birmingham city 1 – 1 leeds united: caretaking to succeedBack
It’s hard not to get excited. Alex Mowatt’s second goal for the club was a peach; Lewis Cook’s second full game was full of authoritative class.
The Leeds United that ended the game at St Andrew’s looked a world away from the one that was barely present during the defeats to Brighton and Watford.
It’s all very fragile though. The renaissance seems in large part due to Neil Redfearn, the man nobody wants to continue in the job, lest we and the Academy lose him permanently. And the renaissance is only partial, at that; for the first hour at Birmingham, Leeds were not good at all.
We looked better, though, just as we looked better against Bolton while never really taking charge. Whether the tactics are being selected by Massimo Cellino or his coach remains a valid question, as while the personnel have changed under Redfearn, the diamond formation has carried on through.
It still doesn’t work, but with better players in the side we look better while it doesn’t work. Cook, Mowatt and Sloth offer far more zip and purpose than the slow-footed Tonge, Norris, Austin or Murphy; Bianchi I’m still not sure about, as he patters softly on the fringes and lacks an impact. But while the team has more about it, the formation still makes it difficult for Leeds to get going, and we can’t be content that it took almost an hour to get a shot on target, yet again.
The lack of an attack was a major failing of the Hockaday era, but it hasn’t left with him. Because Leeds displayed no width and a preference for a slow build-up, Birmingham had no problem getting themselves back into position when they lost the ball in attack, and Leeds then had a lot of problems getting past them on the halfway line.
The one real moment of danger in the first half came when Stephen Warnock was released down the left; he sprinted ahead of the Birmingham defence, but his cross came to nothing as he only had Mirco Antenucci to aim for. He only had Antenucci to aim for because Billy Sharp, bored of watching the midfielders fail to release Warnock or Berardi, had dropped to the halfway line and with a deft backheel released Warnock himself. He can’t be in two places at once, but unless the midfielders start following his inventive example, he’ll need to be.
After Birmingham took the lead, United had to do something to get themselves started. Passing without purpose was not going to break down Birmingham who, poor as they are, would happily defend their lead. Billy Sharp didn’t appreciate being taken off, and if part of a forward’s game when he’s being fed on scraps is to at least stay onside, then he certainly deserved to stay on longer than Antenucci. But Souleymane Doukara’s hectic presence in attack meant Birmingham’s defenders suddenly had to switch on; Rodolph Austin’s introduction in midfield meant City suddenly had something to think about there, too.
It’s been hard to see how Austin can survive in the new look Leeds United, as his place in the team is taken by delicacy, youth and flair; but so much delicacy, youth and flair might make Austin’s barn-burning alternative more vital. He might not be able to pass consistently like Bianchi, but he can charge past opponents with the ball at his feet like Bianchi can’t; and as routes to goal go, that’s a good one.
With Austin and Doukara on the pitch, Leeds were finally playing in Birmingham’s half, while Lee Clark’s own game changer back-fired on him. Demarai Gray looks impossibly good for this level, and I wouldn’t mind some of Gray’s pace up front for us. His attacking dribbles seemed to get Brum all carried away, though, and defending the lead went out of the window when he came on, leaving United more room to take advantage at the other end.
I loved Alex Mowatt’s goal. I sometimes look at Mowatt and wonder what exactly he’s for. He’s not a winger, isn’t a strong tackler or a fast runner, and has no particularly outstanding attacking or defensive traits; he just seems to be generally good at playing football. This goal showed a whole other side to him that we haven’t seen nearly enough of.
He might have been helped by not having too much time to think. His first touch when the loose ball came to him created instant danger, and from then on it was all about momentum; a shove from a defender dictated Mowatt’s route to goal, but as he swayed back to balance and sway past another, he was calm enough and aware enough to pass the ball into the net rather than wildly swing at it. The goal was all about Mowatt’s reactions: to a loose ball, to a shove, to a fast approaching defender and goalkeeper, and Mowatt made the right decision each time and made it instantly.
Lewis Cook was the first to celebrate with him, the two jumping into each other’s arms with Speed and Batty-like delight. Those two, along with Redfearn, were the story of the day, and it’s interesting that out of everybody at the new-look jet-set Leeds United – Cellino jetted in for real for the second half, straight from Miami – it’s the people who have been around the longest that are having the greatest impact.
They are also the people who get more of a pass. I’m minded to judge Bianchi more harshly than Cook, and to shake my head at the way Giuseppe Bellusci let Wes Thomas go for his goal, just because they haven’t come from within the club. It’s irrational, but that’s football. It’s also partly how come Neil Redfearn gets praised for a 1–1 draw at Birmingham, whereas I imagine if Hockaday was still here the same scoreline would have resulted in more pressure for him to absorb – especially for leaving Adryan on the bench.
The current reliance on personalities also leaves Leeds open to being taken down a few harsh pegs before long. After Bradford Cellino only had to find us a coach who could improve on Hockaday, and that wasn’t too hard; now he has to find one who can continue what Neil Redfearn has begun. If it isn’t going to be Redders himself, it’ll have to be someone willing to look and learn from the progress Redders has made; if Coach X names his first line-up without Cook or Mowatt, he’ll find himself running close to a Hockaday-sized popularity problem unless he can come up with some damn good reasons.
Meanwhile, Leeds have a pressing trip to Bournmouth to worry about. It’s been quickly forgotten that there was a brief feel-good factor under Hockaday, following Sharp’s last minute winner against Middlesbrough; it was brief, because we went straight out against Brighton on the Tuesday and were awful. This time we need Redfearn, Mowatt, Cook and the rest to keep the momentum going, and make the next coach’s life a little bit easier, but a little bit harder too.