Pontus Jansson is finally a Premier League player; it will be worth the wait


Having captained Brentford to play-off glory at Wembley, Pontus Jansson is finally a Premier League footballer.

It’s something that has somehow looked both inevitable and implausible ever since Jansson arrived at Leeds United five years ago – amazing that it’s taken this long, but with every passing year came the creeping doubt that he was destined to repeat the same boom-and-bust cycle every year, bound to spend his entire career in second-tier purgatory, the heir to Richard Keogh’s throne as Mr Championship.

The centre-half’s top-tier credentials ought not to be doubted. He won three Swedish titles with his hometown club Malmo and represented them in both the Champions League and Europa League, which earned a move to Torino.

Jansson never hit double figures for appearances in either of his seasons in Serie A but played a prominent role in the Italian club’s 2014-15 run to the Europa League round of 16, featuring in an eclectic squad that featured Fabio Quagliarella, Kamil Glik and Josef Martinez, who later became a hero with MLS club Atlanta United.

Capped regularly by Sweden, including appearances at the last World Cup, in a parallel universe Jansson might have skipped the last five years of struggle and moved straight to a Premier League club in 2016. You can easily imagine him as one of Sam Allardyce’s recruits for a firefight or turning out for a Southampton or Crystal Palace.

Instead, he’s gone the long way round, missing the turn-off on three or four occasions, which will only make reaching his destination all the sweeter. And the Premier League will be richer for his presence, too; for better or worse, he’s a box office centre-half, as likely to get himself sent off or assist the opposition with an ill-advised backheel as he is to lead a sensational backs-to-the-wall defensive display.

Ever since he announced himself in English football by celebrating his own tackle against Huddersfield Town with a fist-pump, Jansson has been a compelling figure.

Such a chest-beating, look-at-me presence was exactly what Leeds needed in 2016, waking the fans from their long-standing Warnock-McDermott-Hockaday-Milanic-Redfearn-Rosler-Evans (phew) midtable slumber. Finally, Elland Road had someone to believe in; a player that appeared to want it just as much as those in the stands.

Not just that, but he was an exceptional defender; 2016-17’s playoff push under Garry Monk – Leeds’ first in six years at the time – was built upon the foundation of his partnership at the back with Kyle Bartley and Chris Wood’s goals at the other end. The agreement midway through the season to turn his loan from Torino into a permanent deal was met with widespread delight and relief.

Monk’s Leeds had spent four months in the top six but fell away after a five-match winless streak at the end of the campaign. Jansson soon became accustomed to cursing April and May; the following season Leeds were fifth on Boxing Day but eventually finished in the bottom half after four wins in 20 following the turn of the year.

Jansson remained a first-team regular following the top-to-bottom transformation following the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa in 2018. Leeds had spent all but one week in the top three in 2018-19, only to eventually finish third after taking one point from the last 12 available.

One of the centre-half’s final acts on the Elland Road pitch was disobeying Bielsa’s instructions to allow Aston Villa to score unopposed, playing to the gallery by making a (performative, if not genuine) attempt to stop goalscorer Albert Adomah.

The following week, he made his final appearance in a 3-2 dead rubber away to already-relegated Ipswich Town and missed the play-off defeat to Derby County – injury had kept him out of the first leg, and he was left on the bench for the infamous capitulation in the second.

Never one to shirk the cameras, he went out alone to the Elland Road turf after the final whistle and sat dejected, staring into space. There was a time in which people bought into such outwardly demonstrations of emotion – “one of us, isn’t he?” – but after Bielsa’s arrival and the full-on return to Billy Bremner’s ‘side before self’ mantra, it felt incongruous to the club’s collective ethos.

Bielsa had called Jansson “our best player” but nevertheless decided to sell him to Championship rivals Brentford. He was replaced by untested Brighton loanee Ben White, who turned out to be every bit as good and reliable – if not even better – all the while conducting his business in an unassuming, no-fuss manner.

Signing such a proven, recognisable Championship player wasn’t Brentford’s usual strategy, but exploiting such an opportunity in the transfer market – a reported cut-price £5.5million fee, such was Bielsa’s apparent willingness to say goodbye – was too good to pass up.

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READ: A Leeds United fan ludicrously rated all 112 loan signings since relegation

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He was instantly made club captain at Brentford, and once again formed a half of the division’s best partnerships, this time alongside former Dulwich Hamlet favourite Ethan Pinnock. Brentford conceded just two goals in eight straight wins in the post-lockdown mini-season in 2019-20 as Thomas Frank’s Bees put the pressure on Leeds and West Brom at the top.

Just as they had an opportunity to grab an automatic promotion place, they choked, losing the final two matches to Stoke and Barnsley, before suffering a defeat to Fulham in the play-off final. Yet again, it was a near-miss for Jansson – was it ever going to happen?

The answer oscillated between yes and no through the 2020-21 season. After a slow start, Brentford went 20 games unbeaten and finally went top of the table ahead of Valentine’s Day, at which point they promptly preceded to lose three games in a row, with Jansson on the sidelines while recovering from an ankle operation.

It was to be the play-offs again, but with Jansson recovered, they went into them with momentum, looking especially solid at the back, keeping six clean sheets in eight games with the Swede back in.

After last season’s Wembley heartbreak, Jansson and Pinnock barely put a foot wrong in the 2021 final against Swansea, leaving Andre Ayew and co feeding on scraps in a deserved 2-0 win. Their early two-goal lead was diligently protected with their lives, although Jansson was forced to twitchily watch the final 15 minutes from the stands after a knock.

“I’m so thankful to Bielsa and what he gave me at Leeds – he gave me so much knowledge that I actually brought in here to Brentford,” Jansson told Sky after the match.

“And Brentford were so willing to listen to me and with my ideas – that I took from Bielsa! So I thank him a lot, because for me he is one of the best coaches in the world. And people think that me and his relationship is not the best, but it is. He’s very good.

“I am so thankful to him. And of course I love Brentford so much, but also say thanks to Bielsa and to Leeds.”

Circle the date in your diary, the reunion is going to be worth watching out for.

By Nestor Watach

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