There have been peaks and troughs in abundance for Leeds this season – how can you sum up what you’ve seen since the last meeting in November?
Well the last meeting was very much one of the two troughs – there’s been two of each, really, this season. Leeds had a really good start, which took them to the top of the league in mid-September, and then another little burst of form before Christmas, which was less convincing in the style of the performances but still a consistent run in terms of points gained. The defeat at Brentford was a seventh in nine and at the moment they are on a run of ten games without a league win, so you can clearly see the patches in the season where it has clicked and also where it hasn’t - there hasn’t been a grey area; it’s been very up or very down. The period after the Brentford game was crucial for Thomas Christiansen, despite his sacking last month. I think he would’ve gone a lot sooner had he not delivered results after that as the season was very much in danger of falling apart at that stage. And he did manage to conjure good results. The game at Middlesbrough that came after the international break was key for him, as was the run through December. In hindsight, it was almost delaying the inevitable because there were aspects of his management and his tactical approach that didn’t seem likely to work long-term and a lot of fans felt it would catch up with him eventually.
Since Christmas it’s been very hard going and that’s due to a culmination of factors: they’ve lost certain players to injury – particularly Luke Ayling at right-back – and Samu Saiz received a six-game suspension for after his spitting down at Newport, which was was big kick in the teeth and a big setback at a bad time. They haven’t won a game without him but he was back against Derby in midweek and looked good in the second half, nearly picking the Rams off towards the end. They’ve had other suspensions as well and went through a run of four red cards in five games. Defensively they’ve been very weak and have been exposed by teams like Cardiff who have a lot of height and play in a very direct style and essentially they’ve just been going backwards, if not treading water. It’s been a damaging spell and I do think that the consequence of it is going to be another season in the Championship.
Do you think Leeds are still realistic playoff candidates?
They are not out of it. The slightly different perspective here is that Leeds finished with 75 points last season and failed to make it into the top-six, but they had 72 with five games to go and started dropping points and losing confidence all over the place and it was a very bad dip in the end, a severe collapse. It can happen and it can be done as Wolves, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday found some really impressive form at the death last season, Fulham especially. They were eight points behind Leeds when the teams played at Craven Cottage in March, they started to roll off win after win and shot up the division. I feel the difference is that the way Fulham play gives them a better chance of reeling off wins than the way Leeds play. They have a load of pace, they are a very attacking side on their day and they take risks so they lose games at the same time, but when they are on form and playing like that, they can be difficult to contain and can rack up points fairly quickly. You couldn’t say that Leeds are any further out of it than Brentford or Preston – I know there is a little gap, but it really is a game or two that can turn that around. Pablo Hernandez said it himself on Tuesday, they probably need nine or ten wins from 14 games, it’s now from 13 games. Given the form since Christmas, it’s very hard to see where that is coming from and there hasn’t really been anything indicative of that streak coming. My suspicion is - and it is that of a lot of supporters also – that they are going to miss out. 46 points at the minute, they were on 58 at this stage last season so they are a long way behind.
How has new boss Paul Heckingbottom settled in at Elland Road?
Not bad at all. I like him and I think it was a good appointment, I have to say. Discounting what had gone on at Barnsley this season – which is obviously going to reflect on him a little – his track record was of him doing a decent job at a club prone to selling its’ best players and prone to selling them at really inconvenient times. They were really well placed in the January transfer window before last but they sold Sam Winnall to Sheffield Wednesday and both Conor Hourihane and James Bree to Aston Villa and inevitably dropped down the table. I’ve spoken to other people in the game and everybody seems to have a very high opinion of him, both as a bloke and as a coach with the ability and tactical nous. Leeds weren’t the first club in the Championship to go for him so I do think it’s a worthwhile appointment and almost a calculated risk. Little-by-little we are seeing differences with him, definitely more flexibility with the formation but also with the substitutions he’s made so far. I don’t think we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the real shortcomings of the team, particularly defensively. There are still errors and weaknesses there and that, to me, looks like a much longer game he’s going to have to play, I don’t think he can fix that in a matter of weeks. It’ll probably take transfers and the arrival of other players to fix the problems at the back, but I wouldn’t say the start has been at all unpromising. However, two points from three games is not a great return and he needs to start getting wins on the board pretty soon.
Earlier in the season you said Samu Saiz would be the player Brentford should be wary of, but who has been the stand-out performer in recent weeks?
You always get a touch of creativity from Hernandez and he’s come up with assists and, in periods, has carried the team certainly, minus Saiz. With his physicality and style, he’s not a 46-game Championship player and I think as he gets a little bit older, and given the way that he does play, he’s more a horses-for-courses player, a man for the right occasion as opposed to every week. Whereas with Saiz, I think you could play him every week and he would cope and adapt. Adam Forshaw has been decent since he’s come in – he looks a cut above the rest of the midfield and you can tell that he’s played in the Premier League. There’s plenty of poise there and a bit of experience and composure, which Leeds have definitely lacked. On occasions, like against Derby in midweek, we’ve seen some top performances from Pontus Jansson who, in the right frame of mind and in the right form, is one of the best centre-backs in the league, there’s no question about that. A hell of a lot of players are, or have been, out of form and it is far easier to pick out players who are struggling as opposed to players who are doing especially well. But there are little flashes here and there and I suspect that with Saiz back and just the variety he brings, we’ll probably see an upturn across the board.
How are Leeds likely to set-up for the visit of the Bees?
My gut feeling is that he’ll go for a 4-2-3-1 and given that Hernandez had a groin strain in the week and that Saiz played well off the bench, I think, firstly, it’s inevitable that Saiz will start. If he does start, he needs to play in the number 10 role as that’s where he’s best and how he pulls the strings. We’ve seen before that, minus him and Hernandez, there’s almost a total lack of creativity there or certainly not the magic you need when things aren’t going particularly well. I suspect it will be like that, I don’t think he’ll go 4-4-2 against Brentford, but he set up in that manner against Bristol City, not to great effect
What’s your score prediction for the game?
2-2 draws seem to be en vogue with Leeds at the moment so I’m going to go for that again. I think Brentford’s pace and the way they play will cause problems for Leeds defensively and I think they will score. Equally, when the crowd get with Leeds and they get on a bit of a roll at home, as Bristol City found, it can be quite difficult to cope with. As much as I admire Brentford, and I do really respect the job Dean Smith is doing there, I do think there is a slightly flaky edge to them from time to time and I expect this’ll be quite an entertaining game between two sides who I don’t think are going to make the top-six.