As Chris Wood prepared to finalise a £15m move to Burnley, his Leeds United team-mates suggested life after the exit of the prolific New Zealand striker might not be quite as grim as feared.
Wood having declined to play, goals from the impressive Samuel Sáiz and Stuart Dallas ended Sunderland’s unbeaten start to the season as Thomas Christiansen’s gameplan highlighted the limitations of Simon Grayson’s side.
“We showed it’s not about one player, we’re about the team, no one is above the team,” said the Leeds manager. “Yesterday Chris rejected a very good offer from us. That means his mind is not with Leeds – and I only want players who’ll fight for the shirt.”
Grayson craves more creativity. “We were dominant for the first 20 minutes but lacked the quality to get back into things after Leeds scored,” he said. “They’re a good team and we didn’t have that final pass.”
His history as, variously, a Leeds fan, player and manager dictated that, with the away end reverberating to “Marching on together”, he possibly felt slightly strange – not to mention keen to remind his former public of his coaching acumen. Yet although Sunderland very nearly scored when Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan exchanged passes before the former expertly turned his marker and then watched his shot cleared on to the bar by Liam Cooper, Christiansen’s team defended stoutly while menacing on the break.
They scored when Ezgjan Alioski’s clever short pass found Sáiz in the box and the Spanish attacking midfielder evaded Jason Steele’s reach courtesy of a low, right-foot shot into the bottom corner.
Christiansen’s 4-2-3-1 formation sometimes left Grayson’s midfield outnumbered, making the home side’s 4-4-2 configuration vulnerable to counterattacks. Indeed, the visitors should really have claimed a second goal when Sáiz crossed invitingly but Pablo Hernández headed over.
Sunderland’s manager is slightly critical of the growing fashion for overseas Championship coaches – “I think there are sometimes too many foreign managers over here. Maybe one or two of those vacancies should be filled by British coaches. It’s our country,” he said recently – but, at half-time, Christiansen was proving his worth.
A former Barcelona striker, Garry Monk’s Danish-born, Spanish-naturalised successor took an unorthodox coaching route to Elland Road, arriving via the United Arab Emirates and Cyprus. But his new players certainly seem to be responding to him.
Even so, the power balance might well have been different had Grayson been able to accept an offer to sign Robert Snodgrass this week. Having worked with the West Ham winger at Leeds he is keen on a reunion but much depends on Ellis Short, Sunderland’s owner, financing a loan deal. “I like Robert Snodgrass and I’d like his quality here,” said Grayson, who would build his side around the Scot. “But it won’t be easy.”
Under Monk Leeds were tailored to Wood’s strengths. Despite the imminence of the Burnley move, Wood travelled to the north-east with Christiansen’s squad but resisted invitations to feature. “Ambition to play at the highest level, I don’t feel it’s right to play today,” he tweeted.
Leeds did very nicely without him but a switch to 4-3-3 at half time briefly improved Sunderland, prompting considerable time-wasting by the visitors until Grayson gambled by replacing Lee Cattermole’s midfield resolve with Joel Asoro’s attacking instincts.
That move rebounded when Leeds broke fast, Didier Ndong allowed Sáiz space to cross and Dallas headed the second at the far post. “Only one Simon Grayson,” chanted the away fans. “You’re Leeds and you know you are.”
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