The case for Liam Bridcutt spoke for itself before Leeds United’s defeat to Birmingham City and a result which had Garry Monk spitting feathers should finally compel the club to bite the bullet.
Leeds need a midfielder of Bridcutt’s ilk and their dealings in the remainder of the transfer window should not stop at him.
Birmingham’s win at Elland Road renewed the call for a new centre-back and the bench available to Garry Monk on Saturday could have done with another goalscorer on it.
In the first week of the season, the promise in his squad has been lost to the holes in it.
Monk was livid with a feeble blow-out in the second half and visibly furious with the way in which appreciative applause at half-time gave way to audible booing at the final whistle.
He tried to avoid a discussion about transfers, preferring instead to condemn the mentality of players who buckled against Birmingham’s trademark tactics, but gaps in his strongest line-up are holding him back.
There is, for instance, a Bridcutt-sized vacancy in the centre of midfield; a vacancy which the 27-year-old will fill if Leeds meet his wage demands and sign him permanently from Sunderland. Toumani Diagouraga started in that role at Queens Park Rangers last weekend but has not been seen since. Ronaldo Vieira, a raw talent at 18 years old, was tasked with to hold the fort against Birmingham but slowly sank in a contest where he and Pablo Hernandez were outnumbered.
City’s manager, Gary Rowett, said he had specifically planned to lie deep and flood the midfield, just as Birmingham had done when his side picked off Uwe Rosler’s Leeds in very similar fashion last October. “I wanted to quell what I thought Leeds would do,” Rowett said. His tactics were questionable until the interval but over 90 minutes, Birmingham’s shape and consistency told.
With Fulham at home awaiting Leeds tomorrow and no points on the board, Monk has ample justification for rejigging his line-up again. Saturday’s team showed five changes from QPR. But in certain positions, not least Bridcutt’s, there is a sense of United’s head coach making do while he waits for preferred alternatives to become available. Leeds ran most of the first half at Elland Road on Saturday and fought back from Jacques Maghoma’s opening goal before gifting a winner to Michael Morrison 10 minutes into the second half. In an industry where managers dig the positives out of almost any debacle, it was telling that the most severe criticism of United came from Monk himself.
“I’ve been told that there’s been a bit of softness here over the years and I saw that today, which I didn’t like,” he said. “I made it very clear to the players – it’s not acceptable. It’s something that has to be eradicated straight away. I’m talking in terms of heart, nothing tactically.
“When you’re on the pitch, you have to be a man and put your body on the line. You have to suffer physically. We didn’t do that in the second half and that was the only difference. Birmingham didn’t come here and win the game. We lost the game.
“If they’d come here and played great football in the second half then okay, that happens. But for us to gift that game to them is bitterly frustrating.”
There was no real attempt on Monk’s part to rein his comments in. “I’m not here to put cotton wool around everyone,” he said. “We’ll make the players tough and we’ll make them realise how serious this is. To play for this club you need to have (a strong mentality). If you haven’t got it you’ll be gone – simple as that. We have to have players who are willing die and kill in every single game.
“I understand it’s a young group but you’re in a man’s world and you have to step up every single time.” He had spoken ahead of his first competitive home game about turning Elland Road into a “fortress”, an elusive utopia which very few managers before him have discovered. “That went out the window in the first game,” he said.
Leeds have played two in the Championship and taken nothing from them. In open play, their three competitive fixtures have leaked seven goals to the opposition, including two at Fleetwood Town. Monk is right to say that this generosity goes back years and that United have historically been plagued by it. Saturday’s defeat was epitomised by the game of pinball on 55 minutes which Birmingham started with Jonathan Grounds’ ball into the box and Morrison finished off with a crack of his right foot a few yards in front of Robert Green.
And yet, until the start of the second half, Monk’s players were comfortably better than a City side whose goal on 15 minutes was a rare chance. A counter-attack over the full length of the pitch ended with Stephen Gleeson sending the excellent Maghoma clear of Charlie Taylor. Maghoma beat Green too the ball and forced it under the goalkeeper. “That was their only breakaway chance,” Monk said.
Prior to that, Marcus Antonsson – a more vibrant forward than Chris Wood, whose ineffective display led to jeering when Monk substituted him – shook the crossbar with an early volley. Alex Mowatt’s passing from midfield was sharp and well-weighted, exploiting dog-legs in Birmingham’s defence. When Mowatt slipped a pass in behind Jonathan Grounds on 27 minutes, Hadi Sacko anticipated it and struck a shot from an angle which wriggled under Tomasz Kuszczak and over the line, restoring parity.
“In the first half we looked very good, very confident and very dangerous,” Monk said. “Maybe the final pass wasn’t quite there but we were getting into dangerous situations and looked like the team in the ascendency.
“We spoke at half-time to say that’s what we need but we need it even more. Go out there and show the fight that we did in the first half. It’s very strange and very frustrating. I didn’t understand how that happened in the second half.”
The intensity of Birmingham’s midfield quickly blew the wind out of Mowatt and Hernandez. Wood was replaced on the hour, bringing Kemar Roofe and greater urgency to Monk’s forward line. With Birmingham defending Morrison’s winner, Roofe scuffed a free header wide and Antonsson was denied by Kuszczak on the turn. Kuszczak also reacted instinctively to prevent one of his own defenders slicing a corner into his net. Rowett was gracious afterwards, saying that Monk should be “enthused” by aspects of the game. Monk clearly felt that niceties were pointless. “The group here have got it in them,” he said. “They’ve got the talent and everything they need to be good players and a good team. What they need is to get their mentality right and grow up very quickly.
“To be honest we shouldn’t have lost that game, even with that second half performance, but we have and that’s our fault. I’m not here to muck around. I made that clear from day one. We have to be men out there and men for 90 minutes. That’s a learning curve today. We can’t keep having learning curves.”
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