As Leeds United’s unbeaten run exceeded international fame and assumed galactic scale, the list of questions about its end grew larger and louder: when? what? who? why? and how?
We have answers to some of these now. When? Right now. What? Leeds United One, Birmingham City Two. Who? Garry fuckin’ Monk. Why? Because Leeds, as David Storey wrote of Frank Machin in This Sporting Life, always have to pay something for our ambition. And how?
Hmm. There I think even Garry Monk might be stuck. Ask him how his side, 20th at the start of the game, made a team coached with speed and alacrity to an exceptional standard by one of the game’s greatest thinkers look so ordinary, and I think even he would be stumped; he’d mutter something about the group working hard in training and putting it all on the pitch, at least five times, as if trying to summon Candyman.
As Leeds United’s passes went astray, as their attacks were rebuffed, as Birmingham consistently beat them to the ball, as their defence was split, as Kalvin Phillips jogged off the pitch after half an hour like a puppy submitting sadly to his training, Birmingham’s kryptonite plan constituted three elements: some big lads, deception, and sucking football of its meaning.
The big lads were first and foremost. Birmingham have a tall, strong team, not vicious like Daniel Ayala at Middlesbrough, but too big for Jack Harrison or Ezgjan Alioski to get much out of. Their pressing wasn’t about winning the ball in front of United’s goal, but about closing in on any Leeds player trying to control a ball anywhere on the pitch, and destabilising them until they fell over. United’s players succumbed to that with, at times, embarrassing ease, not helped by passing that was ponderous and ill-directed, so that the controlling stretches those passes required gave City time and opportunity to close in.
It’s not clear where the sharpness of Tuesday night against Preston North End had gone by Saturday afternoon. Phillips took the hit, and one thing Marcelo Bielsa doesn’t seem to have a grip on yet is how to use Phillips as his third centre-back, as he likes to do when the opponents play two strikers. It’s worth remembering when analysing Bielsa’s work that so far we’ve only seen a revised version of his main idea: Adam Forshaw was integral to Bielsa’s pre-season plans but has been injured; Mateusz Klich’s good form was unexpected; and Pontus Jansson wasn’t involved at all in the preparation. There haven’t been many problems with Jansson getting his head and feet on the balls he ought to, but when Leeds are in possession he still looks a bit like he’s turned up to the weekend’s most debauched party stone-cold sober. He isn’t picking a pass as quickly as Gaetano Berardi was, who started the season revelling in very simple, specific instructions; and he isn’t anticipating the movement around him, often berating Bailey Peacock-Farrell for not being where he expected him, when I suspect Jansson alone wasn’t reading the situation.
Into this confusion came the deception. I’m not sure what happened to Peacock-Farrell for both Birmingham City goals; you couldn’t call them mistakes in the Felix Wiedwald sense. But the shots that beat him, both by Che Adams, both taken early outside the box, deceived him somehow, leaving him looking like the easiest mark in town. On the first, it’s hard to follow the miscombination of footwork and swerve that ends with Peacock-Farrell diving, from his left, into the middle of the goal after the ball; for the second, the ball travelled so slowly through the penalty area towards the far post I was willing one of our defenders to just overtake it and kick it away. Peacock-Farrell dived but he hadn’t been expecting the shot.
Birmingham City, though, are not sleight of hand geniuses. There was far too much room on the edge of the box both times that, again, I could see in my mind’s eye being filled by a rampaging Berardi, closing the space and charging both shots down. Bielsa took the blame for this on himself, saying that his intention to keep Klich further forward meant “We didn’t give the impression that we were safe defensively” — which was putting it mildly — causing the substitution of Phillips so Leeds could use a more secure three at the back. After the change, he said, “We more than dominated the opponent. We didn’t suffer any situations and we created chances to score” — which was putting it mildly. After scoring the second, Birmingham didn’t create another chance all game. Leeds created thirteen, but in many ways it was already too late.
This is a curiously meaningless time to play Birmingham City anyway, which was the third part of their victory. The newspapers this weekend had more doomy updates of potential points deductions that might be imposed after Harry Redknapp ran up a huge transfer bill, before he was led from the building claiming that he ‘Hain’t done nuffink wrong’ and ‘Honly needed ta buy one or two more fer a fighting charnce’. The situation was made worse when the Football League refused to allow Garry Monk to sign Kristian Pedersen, but Birmingham went ahead and signed him anyway, to much tutting from the typically ineffective Shaun Harvey. For the record, against Leeds, Pedersen was very effective indeed.
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So Monk is steering a sort of eerie ghost ship around the canals of the English Championship, with nobody sure if it’s crewed by promotion challengers or relegation battlers. Every point won or lost is vital, as it is for every team, but nobody knows what it’s going to be vital for. Will those three points at Leeds secure a play-off place? Save them from relegation? Or be thrown into the void if a points deduction is so severe they can’t be saved? At this point it’s impossible to know what Birmingham City is, which is unusual for them, and for us playing them.
Against that context the last hour is easier to understand, when Birmingham switched from being the league ghosts to a down to earth manifestation of anti-football, so down to earth that it’s where several of their players spent the second half, seeking safety in the grass. There’s an old adage in football that says the other team can’t score if you have the ball; the other team also can’t score if you lie down for so long that the referee has no choice but to stop the game, and Birmingham chose that as the easier option.
Bielsa refused to complain about the timewasting after the game. As for me, I nearly got up and left about ten minutes into the second half, because what was happening on the pitch simply wasn’t worth watching. Bielsa also refused to criticise the referee — although his coaches were not quite so reticent during the game — but I will. Peter Bankes did eventually show a couple of yellow cards, but as in the Carabao Cup when Preston’s goalkeeper was booked in stoppage time, it came far too late to be a deterrent. Bankes might argue that he added eight minutes of stoppage time, but that only underlined his awareness of the time being wasted, and a more effective tactic would have been to show yellow cards at the outset and put a stop to it. The first booking, in fact, went to Samu Saiz, for complaining to Gary Gardner when he lay slowly down again; that Bankes didn’t follow with a yellow card to Lee Camp, who was physically fighting to get the ball from Luke Ayling so he could slow the game down, suggested he didn’t really have control of the players. Or the clock.
In the second half Leeds assumed Bielsa’s famous 3-3-1-3 formation, and there were moments when you could see it working; the wide players compressing up against Birmingham’s fullbacks like a sinister accordion, first Alioski, then Stuart Dallas, then Ayling all closing in, with Saiz hovering to make it four-on-one. But the two goal advantage meant that, beyond that one, were eight more defenders for Saiz to topple, and try as he might, he could only do it once. He worked and worked in the space between midfield and attack, but that space shrank upon him every time he received the ball, and in the end you could only admire his dogged commitment to only passing forward from there — he would dribble and hold and turn and dribble and hold until he could pass forward, whether it reached its target or not; he would not hear of passing backwards. You had to admire it, while weeping for how futile it all was, as his forward pass eventually bounced out of play, ready for another two minute exercise in non-football as Camp didn’t take his goal-kick.
The one time it worked was a deep cross to the back post that Alioski struck firmly into the net with five regulation minutes left. The goal put Alioski into a right flap. I wrote last season about feeling some sympathy for his social media skills videos and trademark celebration, because he has a weird dual reality as Leeds United’s most infuriating player, and as one of the biggest stars of Macedonian football: there aren’t many, if any, playing at a higher level outside Macedonia than him. So after a typical game in which he’d been ineffective for most of the first half, offside for most of the second, but scored a really good goal anyway, he got himself into a right old pickle, torn between getting on with the game, celebrating spontaneously with the Kop, and fulfilling whatever sponsorship obligations back in Skopje keep him doing the heart-hands thing when he scores. He ended up trying to do all three at once, and for about ten seconds it was like watching a cat trying to do a jigsaw in a wind tunnel. Alioski winds me up, but I can’t help liking the little weirdo.
Alioski copped a lot of the post-match blame that was flying around, as did Peacock-Farrell for being so easily deceived, Jansson from me for the reasons above, Phillips because Bielsa, whether he meant to or not, put the spotlight on him again; and you could pick plenty more from the list of frailties that Birmingham exposed, whether Garry Monk meant to or not. But Bielsa insists that when he speaks, he only ever says what he means, and what he said after the game was, “I made the mistake,” and that by the time he’d corrected the mistake, the situation had become too difficult to recover. So this one’s on him.
That mistake — the misuse of Phillips and Klich against a team playing with two centre-forwards — is a reminder that, as much as we’ve been surprised at how the players have taken to Bielsa’s methods, and have to remember sometimes that they’re still learning their new roles, it’s also surprising how quickly Bielsa has measured his squad and managed to get such good performances out of them so soon. Yes, he watched every game they played last season, but even Bielsa said he had to then take advice from people at the club who knew those players personally before making final judgements on them; the players are as new to Bielsa as Bielsa is to them, and sometimes he’s going to ask too much of them, or ask the wrong things of them, and games will go wrong. This was one of those times.
Will Leeds United recover for the next game? Well, Leeds United recovered as soon as Bielsa made the substitution to correct his mistake. In the ten minutes between the change and half-time Leeds swarmed around Birmingham’s penalty area, making five chances — one every two minutes — in a period of hectic football that was only thwarted by half-time, and Monk’s opportunity to reset Birmingham’s mission and make the second half as sucky as possible. When, in the post-match press conference, Marcelo Bielsa spoke of his tactical mistake at the start of the game, it was as if he was talking about ancient history, some incident long ago that he had easily moved on from. We wondered when and how this defeat would happen, and now it has, Sheffield Wednesday might sense an opportunity at Hillsborough on Friday. But they might have already missed their chance. ◉
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(photos by Lee Brown)