After a shaky defensive start and the small issue of two long-term injuries away at Bolton Wanderers on the opening day, fans of Leeds could be forgiven for feeling unconvinced about the defensive situation at Elland Road. However, four league games later and no more goals conceded, Leeds United’s defence looks more solid and organised than it has done for a long while.
This all started with the permanent signing of fan favourite and near superhero Pontus Jansson from Torino. Instrumental to success last season alongside Kyle Bartley, Jansson provides much needed solidity and continuity to the Leeds backline and would be the first name on the team sheet every week for me.
Next to him at centre-back is Liam Cooper. Voted club captain by his fellow team-mates, Coops has had a great start to the season too and looks to be building a great relationship with Jansson at the heart of Leeds’s defence.
Whilst many were calling for Christiansen and Orta to go out and buy Bartley from Swansea this summer, Cooper has done a lot to alleviate the fears that we would be weaker this season without Bartley, repaying Christiansen’s faith in him.
With Cooper and Jansson playing so well, it’s going to be difficult for Everton loanee Matthew Pennington to break into the starting XI when he returns from an ankle injury in the coming weeks. Pennington is a hot prospect, and someone who will excite Everton and Leeds fans alike due to his athletic ability and composure on the ball; both evident in his promising debut at Bolton before his injury. Although he and Berardi are reportedly close to a return to training, their places in the first team will not be guaranteed due to the teams’ excellent defensive performances recently, meaning the duo may have to settle for backup roles for the majority of the season.
The injuries suffered by Berardi and Pennington in the opener against Bolton has pushed 21-year-old Conor Shaughnessy into a role no one, not even himself expected at the start of the season. Signed from Reading FC, Shaughnessy used to operate as a defensive midfielder but has developed into a promising young centre-back under Thomas Christiansen. He has made four appearances for Leeds so far this term, including an impressive display in the 0-0 draw with Fulham which earned him praise from a number of fans, pundits and teammates. He’s definitely one to watch for the future, but let’s hope he keeps getting his chance this season and can continue to kick on.
One place up for grabs is at left-back. Free transfer Vurnon Anita has occupied the role in league games thus far and has done pretty well considering it is not his natural position. As a Championship and Premier League veteran, Anita is a solid option at left-back and will consistently churn out dependable, yet not exhilarating performances.
Perhaps a more exciting option at LB would be Manchester United loanee Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who signed on a season long loan earlier this summer. CBJ started against Preston in the league but has since been relegated to the bench in place of Anita. However, decent showings against Port Vale and Newport County in the Carabao Cup have surely given Christiansen something to think about. Not to mention the fact that Gaetano Berardi, the first choice left-back against Bolton on matchday one, should be back in training any week now. It will be interesting to see who Christiansen picks when he has all three possibilities available, but for now, I’d expect Anita to retain his position in the starting XI.
We can’t talk about the Leeds defence without mentioning Luke Ayling. Probably the hardest worker and most consistent performer for Leeds, he has made the right-back spot his own and no one looks close to taking it away from him. He is one of those players who seemingly never plays badly or even gets tired, as he puts in the same energy to a burst down the right-wing in the 90th minute as he does to one in the 2nd. Barring injury or suspension, expect him to start every league game this season.
Thankfully, Christiansen doesn’t mess about with playing three or five at the back. Although these systems can often be effective, playing a standard back-four keeps it simple and has allowed the defence to familiarise themselves with each other, and with the tactical system, very quickly. Centre-halves are there to defend, and while the full backs have a role in attack, they mainly provide support to the wingers, allowing players such as Alioski, Roofe and Hernandez the freedom to terrorize the opposition – which they have done magnificently so far.
With a defensive unit all reading from the same page and an abundance of talent in between the sticks, Leeds have only conceded four goals in the opening seven games of the season. The solid organisation and determined strength of the defence has been the shining factor behind our unbeaten start to the campaign, and with a home game against struggling Burton Albion at the weekend, expect this dominant defensive display to continue.
Although Pennington and Shaughnessy look like decent cover at centre-half, we might struggle if the unthinkable happens and Jansson suffers a long-term injury. However, there is no reason to panic as our record so far this season speaks for itself - maybe Thomas Christiansen and Victor Orta were right not to sign another centre-back in the transfer window.
As the club looks to push on and cement their claim as promotion favourites, the defence should remain very familiar over the course of the season.
Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?