Liam Cooper says wobbles like the one Leeds United went through in the autumn are typical of the Championship. But he says the experience and lessons learned are helping the team now. Phil Hay reports.
Since the last international break Leeds United have taken to preparing for home games with a training session at Elland Road. The club’s authority was starting to waver there and Thomas Christiansen might have seen some acumen in making the surroundings as familiar as possible.
The club’s head coach said results themselves were not behind the change of scene but a new routine has done his players no harm. “It’s good for them to adapt, to be there and to see the environment around them when they train,” Christiansen said. “This is where they have their ‘exam’ every week and it lets us get used to the dimensions (of the pitch) as well. We have done this at other clubs and for me it’s normal. It’s very positive.
“If you look back to how our defeats at home came, it was in games where we could have won. Now they are only statistics. We learned our lessons but we have to look forward.”
Three back-to-back home losses led Leeds into the most recent international break and a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough on November 19 was enough incentive for Christiansen to extend the revised training programme.
His players were back at Elland Road for a session on Thursday, in anticipation of today’s game against Norwich City. The truth about Leeds’ prior results, though, was that their form was wavering everywhere.
Four productive weeks have gradually turned the club’s season for the better.
It could not be said that Leeds look like a different team, so established is their style under Christiansen’s management, but if the players feel like a different team then the club’s captain, Liam Cooper, is adamant that very little has changed.
Christiansen tweaked the odd thing – the switch of training to Elland Road and specific choices of personnel – but in the spirit of a club who want his tenure as head coach to evolve in its own time, he was not drawn into ripping his methodology up.
“We haven’t been working on anything different since the results changed,” Cooper said. “Tactically, from day one, the manager came in and knew how he wanted us to set up.
“There was a wobble in form but the team came through it. We’ve shown that in the last few games.
“These wobbles come during a season, it’s a fact of life in the Championship, and what matters is how you react.
“I find that you learn a lot about yourself and your teammates during times when things maybe don’t go in your favour.
“We’ve put that run behind us, got some decent results, and everyone’s looking forward.”
The overall picture at Elland Road is not a great cause for concern – three defeats from 10 matches there – but Leeds lost only five during the whole of the 2016-17 season and October brought a creep of tension: a late defeat to Reading in which Pablo Hernandez missed a nervous penalty, a deserved loss to a superior Sheffield United side and a late, if somewhat unfortunate, collapse against Derby County, despite United leading for 71 minutes.
Boro, and the return of Garry Monk last month, replenished the spark in Christiansen’s squad and Aston Villa were pressed hard in a 1-1 draw during Leeds’ last home fixture.
Norwich are this afternoon’s visitors, the club who put the cat among the pigeons as Leeds’ bid to qualify for the play-offs breathed its last on the penultimate weekend of last season.
Their last away win was registered at Ipswich Town almost two months ago.
“The challenge for us is getting up for every game,” Cooper said. “That’s what we’re putting on ourselves.
“But the boys are gaining experience about the league and putting that to good use. Teams like Aston Villa in our last home game, they don’t tend to play out too much. That allowed us to press them high and for long periods it worked.
“We love playing at home but you’re not going to play well in every game. Life doesn’t work like that. One thing you can do is always give your best (effort). The lads understand that. If we stick together we’ll be okay.”
Leeds outworked Boro and overran Barnsley in a 2-0 win at Oakwell three weeks ago but the second half of last weekend’s victory at Queens Park Rangers had echoes of the football produced by Christiansen’s squad in the first month-and-a-half of the season.
QPR competed initially and held out for an hour but their defence was broken by a combination of overwhelming pressure, pinpoint service from either flank and dead-eye finishing from Kemar Roofe. A rare header from the forward was the first of two quick goals and the start of a 32-minute hat-trick. “A five-minute spell in the second half cost us,” said QPR manager Ian Holloway at the end of his team’s 3-1 defeat.
Leeds closed to within four points of the play-offs after that result and it is evermore clear how critical their fixtures around Christmas and New Year could be.
Most are against clubs in the bottom half of the Championship, Norwich included, and United have been a cut above many of them in the first half of the season. Derby and Villa, fourth and fifth respectively, meet at Pride Park this afternoon, giving Leeds the chance to make ground one club or both.
“This is a great time to hit form,” Cooper said. “The games come thick and fast and the Championship is a league where if you win two or three on the bounce, you’re catapulted right up the table.
“If you lose a few you can go down too but wins turn it around. That’s what we’ve been finding these past few weeks. We want to stay up there now.”