Thomas Christiansen defended his team selection after his Leeds United side were given the New Year Blues when their winning run abruptly ended with a 1-0 loss at the Championship’s bottom-placed side.
Head coach Christiansen was forced to change both of his central midfield positions with Ronaldo Vieira and Eunan O’Kane both injured for Saturday’s 2017 finale at struggling Birmingham City.
The inexperienced Conor Shaughnessy was subsequently given the nod over Polish international Mateusz Klich and former Newcastle United Championship winner Vurnon Anita to partner Kalvin Phillips in the centre of the park.
United’s head coach also opted to start with Spanish star Samuel Saiz on the bench on the 26-year-old’s return to the squad from a calf injury as Pablo Hernandez kept his place in the No 10 role with Pawel Cibicki and Gjanni Alioski out wide. With Leeds desperately struggling to create clearcut chances, Saiz was finally brought on for Cibicki 10 minutes into the second half, after which United’s attacking prowess improved.
Saiz set up United’s best chance of the game for Hernandez in the 77th minute but his attempt was tipped on to the crossbar by City goalkeeper David Stockdale and Birmingham’s Jacques Maghoma then scored the only goal of the game six minutes later.
The defeat ended United’s run of four straight wins as the Whites squandered an opportunity to close the gap on the division’s automatic promotion places.
Ahead of today’s Elland Road clash with Nottingham Forest, Leeds remain fifth but now six points behind second-placed Derby County and only a point clear of those teams outside of the play-offs.
But Christiansen insisted he stood by his team selection, explaining that the more physical presence of Shaughnessy had been brought in to deal with City’s Southampton’s loanee striker Sam Gallagher and that his intention was always to use a fresh Saiz against a tiring Blues side in the second half.
“It’s always easy to analyse after a game,” said United’s head coach. “When you win you have done it right. When you lose, you haven’t. I believe so (that it was right to start Shaughnessy). Because of the strength of Gallagher, it was the logical choice. With Conor we wanted to have someone close to Gallagher when the long balls came. But it was difficult.”
Asked if he had considered starting Saiz, Christiansen said: “No. I thought about it but I believed that at this time, with so many games, it was a game to let it mature a little bit so that in the second half he will be fresh and the possibility to make the difference which he did.
It’s always easy to analyse after a game,. When you win you have done it right. When you lose, you haven’t.Thomas Christiansen
“It was a big change but he came in in a situation where Birmingham were not so fresh and he would have space. From this came the best opportunities.”
In left-back Gaetano Berardi’s 100th game for Leeds, Birmingham created the better chances of a scrappy first half with Maikel Kieftenbeld coming the closest to opening the scoring when his powerful drive was deflected narrowly wide.
But after the introduction of Saiz, the Whites came within a whisker of taking a 74th-minute lead when a brilliant pass from Luke Ayling sent away Saiz who fed Hernandez but the Spaniard’s shot produced a brilliant save from Stockdale and the rebound dropped on to the crossbar.
Whites ‘keeper Felix Wiedwald was then required to pull off an equally impressive stop just moments later to keep out a low shot from David Davis.
But Wiedwald and Leeds were unable to keep out Birmingham eight minutes later when record signing and substitute Jota created the only goal of the game.
Jota cut inside from the right flank and unleashed a stinging low effort which Wiedwald saved but only into the path of Maghoma who slammed the ball into the roof of the net.
Christiansen said: “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.”
Leeds United: Wiedwald, Ayling, Cooper, Jansson, Berardi, Phillips (Klich 68), Shaughnessy, Alioski (Lasogga 85), Hernandez, Cibicki (Saiz 55), Roofe. Unused substitutes: Lonergan, Anita, Pennington, Grot.
Birmingham City: Stockdale, Colin, Roberts, Dean, Grounds, Gardner, Kieftenbeld, Davis (Ndoye 87), Maghoma (Nsue 88), Boga (Jota 77), Gallagher. Unused substitutes: Trueman, Morrison, Gleenson, Jutkiewicz.
Referee: T Robinson.