December went down as a good month for Leeds United, as Thomas Christiansen was quick to stress, but it did not take Steve Cotterill long to think Saturday would be Birmingham City’s day.
There are problems at St Andrews and the smell of creeping death but life was found in Birmingham’s squad during a game which Christiansen derided as “horrible”. Cotterill, their cantankerous manager, breathed a sigh of relief at full-time before playing it cool with the waiting media.
“After five or 10 minutes I thought we’d be okay,” he said. “I thought it was going to be our day.”
Few teams in the Championship have been able to say that since Christiansen drew a line under Leeds’ autumn decline but if Cotterill’s confidence oozed with the benefit of hindsight, there was a flat tone to United for most of the afternoon. Having been run close at Elland Road in September and beaten 1-0 at St Andrews, Birmingham’s position at the bottom of the Championship is as surprising to Leeds as anyone else.
They are bottom, though, and Saturday was an opportunity missed; not because the division is adverse to producing freak results but because Leeds could not class the defeat as a freak over 90 minutes. There was a plan behind Birmingham, albeit a direct one put together with no window-dressing, and enough pressure for a team who cannot score goals to find a way through seven minutes from the end. Leeds have been picking off sides like Cotterill’s all season but that propensity dried at a bad time. A slack performance was asking for trouble.
The reasons, after four wins in succession, were obvious enough. Christiansen lost Ronaldo Vieira and Eunan O’Kane to injury before Leeds travelled south on Friday and lost the centre of his midfield at a stroke. His choice of Conor Shaughnessy and Kalvin Phillips as replacements produced a partnership who looked as unfamiliar as two players who had never played as a partnership before.
Birmingham went long, searching for knockdowns, and were first to them too often, helped by what Christiansen called “difficult and dangerous” passes from his own players.
It led to pressure and much of it down United’s left where Gaetano Berardi, on his 100th appearance and wearing the armband for the day, felt more of the weight which has been on him for some time in a position which isn’t his own. Birmingham had scored only seven times at home but the chance which Jacques Maghoma drove into the roof of Felix Wiedwald’s net came from Berardi’s channel, via a shot from Jota which Wiedwald parried into his six-yard box.
Birmingham’s strange struggle was put into context by Jota, a £6m-plus signing on reputed wages of over £30,000 a week, stepping off their bench with 13 minutes left.
Christiansen picked Shaughnessy over Mateusz Klich, the Poland international who is lost at Leeds and farther down the list than ever with the 21-year-old in front of him.
Klich was given the last 20 minutes at St Andrews as a substitute, to no real effect. Vurnon Anita did not appear to figure in the reckoning at all. United’s head coach said he had used Shaughnessy, a tall presence at 6’2”, to help combat City’s lone striker Sam Gallagher and target second balls.
Cotterill felt that Shaughnessy’s inclusion was a sign of Leeds being “more defensive” in their mindset.
“Because of the strength of Gallagher, it was the logical choice,” Christiansen insisted. “With Conor we wanted to have someone close to Gallagher when the long balls came. But it was difficult.
“It was from my point of view a horrible game with direct play, challenges and not really big opportunities. There was one very good save from each goalkeeper but that was not our game.
“I believe we needed a bit more intensity in the game but I will not attach it in that position [midfield] only. We knew what the opponent was going to do with Gallagher up front. He was the target man always trying to make the second ball.
“We didn’t stay close enough to pick up these balls and when we did, we lost the ball immediately with difficult and dangerous passes. That gave them the possibility to go into transition.”
The saves of note at either end came midway through the second half, with Wiedwald tipping David Davis’ shot beyond his far post and David Stockdale making himself big and turning Pablo Hernandez’s strike onto the top of his crossbar.
Phillips had been sacrificed 10 minutes after half-time and replaced with Samuel Saiz, who missed two previous games with a calf strain. Christiansen said he had not been tempted to start the Spaniard – “it was a game to let it mature a little bit so that in the second half he would be fresh and have the possibility to make a difference, which he did” – but Leeds, as they usually are, were better with Saiz directing proceedings.
Hernandez’s opportunity came in the 74th minute after Luke Ayling and Gjanni Alioski moved the ball upfield quickly and Saiz slipped it into his path. Leeds did not come any closer.
Neither side had come especially close during a first half in which Maikel Kieftenbeld flashed the best opening wide after sprinting through the middle of Leeds’ defence.
Wiedwald’s persistence with long clearances played into Birmingham’s hands. By the time Jota’s low strike from the corner of United’s box set up Maghoma for a close-range finish, Christiansen had started to think that a draw might be worth taking.
As Maghoma struck and took the acclaim of the crowd, Pierre-Michel Lasogga was urgently sent on.
“It’s always a disappointment not to take the three points,”Christiansen said. “With how the game went in the 90 minutes, there was a situation with my assistant coach before the last substitution where I said ‘perhaps one point is not a bad result’, seeing the situation how it was. Then we conceded and we had to make another decision.”
Christiansen was ready afterwards for questions about his decisions, about the range of players in his squad and about what Leeds genuinely need to do in January.
In his defence was a return of four wins from six games in December and the retention of fifth place in the table.
“We close December with 16 points from 21,” he said, “and that’s not bad. It was just not our day.”