LEEDS UNITED’S battling 1-1 draw at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday leaves them two points above the Championship relegation zone heading into Saturday’s vital home encounter with Birmingham City at Elland Road.
It provided encouragement after two poor league performances against Derby County and Wigan Athletic as they became just the second Championship side to take something from the Macron Stadium since early October.
Here’s some observations from events across the Pennines on Saturday.
1: Neil Redfearn made some bold selection calls and was vindicated.
It was a big team selection for Redfearn ahead of Saturday’s encounter and the Whites head coach was bold in his approach, which paid off by way of a much-improved performance against a side unbeaten in seven home matches ahead of the game, posting six wins and a draw along the way.
Luke Murphy, Casper Sloth and Charlie Taylor retained their places, while Adryan and Souleymane Doukara were dropped from the squad altogether.
Redfearn’s biggest call was up top where he brought back Steve Morison for a first Championship start since November 1 at the expense of eight-goal top-scorer Mirco Antenucci.
Morison produced a hard-working display which perhaps should have been crowned with an early goal, with Murphy, a little unlucky to concede a penalty early in the second half, also producing a steady enough performance. That said, the jury was out a little regarding Sloth’s showing.
Redfearn clearly has no favourites in his squad, as you cannot afford to do when you are in a relegation battle and no-one cannot say he has not been fair to his squad. Now is not the time to be carrying passengers.
Having given Murphy and Morison a chance - and given the fact that they did not let him down at Bolton - the smart money is on them getting another go against Birmingham. They didn’t do too much wrong across the Pennines and it would represent a big knock to their confidence if they didn’t start.
2: The decision to drop Adryan and Souleymane Doukara from the squad showed Redfearn is not afraid of making tough decisions.
Doukara, totally anonymous in the insipid offering at Derby, could not have many complaints at not being involved at Bolton, although he is still Leeds’ second-top scorer with seven goals, with United heading into Saturday’s game without a goal from open play in nine hours. It was still a fair call to not include him on the bench. But the right one.
Adryan’s absence from the bench was more of a surprise, although given the stage to impress in the FA Cup at Sunderland, with not too much pressure on and given a creative licence, the Brazilian play-maker was poor. It represented the perfect opportunity lost.
Redfearn’s view that the pair were demoted because they needed to ‘liven up’ was spot-on. The duor have now been at Leeds for the best part of half a season and cannot use the acclimatisation excuse. They have not been playing great and have paid the price. End of.
3: The tactical switch to play Sam Byram in advanced role came up trumps.
Byram performed with aplomb in a 2-2 draw at Bolton in his breakthrough season and his move forward worked a treat on Saturday.
Byram was Leeds’ stand-out player with Redfearn joking with him beforehand about turning him into a Gareth Bale type asset, with the Welshman starting his career at left-back before moving further forward.
He almost crowned his performance with a late goal, with Geatano Berardi offering steady protection behind, with his link-up play with Lewis Cook also impressive at times in an effervescent display. Redfearn might have dropped onto something, with Byram and Cook, also in an advanced role, taking to their tasks with relish.
4: A decent draw yes, but it will only turn into a truly good one if Birmingham are beaten.
As the old saying goes, draw your away games and win your home games. Leeds chiselled out a draw at Nottingham Forest just before Christmas, but that was wasted by the Boxing Day performance and loss against Wigan.
Similarly, a victory against Birmingham is imperative to back up a good effort at Bolton.
Leeds, lest we forget, are without a goal in open play in ten and a half hours and without a win in seven matches and boast just two wins in 18 matches in all competitions since the end of September.
But if the maxim that performances eventually yield results rings true, if Leeds back with a strong showing against Birmingham, the results will start to come sooner rather than later.
5: It is a time for everyone to stand firm and stick together.
It’s been a dire time of late for Leeds fans, for many reasons, but their support at Bolton was different class yet again - just as it was at Sunderland and Derby and this time around, United’s better performance gave them something to feed off.
Disunited sides have a much higher chance of going down than those who stick together. Yes, Leeds are far from perfect at the moment, but no-one could accuse them of a lack of effort or heart at Bolton. Redfearn’s quote afterwards about the encouragement provided at the end from Jason Pearce, an unused sub, to his team-mates at the final whistle, indicated that team spirit is still decent and was encouraging. It goes without saying that character is needed in the weeks ahead too.