IF THE league table tells the truth about a club then the Championship is Leeds United’s best defence against criticism.
The club’s position after 14 games is enough for Matthew Pennington to think that attention on their fallow form exaggerates the depth of the hole they are in.
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The division contrasts with Leeds’ past seven results, showing the club in fifth despite a return of six points from 21. That United have been able to spill so many while retaining a play-off spot underlines both the strength of their start to the season and the fact that consistency in the Championship can be a problem for many of the teams in it.
The table alone, though, does not negate the view that Thomas Christiansen’s squad are showing signs of going backwards. Unbeaten for their first seven games, Leeds were excessively beatable in the seven that followed, culminating in a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United at Elland Road on Friday. Christiansen pulled no punches at full-time, saying his players had been “in the changing room” mentally when Billy Sharp opened the scoring in the second minute. That comment implied that United’s head coach had weaknesses to address.
Pennington, Leeds’ loanee from Everton, is less pessimistic. “If you look at our position in the table now, it’s a good position to be in, a strong position,” the 23-year-old said. “The only reason you’re saying that (suggesting Leeds are struggling) is because the form of late hasn’t been as good as the form at the start of the season but we’re in a strong position I think.
“We’re looking forward and the Championship table doesn’t lie. We’re in a decent position so I don’t think there’s a problem at the moment. If we get a couple of results now, it’ll look good.”
We’re in a decent position so I don’t think there’s a problem at the moment. If we get a couple of results now, it’ll look good.Matthew Pennington
Their two games this week, at home to Derby County tonight and away at Brentford on Saturday, are against two sides with their tails up. Derby have got their act together with a run of six games without defeat and three wins back-to-back against Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich City. Brentford lie a long way down the league, constrained by an excess of draws at home, but they have also avoided any losses in six matches.
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Pennington was seen as a coup of a signing when Leeds pinched him ahead of Hull City in July but an ankle ligament injury suffered on the first weekend of the season prevented Christiansen from using him for almost two months. His absence was part of a bigger picture of constant changes within Leeds’ defence and that area of the team has looked less and less settled since an early sequence of six clean sheets in a row. On Friday, Pennington was caught a couple of yards short as Sharp ran into bury the first chance of the game from point-blank range.
“It’s always difficult when you concede really early,” he said. “You’re trying to implement your style and you concede straight away but it’s something you’ve got to react to. We got back into the game. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be.
“It’s hard to put your finger on (why it happened). Goals do happen at the start of the game. Players switch off maybe or you get a moment or magic. But personal criticism is part of the game. It’s something you’ve got to take on the chin and react from. It’s the same in football everywhere. You’re only as good as your last game so last week when we beat Bristol (City) it was all brilliant. Then we get beaten by Sheffield (United) and everything’s not so good any more. It’s all about the last game. Now we’re focusing on the next one.”
Pennington has gained a handful of Premier League appearances at Everton but he is new to the Championship, like many of Christiansen’s players. The centre-back, however, insisted he was not worried about the experience or the depth of a squad who are chasing the target of a top-six finish.
“We’ve got 25, 26, 27 players all waiting to play their part,” Pennington said. “In each game everyone will learn a lot about this league, people who haven’t played in it before, but I think we’re coping well.
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“Personally I missed a few games at the start through injury. I’m just trying to consolidate my place in the team now. That’s my aim at the moment. It can be difficult, especially when you’ve missed seven or eight games, to get your fitness back and for people to expect you to be at your best straight away but that’s just part of football.”
Pennington is keeping an eye on Everton, whose problems are not in dispute. Ronald Koeman, the manager who agreed to send Pennington to Elland Road, was sacked a week ago and Everton are wedged in the bottom three, without a boss and without a win in eight games. “It’s a difficult time,” Pennington said. “I’m hoping they can pick things up.”
Tonight he has more to think about at Elland Road, where Liam Cooper’s dead leg is likely to see the youngster and Pontus Jansson play together at centre-back. There is a sense of Leeds needing a win this evening and also of Christiansen needing to claw his way back to a higher level of consistency. Derby, in seventh, are a point behind and liable to knock United out of the top six if they win this evening.
“You say ‘is it a massive game?’ but every game is a massive game,” Pennington said. “We want to get the next three points to keep pushing up the table. I don’t see it as any different to any other.”