After starting the Championship season with three straight away wins and unbeaten in seven matches, everything looked to be hunky dory for Leeds United as they topped the standings ahead of their trip to The Den to face Milwall on September 16.
Having failed to concede in their previous six league games, the Yorkshire outfit were resolute at the back and were getting the goals they needed – aside from the successive goalless draws at home to Preston North End and Fulham in August – at the other end of the pitch to ensure that they were picking up all three points more often than not.
Performing well and picking up positive results, Thomas Christiansen would have been confident that when his team came up against the Lions they had a real chance of picking up maximum points again, but it just didn’t happen for them and below-par performances from the likes of Samu Saiz, Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Pablo Hernandez certainly gave the United boss something to think about for future away trips during their 1-0 defeat.
Although the Whites bounced back with a 3-2 win against Ipswich Town at Elland Road, their season has derailed slightly over the course of the last two games.
Christiansen’s men conceded three times as they were beaten 3-1 by Cardiff City in their top-of-the-table clash in the Welsh capital on September 26, before they lost 3-0 against Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on Sunday.
A defence that had looked so solid in the opening weeks of the campaign is starting to unravel, and Christiansen is facing his first major conundrum on the pitch since taking the reins earlier in the summer.
While the 44-year-old could point to the fact that Leeds only had 10 men for the whole second half against Cardiff after Liam Cooper’s red card on the stroke of half-time, the Yorkshire outfit already found themselves 2-0 down by that point.
Yes it was clearly a factor, but there were underlying problems with how Leeds were defending as a team, too.
Summer signing Mateusz Klich had found first team minutes hard to come by following his move from FC Twente, but after impressing against Burnley in the EFL Cup he was handed his opportunity to impress at the Cardiff City Stadium with Eunan O’Kane missing through illness.
However, the Poland international failed to take his chance alongside Kalvin Phillips in the middle of the park, and the absence in the starting line-up of Saiz and Lasogga – who struggled against Millwall – didn’t make the Yorkshire outfit any more solid defensively.
Klich didn’t even make the squad for the trip to Sheffield Wednesday as O’Kane made his return to the XI, with Ronaldo Vieira on the bench.
Their showing against an Owls side that had suffered a 4-2 home defeat in the Steel City derby the previous weekend was probably their worst yet, with the whole back seven particularly disappointing and Kemar Roofe and Gjanni Alioski struggling to make an impact in attack.
It means that Christiansen certainly has a lot to think about during the international break before his side’s next away trip to Bristol City on October 21, and he may consider making some tactical changes at Ashton Gate.
One way he could do that would be to play with a 4-3-3, 3-5-2 or 3-5-1-1 system that would allow him to line up with three central midfielders, which would his team more control of the middle of the park.
While O’Kane and Phillips have done well this season, Leeds are still lacking that bite and energy in the centre of the pitch at times – something that Liam Bridcutt provided before his summer move to Nottingham Forest – and you can’t help but feel that if you were to add Vieira alongside the duo, they would be more of a tough nut to crack on their travels.
Of course, Christiansen will be thinking about how he will incorporate players like Hernandez and Saiz into that system, but at the end of the day you have to pick a side based on form and who is the best option to help you get a result.
More often than not that doesn’t seem to be Hernandez away from home. and perhaps a 3-5-1-1 system with the three central midfielders, Saiz behind Lasogga and Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi as the wing-backs could be the way forward.
With Cooper, Pontus Jansson, Matthew Pennington, Conor Shaughnessy and Ayling all able to play at centre-back, Leeds certainly have the strength in depth in their backline to play with a trio of central defenders too.
Whatever Christiansen decides to do, it is clear that something that needs to change on the road if Leeds United want to keep their promotion dream alive.