TO THE uninitiated, which Thomas Christiansen was before June, Barnsley away can look like one of Leeds United’s more winnable games. In practice, too many visits to Oakwell have ended in acrimony and recrimination involving those in his job.
Gritty and unpretentious, with a tunnel which forces players and managers to walk within throwing distance of its steep away end, Barnsley’s stadium has a knack of bringing the worst out of Leeds. Neil Warnock lost his grip there in 2013, on a cold January day. Simon Grayson was lucky to leave with his job intact after a 4-1 defeat a year earlier. Last season, with Garry Monk in charge, it was Oakwell where a seven-match unbeaten run ended after Christmas.
The history of this game tells Christiansen that United’s third game in seven days should be as difficult as the others in its own way, irrespective of the Championship table painting a different picture.
Leeds beat the division’s pre-season title favourites in Middlesbrough last Sunday and were run ragged by league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on Wednesday. Barnsley, in 17th place, cut a different standard of opposition but Leeds have been lured into that sense of security before.
United’s schedule in the past week has honed Christiansen’s focus on the tricky derby ahead of him. His squad played 24 hours later than Barnsley in midweek and arrived back from Wolves at 2am on Thursday morning.
An early kick-off this afternoon, accommodating a live Sky broadcast, trimmed down their recovery time further. Six points from the nine on offer this week would therefore feel to Christiansen like a good return. “I would have taken it before, knowing these three games,” he said. “But first we have to take these three points. Then we can talk.”
Three points is the margin between Leeds and sixth place; an exhibit of the rate at which the club have gone backwards since heading the field in mid-September but proof of how close Christiansen’s side are to the play-off positions, despite dropping 27 of the last 33 points they have played for.
Those results, with the exception of victories over Middlesbrough and Bristol City, sit uncomfortably with Christiansen but he has not revised his view that his squad are in a good state. Even after Wednesday’s 4-1 loss at Molineux, the 44-year-old described himself as “happy”.
“It’s a good situation,” he said. “If I look back to all the defeats we’ve had I will not be satisfied at all but in general, the situation is that we are there. If we take these three points then I think we’ve done good. There are many new people here, everything is new. It’s a new project and we’re all working to get it going as soon as possible.
“I’m working with Victor (Orta, Leeds’ sporting director) and Andrea (Radrizzani, Leeds’ owner) to see what we can do to improve. It’s our job to make it as good as possible for the players and then we have to reply on the pitch – me, being responsible for the team, and the players also.
I expect we will turn this situation for the better. With the players I’ve seen a change in their mentality and the confidence they have because we won against Middlesbrough. It’s something we can build up on.Leeds United head coach, Thomas Christiansen.
“I expect we will turn this situation for the better. With the players I’ve seen a change in their mentality and the confidence they have because we won against Middlesbrough. It’s something we can build up on.”
Paul Heckingbottom, Barnsley’s manager, grew up in Royston – a pit village near Barnsley – and talked on Thursday about meetings with Leeds being his pick of the Yorkshire derbies as a boy.
“It was always my favourite,” he said. Heckingbottom showed last season, by bettering Monk, that he knows how to handle this game but Christiansen said his side had enough nous and enough experience of grounds like Oakwell to take a win away from South Yorkshire this afternoon.
Amid the inevitable blood and thunder, Christiansen wants his players to get on the ball and “talk in that way.”
“I’m prepared for that and my players also,” Christiansen said. “They’re not new to this. Many of the players have experienced this before. They know Barnsley and they know what is expected of us. They know what they have to do.
“It will be challenge for the whole team. Barnsley will come out and try to put us under pressure. They will go strong into the challenges but we have to respond in the same way. I believe, with the quality we have, that when we have the ball we should talk in that way.”
Christiansen is down on regulars today, with Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Stuart Dallas injured and Ronaldo Vieira banned for one game after his red card at Molineux. Leeds have had less than 72 hours to turn around from Wolves but the absentees will limit the scope for United’s head coach to conduct major changes. Heckingbottom made five alterations against Cardiff City on Tuesday, keeping a portion of his squad fresh for the weekend.
Christiansen admitted that the scheduling of games was not on United’s side. “When you play late on Wednesday, arrive home at two o’clock in the morning and then have an early game as we have on Saturday, it’s difficult to recover completely,” he said. “The schedule is like that and it’s not in our favour but we have to go out and make a good game.
“We knew the schedule we had – difficult games, two of them especially against teams who will promote or will be close to promotion to the Premier League, and then a derby game.
“But I was happy coming out of the game against Middlesbrough. I was disappointed with the result against Wolverhampton but there were positive things that I take with me.”