There is a line of thinking that if a team is particularly reliant on one player, if all of their goals or creativity comes from that one part of the team, then getting rid of that player might actually be a good idea.
The theory is that without the key performer a greater sense of collective responsibility takes over the team, that they don’t turn their lonely eyes to the star and that the unit becomes stronger.
Of course, that might be complete nonsense. Ask most managers whether they would rather have a striker who scores loads of goals or not, and the only pause might be to peer at you slightly curiously. But after losing Chris Wood to Burnley last week Leeds, who moved to third place in the Championship with their 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, are not suffering excessively at the moment.
Wood scored 27 in the league last season. The rest of the Leeds squad got 32 between them. And yet, since Wood made his last appearance, Thomas Christiansen’s side have played three games, won all of them and scored nine goals. Four have come from Kemar Roofe, who thanks to Wood’s success spent most of last season on the wing, but started as a centre-forward at the City Ground. That’s already one more than he managed in 47 appearances last term. The group, as former manager Garry Monk was so fond of calling them, are coping pretty well.
“Here there is no player who is more important than the others,” Christiansen said after the game. “Everyone has to take their responsibilities: the strikers to score goals, to work for the team, the midfielders to work and assist, to work back and defend, the defenders to defend. Everyone has responsibility, and I don’t give more to one.”
Wood’s sale has handed Christiansen a bag of lemons, and at the moment he’s making some pretty sweet-tasting lemonade. “Chris Wood helped the team as long as he was here,” he said, a note of exasperation in his voice at still being asked about a striker that no longer plays for him. He was a typical No9. But [his departure] gives me options to do some other things. What I like is to have players who can play in several positions.”
Christiansen started his playing career at Barcelona, back in the days of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team. Admittedly, Christiansen was not exactly a key cog in that particular side, but he has spoken of the things he learned about the game from Cruyff. It might be a little optimistic to try total football with Eunan O’Kane and Pablo Hernández rather than Michael Laudrup and Romario, but Christiansen can at least apply some of its fundamental aspects: positional flexibility, tactical fluidity, the idea that the collective will always trumps the individual.
This isn’t to say that Wood was selfish, a man only out for himself, but when one player scores nearly half your goals in a season it is inevitable that a team will start to lean on him. With Wood now gone, goalscoring must become more of a team pursuit. A similar thing has happened to Forest, who sold Britt Assombalonga to Middlesbrough, and while this performance was, to say the least, not their best (the manager Mark Warburton called it a “shocker” and said “no positives” could be taken from it), they have also started the season in good order, with three wins and eight goals from five games.
But Forest have conceded as many as they have scored, whereas Leeds have been tight at the back too. Saturday was their fourth successive clean sheet in the league: they haven’t let in a Championship goal from open play since the 39th minute of the opening day. Pontus Jansson and Luke Ayling in particular stood out on Saturday, but again Christiansen looked to share the praise around. “It’s not only the defenders: it’s the work of the strikers, the wingers, the midfielders,” he said. “This was probably our best game... We neutralised a very good attacking team who’s just beaten Middlesbrough and Newcastle. I’m not only happy, but very proud.” Scoring goals is a team effort, as is not conceding them. It isn’t a new principle, but it’s certainly one that will help a team get over the loss of a star player.
“We have to be calm,” Christiansen said. “We have to be realistic, and we won’t win every week. There will be moments when we have bad times.” He might therefore need to have a word with the fan who yelled “see you at the Bernabéu” at the chairman, Andrea Radrizzani, as he posed for photographs after the game, but you cannot blame the fans for being optimistic.
• “I’ve asked for certain people who would have brought in the experience and quality we require. Unfortunately we have not been able to get them over the line.” It won’t be a crashing surprise to learn that those passive-aggressive words of blame-shifting came from Harry Redknapp after Birmingham shuffled to a 2-0 defeat against Reading, their third in five games so far this season. Redknapp’s squad is not stuffed with world beaters, but neither is the cupboard as bare as Redknapp’s consistent carping would have you believe. But then again what did anyone expect? Redknapp is a fine coach, but more often than not his solution to any problem is a transfer, and his excuse for any failure is a lack thereof. Birmingham hired him to get them out of trouble last season because of his coaching pedigree and man management skills. Redknapp might need to show a bit of that rather than blaming an apparently deficient squad for their struggles.
• The theory was fine, but Norwich’s attempt to recreate Huddersfield’s success by hiring the Borussia Dortmund reserve manager hasn’t started well in practice. Daniel Farke’s men shipped four goals for the second Saturday running, a 4-0 defeat to Millwall coming after last weekend’s 4-2 defeat at Aston Villa. Farke speaks very well, and comparisons to David Wagner are a little specious since the two men have very different playing styles and personalities, but the Huddersfield manager’s results feel a long way off at the moment.
• If Barnsley manage to stay up this season, then there should not be much contest for the Championship manager of the year award. Paul Heckingbottom is a Tyke to his bones, which is probably just as well since anyone else probably would have walked by now. Barnsley had a hugely promising young team when they won promotion from League One in 2016, but they’ve almost all gone now, leaving Heckingbottom with a patchwork side of off-cuts and the untried. Saturday’s 3-0 win against Sunderland should be cherished not just because it might be relatively rare this season, but also because it was achieved against significant odds.
• Bradford City’s players might want to think twice before chirping up in training this week. Four minutes after half-time in their game against Walsall life seemed fairly sweet, 3-0 up and cruising to a third win of the season. But two rapid goals shortly after, followed by an 87th-minute equaliser by Amadou Bakayoko, saw them throw away the advantage and their players face the wrath of the manager, Stuart McCall. “There are a lot of angry people in the dressing room and so there should be,” he said. “We can look at ourselves for decisions we made but sometimes players have to take responsibility. We were weak in certain areas.” He’s not angry, he’s just disappointed, which as any child in trouble will tell you, is a lot worse. Well, actually, he’s angry and disappointed. Which is even worse.
• Finally, a win for Harry Kewell and Crawley. Appointing the former Leeds and Liverpool forward seemed a slightly risky move for Crawly, given that he was sacked from his job at Watford Under-23s last season after some desperate results, and it looked even more problematic after Crawley lost their opening three games and only managed a single goal in the process. But Saturday’s 3-0 success at Swindon provided some sweet relief. “It’s a great feeling but we’re not getting carried away, it’s only one game,” Kewell said. “What this can do is change a lot of things for us.”
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