When the bus carrying Leeds United’s first league defeat arrived, the question was who would be thrown under it. That result came the way of Marcelo Bielsa on Saturday and the club’s head coach took the hit himself. Whatever is said behind closed doors this week, in public the blame fell at his door.
There was no finger-pointing at Bailey Peacock-Farrell for the positioning which gave Birmingham City an eight-minute lead and no attempt to pin Leeds’ 2-1 defeat on Kalvin Phillips, a player whose broad shoulders are proving necessary for the ruthless way in which Bielsa tackles sub-standard football. “To make conclusions about this loss I would take into account the mistake I made at the beginning,” Bielsa said. In other words, all points of criticism should lead back to his own gameplan.
Bielsa has enough credit in the bank at Elland Road, enough faith in his coaching brain, to self-flagellate and finish the day with respect for him enhanced. There was little worth picking out of Birmingham’s and much responsibility to be shared across the squad but in Bielsa’s eyes the error was basic: fielding a back four when presence of Birmingham’s physical front two required a back three. The imbalance was such that by the 34th minute Leeds were 2-0 down and Phillips found himself trudging towards the bench, the second time in a month that Bielsa has hooked the midfielder before half-time.
Leeds have diced with defeat on occasion before - at Swansea City, where Phillips suffered another early withdrawal, and again at Millwall last weekend - but no team in the Championship has generated the same frustration and ineptitude as Birmingham. City’s tactics strayed into black belt-level time-wasting in the second half, for longer than referee Peter Bankes should have allowed, but the “irritation” Bielsa felt - leading to a yellow card for his assistant, Diego Reyes - was brushed aside. “I don’t think he (Bankes) influenced the result,” Bielsa said. Or not in the way that Birmingham’s tally of 16 first-half interceptions did.
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There is a sense outside St Andrews of a club waiting to implode but Birmingham have more about them than a team who had failed to win once before Saturday. Garry Monk, their manager, got the reception he anticipated - unwelcoming, unforgiving, high on expletives - but got his approach right too, instructing his players to drop deep, mark men and fill space and look for useful turnovers of possession. There were plenty of them and little flashes of pressure told twice with two goals from the bull-chested Che Adams.
His first on eight minutes was bemusing in nature, a 20-yard shot which flew into the middle of the net after Peacock-Farrell stepped to his left in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Adams aiming for the far corner. Adams gave him the eye and went the other way. At the half-hour point, Phillips surrendered the ball down the right and Adams jinked around a tackle from Pontus Jansson before rolling a half-hit shot in off a post from the same distance.
Biesla’s reaction was drastic and his body language unusually animated. Stuart Dallas replaced Phillips, the entire system realigned itself and Bielsa’s fabled 3-3-1-3 formation fell into place. “The proposal I chose for this game at the beginning was not the right one,” he said, admitting that any connection between Phillips and the more advanced Mateusz Klich in midfield had been lost. “This didn’t work and it’s a consequence of the decision I took.
“We couldn’t make the link between attack and defence because Phillips didn’t receive the ball. When this was clear I decided Dallas would play in the role of (Luke) Ayling and Ayling would play in the defensive line of three. It gave a good balance to the team, we were safe defensively and even if we didn’t play well, we didn’t give the feeling that we were unstable.
“That’s why I say that Phillips suffered from this decision. He’s not responsible for the problems our team had in the first half-hour. Kalvin Phillips had to assume the consequences of the mistake he made, but I made a mistake too.”
Others were fortunate to avoid being mentioned in dispatches. Gjanni Alioski gave Elland Road the scent of blood by making something of Leeds’ persistence in the 85th minute, controlling a high ball and sliding a half volley past Birmingham goalkeeper Lee Camp, but his afternoon was littered with wrong decisions and wasted moments, and his impact has been borderline for a few weeks. Some, like Jack Harrison, weren’t in the game enough to do so much as that. Leeds had almost the entirety of the second half but, as Birmingham stalled it repeatedly with injuries, delays and some undue leniency from Bankes, it felt that the late escapes seen against Swansea and Millwall would not be followed by a third. Bankes, to his belated credit, awarded eight minutes of injury-time but Birmingham wore the seconds down.
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Monk, with his background, knew how the atmosphere would rise once Alioski scored. “I’ve experienced that,” he said, “and it’s easy to get distracted but the players stuck to the game plan.” Unlike the bitterness of his return with Middlesbrough last season, full-time found the former Leeds boss in more sanguine mood, and not only in terms of Birmingham’s win. “All the signs are that this season is the season for (Leeds),” he said. “I’m sure they’ll go on from strength to strength. They’ve brought in a high-calibre manager and it’s great to see.”
Bielsa was caught in that grey area of knowing his players had not played well but knowing a result, with a 71 per cent share of possession, had not been beyond them. Liam Cooper, Tyler Roberts and Stuart Dallas might all have scored before Alioski did and Birmingham maximised their profit from four shots on goal. One of those days, Bielsa might conclude, and one unlike the many he has cruised through in the Championship.
Pontus Jansson revealed recently how Leeds’ 2-2 draw at Swansea four weeks ago resulted in an hour-and-a-half-long debrief in which Bielsa “killed us almost”. Bielsa’s rush to take the blame on Saturday is unlikely to have spared his players from a lecture at the hands of a coach whose warnings against premature congratulations for his side’s eight-match unbeaten start are given credence by the league table: Leeds top with 18 points. Blackburn Rovers in 12th, four points back. Everything to play for and 37 games to play.
Leeds, under very different management, took their first league defeat of last season to heart, losing all conviction and trust in their form. It took two months to return, a lapse in impetus which Bielsa would never countenance. They go onto South Yorkshire now and a derby with Sheffield Wednesday on Friday night. “Even though the state of mind is very important in football, you could see a positive state of mind didn’t allows us to play the kind of game we wanted to play,” Bielsa admitted. “At the same time, the feelings of this loss won’t prevent us from getting a good result in the next game.” Back on the wagon, as Bielsa pulls himself out from under it.