leeds united 0-2 birmingham city: heat mapBack
This doesn’t often happen to me. But about fifteen minutes into the second half, I saw Mowatt gain and then lose possession in the centre circle. And I turned to the bloke next to me and asked, “Did Mowatt come on as a sub?”
“No,” he said, rightly. “He’s been playing from the start.”
As I said, this doesn’t often happen to me, but as part of a concerted effort to relax and enjoy something of life, I’d had a couple of drinks. Unfortunately I’d also made watching Leeds United part of this effort, which is how me and Alex Mowatt came to crossed purposes with nearly an hour gone.
I don’t really blame Mowatt for my oversight. There are audible murmurs of complaint about the performances we’re getting lately from the player who, last season, took personal responsibility for saving the team almost single handed on several occasions, and the fact I didn’t notice him at all for the first hour suggests this wasn’t vintage from The Artist Formerly Known as MC Freestyle. But his lack of impact against Birmingham wasn’t entirely his fault.
Heat maps have been an interesting innovation, providing an easy-to-understand visualisation of where most of the action was in a game, where players spent most of their time, where the ball was most often to found. As as Bamba passed to Cooper who passed to Bamba who passed to Cooper who booted it over Buckley’s head, again, I looked at the grass between our two centre backs, and imagined I could see scorchmarks on the seared turf, to add to the damage the rugby lot did last weekend.
There’s not much point addressing the performance of Mowatt, or of Lewis Cook or Luke Murphy, until we’ve dealt with the fact that on Saturday Leeds relied far too much on the centre halves to make the play. Birmingham came to Elland Road to sit back, soak up pressure, and counter attack, and we knew that in advance. Our response to let Bamba and Cooper play keep-ball and then for one or the other to attempt a Baresi-esque pass from their own penalty area on to a sixpence in the other; or for them to stumble upfield into Mowatt, Cook and Murphy’s territory and malfunction like a cat-bearing Roomba running low on batteries.
All of which meant our three midfield treasures barely saw the ball, as it dwelt instead at the feet of our least creative players, who unsurprisingly couldn’t find a killer ball to unlock the massed ranks of the Birmingham defence. A defence that turned into attack with one long ball forward to Clayton Donaldson, one long ball that was enough to panic Cooper and Bamba so much they became fairly irrelevant once Demerai Gray picked up the ball and decided to give Birmingham the lead.
That was pretty much enough for Birmingham. They would have gone away happy with a 1–0 win, and only seemed to add a second in the 90th minute because it would have been rude not to. That goal emptied an already emptying Elland Road, and guaranteed the boos at the end, but the worst part was not so much that it was a game-ending killer blow, more that Birmingham could probably have scored it any time they liked. Like Middlesbrough, Birmingham weren’t made to work particularly hard, and didn’t have to play particularly well, to beat Leeds comfortably.
There was one potent gleam hotting up the map in the second half, and that was the wing play of Jordan Botaka, who for fifteen minutes after he came on a substitute showed himself to be everything I didn’t dare believe he would be, but nothing I had hoped for.
I didn’t dare to believe Botaka would be as exciting to watch as he was; I had hoped he might be able to cross or shoot, but he can’t. That lack of an end product will be a problem, and will no doubt be Rosler’s reasoning for not using him, but in his debut hour Will Buckley didn’t show any signs of an end product either, and nor did he take three defenders out of the game with a shimmy and impossible ball control. Birmingham were terrified of Botaka, and with good reason; he had a skill to beat any of them, and often several at once, and veered towards that magical territory known as unplayable.
Of course, there wasn’t actually much for Birmingham to be scared of, because once he’d sat all their defenders down Botaka’s usual next move was to shank the ball out for a throw-in, but football doesn’t always have to be about fear; sometimes it can be about fun, and I had more fun watching Botaka than any of the others.
It’s pretty much inevitable that Botaka won’t start the next game, but there’s a heat map for the average Leeds United game under Rosler, and it involves a lot of frost in the first half and an eventual thaw when he makes changes in the second. Only Derby and perhaps Bristol City have bucked the trend; in pretty much every other game, Leeds have ended with a team and formation that has done them much better than the one that started. Mirco Antenucci is the poster boy for power-sub crew, and Botaka may well be joining him in consistently performing better than the starters they replace; as for the formation, for all Rosler’s love for 4–3–3, Leeds have never yet played it as well as they have played whatever United have switched to after the 4–3–3 hasn’t worked and Rosler has had to change it.
Above all, Leeds United were boring on Saturday, and Birmingham weren’t made to work to beat us. Not winning at Elland Road has become a routine that we could very easily live up to away from home, too, and Rosler needs to find some way to shake things up. What’s frustrating is that some of those ways look obvious; finding a way to exploit Antenucci in form, getting Mowatt and Cook on the ball so they can be as influential as they were last season, and now playing Botaka and just seeing what the hell happens. But they don’t get tried.
The hottest heat at Elland Road at full time was centred on the manager. Leeds fans are in an awkward position where managers are concerned, because when we talk about their future it’s not so much about whether we think such-and-such a manager should be given more time, but whether we think the maniac in charge will give him more time. The popular guesstimate, based on past experience, is that he won’t, and so the countdown ticks louder, but it’s not our clock. About other clubs the media talk about when the fans might turn on a manager. At ours, they talk about when they fans think the owner might turn, and the answer is normally, ‘before too long.’
That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because Leeds fans are reluctant to give too much backing to a manager they suspect won’t be around too long anyway, and that is interpreted as a lack of support. The Redfearn era also suggests that our support is at worst a catalyst for our owner’s least rational jealousies, and at best an irrelevance, because even if we do like a coach and want him to continue, Cellino’s going to do what he wants regardless.
And then there’s the risk of the Typical Leeds clause, wherein we’ll fight tooth and nail to back a manager in the face of the owner’s bitter efforts to sack him, only to find that the one manager we get to keep longer turns out to be the wrong man after all. This is the catch snagging Uwe Rosler at the moment, and responsible for raising the temperature. There can be few Leeds fans that want to see another manager sacked at Leeds United, to see more upheaval of the coaching staff; but there must be few Leeds fans convinced right now that Rosler is the right long term manager.
When Leeds return after the international break, the heat maps of LS11 will show heat so hot it’s tinged white around the home dugout. What Rosler needs is to find a way to generate comparable heat on the pitch, while keeping things ice cold in the boardroom.