Verdict, Leeds United 1 Birmingham City 2: Captain Cooper refuses to let Bielsa shoulder the blame
EVERY road through life is a long, long road, filled with joys and sorrows too.
The lyrics of Sir Harry Lauder’s famous The End of the Road song, popularised in modern culture by its status as Birmingham City’s club anthem, will have carried a certain resonance for Leeds United on Saturday afternoon.
After having their own way for much of an electrifying start to the Championship season for the second year running United suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of the division’s long-established capacity for providing an abrupt reality check when least expected.
It was a stark reminder that success at this level over the course of a nine-month marathon is rarely straightforward.
An occasion of sheer frustration arrived for the overwhelming majority of the 34,800 crowd, who came with high hopes of witnessing more Marcelo Bielsa-inspired enlightenment – and some choice ‘sport’ at the expense of reviled ex-manager Garry Monk.
Monk’s first return to Leeds with Middlesbrough last November was an excruciating one. His Boro team were well beaten and the stinging rebukes were incessant and he could not get out of Elland Road fast enough.
Monk again took the vitriol, but he also took three points and was not so quick to depart on an occasion when he outflanked his learned managerial senior in Bielsa, left to reflect on a first league defeat under his watch.
The Argentine’s assertion that he should be blamed after making what he perceived to be tactical faux pas with his line-up, left unchanged for the third match running, was striking.
But it did not tell the whole story. Monk’s tactics were spot-on in pressing United’s offensively-minded players all over the pitch and letting the hosts’ centre-backs enjoy a glut of possession.
A further leg-up was provided by a Leeds side whose passing radar was uncharacteristically wayward and whose young goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell made a glaring misjudgment with Che Adams’s opener. Adams’s second was rather soft, too.
It set the platform for a second half in which the Blues did everything in their power to slow down the game, run down the clock and punctuate proceedings with regular stoppages in play. It stymied the leaders and worked to a tee.
On Leeds losing at home in the league for the first time since March 7, captain Liam Cooper said: “In this league you cannot afford to not be at it for 20 minutes of any game. You get punished for it. I said to the lads that we do not deserve anything from the game when you start like that.”
As for Bielsa taking the blame, he candidly added: “I don’t think we can say that. As players we have got to take it on the chin.”
Facing a side without a league win this term everything may have pointed towards another day of substance for Leeds, but the small print came with a warning.
Speak to Monk and talk of Birmingham’s demise was greatly exaggerated, with evidence from their dominant midweek display at Sheffield United certainly backing up his viewpoint.
Blues carried on from where they left off at Bramall Lane, aided by a big piece of early assistance from Peacock-Farrell.
Expecting Adams’s shot to fly to his left the young goalkeeper was wrong-footed by the curler that travelled in the other direction before nestling to the right-centre of his goal, nowhere near the corner.
It set the tone for a rough afternoon, with Blues having something to hang onto and thrust down the throats of the slapdash hosts throughout the first half.
Adams’s second just before the half-hour was another lamentable concession with his low shot on the turn creeping almost apologetically into the far corner after going in off the post.
It was another goal that Peacock-Farrell will not look back at with any fondness, but he was provided with reassurance from his captain afterwards.
Cooper said: “Bailey is a young ’keeper. He is going to make mistakes and these things happen. It is the way he bounces back from them that counts. He is a strong lad and a great goalkeeper and I have told him that. He just needs to not let it affect him.”
Tyler Roberts’s off-target header was the best Leeds could muster in a poor first half that saw Kalvin Phillips substituted for tactical reasons. In truth, it could have been several in white.
The display of Phillips’s replacement, Stuart Dallas, proved one of the few positives on the day.
The third game of three-match Championship weeks can be arduous and so it proved, with any chances of building momentum hindered by a second half littered with stoppages, which saw referee Peter Bankes lose control.
Blues dug deep defensive lines, but Leeds spied hope when Ezgjan Alioski drilled home late on from Samuel Saiz’s lofted pass.
The Gelderd End roared defiance and the hosts went desperately close to salvaging something in eight minutes of stoppage-time when a brilliant one-handed save from Lee Camp denied Dallas.
Then the run was over – all good things must eventually come to an end.