The consolation for Leeds United on Saturday was that they had bought themselves enough breathing space to allow for defeat to Birmingham City.
The Championship table still has them top. Their record is still superior to Middlesbrough’s. It was the end of the club’s unbeaten start but not the end of the world.
What Leeds don’t have, in a division so tight that the first 14 teams are separated by only five points, is the scope for one poor result to become two at Hillsborough on Friday. There was much to analyse in Leeds’ 2-1 loss to Birmingham and, as Marcelo Bielsa put it, much to correct but it will be in the mind of an experienced head coach to look forward this week and resume normal service quickly.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, who set the Championship’s standard last season, were beaten in only their fifth league match on the way to the title but their form as a whole – three defeats before the end of October and no more before Christmas – was a model of the consistency promoted sides need. A year earlier, Newcastle got on the same sort of roll. As Leeds discovered under Thomas Christiansen, a short burst of momentum makes little impact when the bigger picture unfolds.
United’s unbeaten record was the last in the Championship and with nine games gone, the division is taking its familiar shape: tight and unpredictable, with pre-season favourites Stoke City a long way down the table.
“That’s the Championship,” said Leeds captain Liam Cooper after Birmingham’s 2-1 win at Elland Road, a defeat brought on by City’s Che Adams scoring twice in the opening half-hour. “There’s not a team in the league who deserves or has the right to not be at it for 20 minutes, and we’ve learnt the hard way. That’s the way it is.
In this league, one thing you don’t want to do is to be getting beat twice on the bounce so we’ll be looking to put it right.Liam Cooper
“But we’ll be back in to put it right, we’ll have a tough week (of training) and we’ve got a massive game on Friday night. In this league, one thing you don’t want to do is to be getting beat twice on the bounce so we’ll be looking to put it right.”
Leeds’ results under Bielsa have slowed up slightly since the victories over Stoke, Derby County and Rotherham United which set their season in motion so dramatically last month. His side have taken two wins from their last six games, though a 3-0 trouncing of Preston North End seven days ago was Bielsa’s football at its irrepressible best. Preston looked beaten from the moment Cooper opened the scoring eight minutes before half-time.
On Saturday, against Monk’s Birmingham, the scenario was different. Birmingham struck early with a finish from Adams which beat Bailey Peacock-Farrell too easily and left Leeds trailing in a Championship game at home for the first time. It was only the third occasion on which Bielsa’s side had conceded the opening goal. Adams punished more weak defending on the half-hour, forcing United to chase a 2-0 deficit. Amid criticism of Birmingham’s time-wasting, it was also true that Monk’s tactics of lying in wait and waiting for mistakes to punish paid off nicely.
“The first goal in any game is important,” Cooper said. “Obviously they got it and they’ve got the second quickly too. That’s disappointing.
“The manager put his ideas to us at half-time and in the second half it was more like us. The intensity was there, the creativity was there, we get a goal back and you think ‘right, come on let’s get another’ but it didn’t fall for us. On another day it does but we can’t start games the way we did.”
Sheffield Wednesday have had days like that – a 2-2 draw with Stoke City 10 days ago where they were 2-0 down after 22 minutes – but they won 2-1 at Aston Villa on Saturday and are flying under the radar in 10th place. The inconsistency of a record showing four wins, two draws and three defeats does not change the fact that a victory on Friday would position them a point behind Bielsa’s side.
That possible margin is an example of the way in which the division is bunching up. Leeds head the field with 18 points but are only five better off than Swansea City in 14th place. Wednesday’s display at Villa was described by their head coach, Jos Luhukay, as “the best away performance of my time here” and after a summer of Financial Fair Play (FFP) constraints, the Sheffield club have found a way to put themselves in the mix.
Leeds lost 3-0 at Hillsborough last October, a game which epitomised the way in which they sagged under Christiansen. The derby was laden with mistakes and began to raise concerns about the goalkeeping of Felix Wiedwald. On Saturday, against Birmingham, it was Peacock-Farrell’s turn to take the blame for the first goal after he was wrong-footed by Adams’ shot from 20 yards.
Bielsa will attempt to wipe issues like that from the slate as he prepares for Leeds’ first Friday night appearance at Hillsborough since the poisonous derby in 2012 when former Wednesday keeper Chris Kirkland was attacked on the pitch by a United supporter. Leeds received an allocation of 4,600 tickets for the Leppings Lane End and sold out inside 20 minutes last week.
“We love these games, as do the fans, and they’ll be with us,” Cooper said. “It’ll be a hard week of training to put right the things that we didn’t get right (against Birmingham). We’re looking forward to it.”