Phil Hay's verdict: Rethink may be required to restore Leeds United's table-topping balance
THERE was a danger on a day when nothing went right of Leeds United thinking that everything was wrong.
Thomas Christiansen’s time on untouchable ground lies some distance behind him and his players are in the line of fire with no easy way out of it after Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Reading.
The variables beyond Christiansen’s control took hold on Saturday as a disputed goal and the tame waste of an injury-time penalty allowed Reading and Jaap Stam their fun at Elland Road but there are signs of United’s head coach swaying from his own convictions too.
His first-choice goalkeeper has been dropped 12 games in and his preferred formation, the set-up which briefly took Leeds to the top of the Championship, is liable to follow after three straight defeats.
Christiansen might not tear the team up in its entirety but even he is starting to question whether his ideas as they are can stay the same. It has, for him, been 4-2-3-1 for all but 45 minutes in Cardiff when Liam Cooper’s red card left Leeds with 10 men but a system which was beginning to fall apart away from home did likewise at Elland Road as a sedate first half brought on a first home defeat.
That a 1-0 loss was inflicted by Mo Barrow, a former Leeds loanee who did more in half-an-hour on Saturday than he did in four pointless months with United last season, would have rankled had more important matters not stemmed from the game.
Leeds go to Bristol City this Saturday and Christiansen must be close to the point of a substantial rethink, or close to the point of bold changes in tactics and line-up which regain United’s zest, lessens their predictability and restores the balance of their team. Barrow slipped home an 85th-minute winner as a goalless draw loomed, amid angry appeals of a foul on Pablo Hernandez, but this point of reckoning has been coming.
“I believe in my ideas,” insisted Christiansen, who maintained that Leeds had been unlucky to lose. Hernandez had a penalty at his mercy in the third minute of injury-time but the draining confidence which Christiansen himself highlighted showed itself in a tame effort which Vito Mannone swallowed gratefully on his goalline.
“Of course we have to analyse the situation – what we can improve – and if the way we can improve has to be through a change in the system, we will change,” Christiansen said. “These players can play in the same system or another one. The matter is to find a solution and to come back to winning.”
Christiansen was brave enough to drop Felix Wiedwald, contradicting what sounded like a vote of confidence in the German keeper on Thursday by naming Andy Lonergan in his starting line-up against Reading. Wiedwald’s place was in peril after some nervous command of his box in Leeds’ 3-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday ahead of the international break and Christiansen appeared to see what everyone else had spotted at Hillsborough. Lonergan made good the decision with one fine save from Sone Aluko before half-time, pushing a low shot around his right-hand post, and a better stop with his fingertips from Barrow before Reading’s substitute scored.
There was, all the same, more tension and uncertainty in his attempts to direct play with his feet from the back. Reading employed a high-press in periods and sat off in others, all the time restricting Leeds’ freedom to pass at will.
“We knew how they play,” said Reading manager Jaap Stam. “They can make it difficult if you give them space. Sometimes teams have to play it back to their goalie, which they don’t like.”
Christiansen insisted there was more to Leeds’ reticent demeanour than simple tactics. “It’s a little bit in the confidence of the players as well,” he said, conceding that three straight losses had taken its toll.
There was a certain irony in the fact that Reading took criticism in spades for the same issue last season; taunted mercilessly with chants of ‘boring, boring Reading’ during a directionless 2-0 defeat at Elland Road in December.
On Saturday they conceded the bulk of possession and were better for it. “We deserved to win,” Stam said. “We had the better chances.”
Leeds’ early tempo helped, giving Mannone nothing serious to do before half-time.
“That was a problem,” Christiansen said. “We were too slow and then it’s too easy for a team like Reading to defend against us.”
Aluko came closest in in the first half and Barrow appeared on 65 minutes, causing problems immediately but shooting narrowly wide with his first chance and forcing Lonergan to claw the ball away from the top corner with his second.
There were promising moments for Leeds, too, as substitute Jay-Roy Grot ran into take what appeared to be a tap-in, only to be denied when Leandro Bacuna slid into stab the ball behind.
Pontus Jansson – by no measure his usual, fiery self – drove a chance over the crossbar from six yards out but Barrow made no mistake in beating Lonergan five minutes from time when a pull on Hernandez was ignored by referee Jeremy Simpson and Joey van den Berg fed a pass through Christiansen’s defence.
Hernandez was booked for his protests and despite Stam insisting that the goal was valid, Christiansen saw it differently.
“I imagine (I saw it) like you saw it,” he said.
“But before I signed here, they told me to be aware that foreign coaches should not protest or mention anything. I will stay on that line.”
Even then, a draw was in the offing again when Saiz – a small shining light in the mediocrity of the game – slalomed into the box and tempted Liam Moore to hack at his ankles. Hernandez, who had previously buried two penalties this season, lost his nerve from the spot and rolled a weak effort into Mannone’s hands. “It’s a lottery,” Christiansen said. “I will not complain about him. We need players who take this responsibility and he took it in the last minute but I want everyone to take responsibility during the 90 minutes.”
Inspiring that improvement at Ashton Gate on Saturday will take some nerve and some careful thought, though Christiansen did not put the loss against Reading in the same bracket of the club’s hands-down defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.
“In other games you could say ‘you don’t deserve more’,” he said.
“Today we deserved at least not to lose. From my point of view we deserved much more but we didn’t get it.”