The prolific form of Chris Wood, the New Zealand centre-forward, could finally see Leeds United return to the Premier League after years of frustration
There is still a temptation to think every day Leeds United spend outside the top flight is another day of underachievement. The club’s past as one of English football’s great powers still tricks you into the idea that their current status as Championship promotion contenders is the least you can expect.
In reality Leeds are overachieving this season. Last summer Garry Monk took over a side with a few decent players but a recent history of mediocrity: this is a team who have finished between 13th and 15th in each of the past five dispiriting seasons and, quite apart from being the latest manager to think he could work with Massimo Cellino, it looked like a heroic gamble on Monk’s part.
This Leeds side is still a hodge‑podge bunch of loans, free transfers and reclamation projects, an island of misfit toys that Monk has fashioned into play-off certainties. And the most gleaming example of Monk’s polishing act has been the New Zealand centre‑forward Chris Wood, who scored both in the 2-0 win against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday that gave Leeds a plump and downy cushion over seventh place, and with a fraction of an eye on the top two.
Wood is a solid hunk of granite, resembling the result of a lab experiment that bred Michael Dawson with an Olympic rower. He has always been a player who looked like he should be good, a broad chest and forehead making him an imposing physical presence, with a finish in his right foot that should have been worth more than the 70 goals in 244 games he managed before this season, many in six loan spells. He was a frustrating player, and even at the start of this season was the target of ire from Leeds fans.
Not now. Wood has 13 in his past 12 games and 24 league goals for the campaign, making him top scorer in the division. Leeds’s next best marksman is Souleymane Doukara, with five. Wood’s tally accounts for a shade under half of his team’s total of 52; no player in the Championship has a bigger proportion of his side’s goals than Wood, and only Jermain Defoe (responsible for 58% of Sunderland’s return) has a fatter slice in the top four divisions. One can argue at length about who the best player in the Championship is, but Wood is almost certainly the most valuable to his team.
The opener against Brighton was classic Wood: from a looping cross by the excellent Charlie Taylor, he outmuscled his marker twice while the ball was in the air, before deliberately guiding a header into the far corner. Earlier in the season his team-mate Kyle Bartley called Wood a “bully” of defenders, which is a little reductive but that is certainly what he did to Brighton.
After the game, Monk was keen to spread the praise around, perhaps if only to avoid the idea that his team are too reliant on his centre-forward. “It’s a credit to the team,” said Monk, instinctively, when asked about Wood, before adding: “And to Chris for being on the end of the chances.”
Eventually, Monk opened up a little. “I could sense at the start that he’s quite a natural goalscorer. He’s quite instinctive in terms of his finishing and his technique, and we just needed to help him refine it a little bit, to make him a bit more clinical.” Leeds are not completely dependent on Wood. They have fine players elsewhere and they have lost only one game he has not started this season, and that was against Liverpool in the EFL Cup.
The reliance on Wood for goals must be a concern, firstly because an injury will, to say the least, give their promotion chances a kicking. But the lack of goals from elsewhere in the side also restricts Monk tactically; should he wish to divert from the favoured 4-2-3-1 system, to perhaps add another forward, he has very few options. There is no problem with a striker being too prolific, but there is in one being this much more so than his colleagues.
When Leeds were holding on at 1-0, Wood went back to join his defence from a corner, clearing a cross at the near-post. It was as if he decided he would certainly be winning this game, and the rest of the Leeds team could join him if they liked. Then came the second, a penalty deposited with a determined thump. If Wood keeps playing like this, Leeds’s “underachievement” could finally be over.