough squad now to rotate things.
“We’ve got a good enough squad to be capable of going far.”