Leeds United’s recent weeks of winning ugly were more than acceptable. They were very welcome, as long as they didn’t ever turn into this: losing ugly.
This was worse than losing ugly: this was losing hideous. Losing grotesque, losing atrocious. Losing repulsive, frightful and wicked. Losing wretched, miserable and bad. Losing grisly, losing loathsome. Losing stinking, revolting and sour. I mean, I could go on. I have an excellent thesaurus.
“Sluggish?” said Thomas Christiansen after the game, because the BBC’s Adam Pope had come at him with another one. “I don’t know this word?” He soon understood the meaning. “You can say that,” he said. “We can say we played their game, the way they want to play.”
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That was the first and most frustrating aspect of the defeat to Birmingham City: Leeds United lost by playing like Birmingham City. Christiansen expected high balls aimed at our defence, so selected Conor Shaughnessy rather than Mateusz Klich, as a tall, hybrid midfielder/defender/windmill to fill the space in front of our back four. With that sorted out, Leeds proceeded by aiming high balls at Birmingham City’s defence, which is presumably used to that sort of thing from training.
A clip from the Cardiff vs Preston game on Friday night has done the Twitter rounds, two solid minutes of head tennis between two teams determined not to let the Mitre Delta meet the grass. Leeds fans, with our Saiz, our Alioski, our Pablo, could feel extra smug about this uncensored blast of pure Warnockball, and shared it with glee.
Then came Saturday afternoon and all smugness departed. Christiansen was right about Birmingham’s plan, but defeating that distracted United from their own, lulling them into thinking if you can’t beat them, join them. For the first fifteen minutes, Leeds players couldn’t pass to each other. After that, they gave up trying.
Occasionally Pablo Hernandez would instigate some swift, clever passing involving Kemar Roofe, and the effect would be good, and Leeds players would retreat from repeating the tactic as if terrified of something good happening again. Either that, or a pass would reach Ezgjan Alioski, who played the whole match as if his new Christmas socks were filled with ball bearings. Alioski could take the whole thesaurus entry for ‘bad’ for this game, if his social media team can turn it into hashtags.
Hernandez wasn’t really much better; attempting a backheel on the edge of his own area, he stubbed his heel and sent the ball limply to a City player. Just when you think the old ‘Pablo can’t play away’ trope is dead, it returns from the grave to drag his game back through the cemetery gates.
Kemar Roofe did okay by running around a lot and not giving the ball away as much as the others; Pawel Cibicki hovered on the fringes of the game, like a cat at a Christmas dinner hoping for bits of turkey to hit the floor. All he got was sprouts.
The problems were in the middle. Shaughnessy headed the ball as and when required, and was tidy enough in possession, but the midfield yearned for Ronaldo Vieira. At his best Vieira has, in embryo, one of the distinguishing qualities of David Batty: the ability to appear in the right place as if from nowhere, either to block an opponent or get a pass and give it. That omnipresence allows Kalvin Phillips to go and do his thing, making our midfield a disruptive, active centre of possibilities. Without Vieira, Phillips and Shaughnessy stuck stubbornly side by side, moving forward and back together as if joined by a stick, always standing five yards off Birmingham’s players and giving them room. Maybe such rigidity explains Shaughnessy’s move to centre-half — he and Phillips were playing an effective high-line offside trap, only with forty yards of pitch and four defenders behind them.
Of those defenders, Pontus Jansson was the best, only making one mistake despite doing the work of a back four himself. Luke Ayling continued to be not quite right in his recent indefinable way; Liam Cooper was off his game, which you can tell because at some point he’ll let a ball bounce rather than clearing it, then swing his boot into the midriff of an onrushing opponent. He got away with that here, but not earlier in the season at Cardiff. Cooper had given up the armband for the day to Gaetano Berardi, honouring his hundredth game for Leeds, so during the game Berardi was called across by the referee to warn Hernandez about his dissent. That was the game’s one bright moment: the idea of Berardi as authority figure, sternly telling Hernandez to curb himself.
Actually, there were other bright moments, but they all came from the boots — mostly the right boot — of Samu Saiz. Christiansen said afterwards that he hadn’t considered starting him, wanting instead to bring him into the second half of an open, disintegrating game so that he could revel in the debris. Unfortunately it was Leeds that had disintegrated by the time he came on, while Birmingham, who we shouldn’t forget were also awful, were still intact.
Leeds were instantly better for Saiz, but were beyond help. At one point he danced between two defenders in midfield and passed wide towards Alioski, who attempted to control the bouncing ball by booting it into his own face. You can understand why sometimes Saiz prefers not to pass. One pass did create United’s best chance to win: released by Ayling, he sprinted through the middle and passed the ball to meet Hernandez’s run from the left wing. Pablo plays better when Saiz is on the pitch, as if he’s got someone to show off to, and his first touch was Christmas morning, spinning the ball past a defender, controlling it, and shooting. An excellent save by David Stockdale stopped the goal, as did luck, as Stockdale sent the ball spinning high into the air, and down onto the top of the bar, safe from Roofe waiting beneath it.
There was no such luck for Felix Wiedwald ten minutes later. Birmingham substitute Jota ran in from the right wing, where a smart overlap distracted Berardi and Hernandez and gave him time to shoot. Even through a crowd of players Wiedwald could have held the shot, but perhaps thinking of his family enjoying Weihnachtszeit in Bremen without him, he parried it straight to Jacques Maghoma, who scored.
Pierre-Michel Lasogga, another German adrift, was brought on; not the plan, according to Christiansen, who likes to map his games out in advance, and had earlier replaced Phillips with Mateusz Klich — who, in the hunt for positives, was absolutely fine. He just wasn’t going to get Leeds a goal, but then again, neither was Lasogga, and he didn’t, and nor did anybody else. And nor did they deserve to. Dire, stark, godforsaken and sorry.
But alarming, portentous and ominous? It’s hard to tell. The recent run of results has been good — four consecutive wins, six without defeat, two defeats in nine — but a confusing aspect is that Leeds were arguably playing better when they were losing all the time. That’s the Championship, I suppose, where the best opportunities to continue a winning streak are also the best opportunities to play horribly and lose. Birmingham started and finished the day bottom of the league, so of course Leeds couldn’t take the easiest three paper points of the season.
But bigger conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from this one game, especially with another coming so quickly. Small conclusions will do: Alioski needs another kick up the backside, Shaughnessy can’t anchor midfield, Pablo gets sad like a captive panda without Samu. Nottingham Forest come to Elland Road on New Year’s Day freshly managerless, and hopefully that will inspire Thomas Christiansen to rip up any cautious preparations, stick Saiz in the middle of the pitch, and tell the players that if they don’t start January with three points, he’ll tell Victor Orta to go and find some players who will. Happy Christmas your arse, as Kirsty MacColl sang, I pray God it’s our last. Like this, anyway. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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