THE TALK beforehand came from Paul Heckingbottom, who boldly categorised Leeds United as a team “everyone loves to hate”, and it came from him again after Barnsley let everyone down.
Second best, Heckingbottom conceded on Saturday after losing 2-0, but not without a dig at United’s staff and criticism of Luke Ayling for an “appalling dive”.
Thomas Christiansen had asked his players to negate pre-match rhetoric and the combat of a Yorkshire derby by speaking with the ball at their feet and touches of magic at the front end of his team made light work of a stadium where Leeds are accustomed to crashing.
Barnsley, as their manager said, like to move through the gears when United go to Oakwell but Leeds rarely have it so easy. “There was a technical difference on the pitch – their big-time players performed and we didn’t as a rule,” Heckingbottom said. “There was a big difference in the final third.”
It left Heckingbottom with nothing more to wave at Leeds than an alleged dive by Ayling which resulted in a first-half melee and the accusation that Julio Banuelos, Christiansen’s assistant, should “show more class when they score a goal.”
There were crossed words between Banuelos and Heckingbottom at points before half-time but Christiansen left them to it. Saturday was better spent admiring a team whose verve had previously taken to hiding from him.
I believe that in many situations we were better on the ball but it could be even better and this is what we have to work onLeeds United boss Thomas Christiansen
Last week’s 4-1 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers said much about how close Leeds are to the Championship’s strongest team but their comprehensive dismissal of a limited Barnsley side made the point that United, with this squad, should not be losing eight games in 11. The historical trend of Barnsley turning Leeds over at Oakwell was broken by Christiansen’s players diving into the match and scoring twice before half-time.
Samuel Saiz, who claimed the first, schooled 20-year-old Joe Williams in the business of man-marking. Gjanni Alioski took the derby away with a precise finish in first-half injury-time.
“We made a good start because we did the things we had to do,” Christiansen said. “We had to, at least, equalise their intensity on the pitch and after that, put our quality into the game.
“It was very important for us to go to half-time with that score and our mission in the second half was to go for the third goal and close the game. I believe that in many situations we were better on the ball but it could be even better and this is what we have to work on: to take the right decisions, especially when it comes to finishing.”
It was nit-picking after a period of two months in which some of Christiansen’s management and the football stemming from it has been openly questioned. His changes worked, particularly the selection of Caleb Ekuban whose movement and strength up front gave the three-man line of Saiz, Alioski and Pablo Hernandez the freedom it needed.
Millwall and others have bullied those three players this season but Barnsley were baffled by their variety. Saiz opened the scoring in the 23rd minute by taking a pass from Alioski, driving a bus through Barnsley’s midfield and driving a low shot through a weak right hand stuck out by Barnsley goalkeeper Adam Davies.
The pressure had been there from the second minute, when a volley from Ekuban deflected wide and prompted three corners on the bounce.
There was little at the other end, where Christiansen’s decision to turn again to Felix Wiedwald in goal passed without much of an examination. The sun glared into Wiedwald’s face before half-time, prompting one supporter to run to the front of the away end and hand the German his cap, but Barnsley were rarely in eyesight.
Ninety minutes were up when Wiedwald was finally stretched by a volley from substitute Ryan Hedges. At full-time he gave the fan his shirt in return.
A familiar trait among Wiedwald’s seven clean sheets is almost impenetrable protection from the defence in front of him. The busier games were when Wiedwald began to give Andy Lonergan hope of a run in the team. Lonergan got his chance but did not influence United’s form and conceded four at Molineux last Wednesday.
“This was the game for (Wiedwald) to come in and it was a decision we spoke about through the week,” Christiansen said. “We thought it was his moment. He’s performed well in training and he has learned from his mistakes. I thought he was ready for this.”
The derby played out a long way in front of him and in front of an unmovable midfield pair in Eunan O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips.
Leeds took to playing in the Barnsley half and scored again in the final seconds before half-time when Barnsley were hustled out of possession on the edge of their own box.
The quality of the hosts’ passing and ball retention hampered them and Luke Ayling took advantage by working the ball to Alioski who whipped a left-footed finish inside Davies’ far post.
Saiz’s goal was his ninth of the season and Alioski’s was his fifth, of which four have come in his last four appearances. Their link-up at Oakwell was more telepathic and Saiz ran the game through the middle.
“They are very good players and important players for the team,” Christiansen said. “But it’s a team sport. We need some who put the talent in like Samu and Alioski but we need others who worked hard and defend the goal. The defensive line did very well.”
Only when O’Kane limped off midway through the second half did Barnsley start to gain some traction and slip through Christiansen’s midfield. Hedges tested Wiedwald at the very end but the winger’s introduction as a half-time replacement for Harvey Barnes was only possible because of Barnes’ lucky avoidance of a red card in the first half.
Booked after confronting Ayling over, as Heckingbottom put it, an “appalling dive”, the 19-year-old was done a favour by referee Andrew Madley when he rugby-tackled Kalvin Phillips in an attempt to stop Leeds counter-attacking.
“You could see that Leeds targeted him,” Heckingbottom said.
Across the field, the targeting by United did the trick. Ekuban shot into the side-netting late on and Alioski smacked a Hollywood volley over Davies crossbar.
Barnsley were as wary of being caught on the break as Leeds had been at Molineux three days earlier. Christiansen goes down as only the second United coach to win at Oakwell in the post-Premiership years and life felt better after six points from nine in the space of a week.
“The team is back,” United’s head coach said. “We hope that the results will continue but the work in training, the mentality the players have, they show it here.
“Sometimes it’s not enough to win games but there can be come other factors. I’m very pleased for them.”