Opportunity opens up at Leeds United for Matthew Pennington
The door which slammed in Liam Cooper's face on Saturday has opened instead for Matthew Pennington and despite the burden of yet another suspension at Leeds United, Pennington could be forgiven for thinking that this season owes him a break.
To much of it has passed him by, through little fault of his own, but his contribution to the second half of Saturday’s defeat to Millwall was a bone picked by Thomas Christiansen from the carcass of a deranged afternoon.
Reluctant as United’s head coach was to paper over some glaring cracks, Pennington’s performance deserved a mention.
He was worth a mention on the very first weekend of the season to, at Bolton Wanderers back in August, when a decent debut was cut short by an ankle ligament injury. Pennington lost all impetus after an hour of competitive football and has not had the chance to regain it but the Everton loanee will be Christiansen’s solution to Cooper’s four-match ban.
Christiansen saw him as the answer on Saturday as he tried to compensate for Cooper’s 37th-minute dismissal. Pennington was waiting to come on as Millwall scored for the second time, establishing a 2-0 lead just before half-time, but the decision to replace Ronaldo Vieira with the centre-back changed Leeds’ shape, their mindset and the game.
Millwall helped with some critical errors early in the second half but Leeds reasserted themselves with a formation which amounted to three lines of three. Pennington dropped in on the right side of defence and helped underpin the caution-to-the-wind fightback which saw Millwall collapse and trail 3-2 shortly after the hour.
On the verge of the type of result which can define a campaign, time caught up with Leeds as Millwall stole a 4-3 win in the final minutes.
Pennington’s start was his first since October and only his fifth of the season. Signed on a year-long deal from Everton in July, United have not been able to give the 23-year-old the full term he was looking for but Christiansen has a high opinion of him and left no doubt that Cooper’s loss would be Pennington’s gain.
“You saw Pennington in the second half,” United’s head coach said, responding to a question about whether Cooper’s red card might prompt the signing of another central defender before the transfer window closes. “He did well and you couldn’t see that he hadn’t played for a long time or that he had come back from injury.
“We made some changes and the most important one was at half-time where we decided to play with three at the back.”
Pennington was hampered by a minor injury and illness after Christmas and was unable to start in Leeds’ FA Cup defeat at Newport County, a tie in which Christiansen fielded numerous fringe players.
For a while he was Christiansen’s go-to defender in situations where United held a slender lead with time running out: an option off the bench with a few minutes to play. Only twice has he started back-to-back matches.
In spite of that, Leeds like what they see in him. Pennington’s loan from Goodison Park did not include a formal option to sign him at the end of it but Leeds intend to ask the question of Everton when this season ends. The Elland Road club want to take him permanently in the summer, believing that the centre-back would be a shrewd investment.
Much will depend on Pennington himself. His contract at Everton was renewed last year and extended to 2019. Ronald Koeman allowed him to leave for Elland Road but was sacked by Everton in October, making way for Sam Allardyce.
Allardyce is well covered in Pennington’s position and has made regular use of Mason Holgate, a centre-back two years younger. Pennington, nonetheless, could attempt to fight on at his boyhood club when his time with Leeds draws to a close.
In the meantime, Cooper’s lengthy suspension gives Pennington the opportunity to alter the natural order of centre-backs at Leeds.
Cooper and Jansson have been Christiansen’s regular partnership, the most experienced pairing on United’s books, but Cooper is out until United play Derby County at Pride Park on February 20.
Christiansen’s loyalty to a captain who was appointed when the Dane hung the armband on his peg at Bolton for the first game of the season will only go so far if Pennington contributes to a run of results which keep United in contention for the play-offs.
Besides Pennington’s display, Saturday was a cathartic performance for Pierre-Michel Lasogga, a striker who is wrestling with the challenge of making his undeniable ability to finish with both feet outweigh the deficiencies in his game.
Lasogga has done little to drive Leeds forward since suffering a calf injury in November and a lack of sharpness was apparent in two missed chances during the first half against Millwall. But his instinct kicked in after the interval as clinical strikes on 46 and 62 minutes – the second finished beautifully from 20 yards – gave Leeds the sniff of a famous result.
“Confidence for strikers is everything and Pierre needs the confidence to come in during games,” Christiansen said.
“In the second half he tried to change the result. He did well but I also recognise when somebody does well in training.
“What you see in the games will be reflected (in the line-up) for the next game but also important is how the response is in training – who deserves (to play) and be in the next 11. He did many good things and deserved his opportunity.”