leeds united 1-2 birmingham city: let them playBack
The pleasure of Pablo Hernandez’s performance at Fleetwood in midweek was that he was everywhere, doing everything, his influence only limited by how quickly he could get across the grass to take part, and lead, the play.
From a starting position just behind Chris Wood Pablo roamed, and made things happen when and how he wanted them to. He linked his teammates together, he sent them on runs with piercing through balls, he danced around defenders and changed angles.
It was like something from a whole other Leeds United, a team throwing off its workaday cares and chucking its lot in with a free spirit, a creative and joyful spark. United might be in with a chance of making me happy, if every teamsheet was ten others plus Pablo Hernandez, free.
Hernandez stayed in the team against Birmingham City, but he didn’t keep his place. Instead he was moved alongside Ronaldo Vieira as part of an orthodox midfield in an orthodox 4-4-2, and we found out that orthodoxy doesn’t suit Pablo Hernandez very well at all.
Partnering a caged sprite in the middle of the park doesn’t suit Vieira, either. It’s not hard to imagine, five years from now, Vieira running a midfield much like his powerhouse namesake (the Arsenal one, not the other one), and if he could have the Hernandez of five years ago next to him at the same time, that just might work. As it was, by putting them together, Leeds got less than they might have offered separately.
For the first forty-five minutes it did feel like it might work. When Hadi Sacko got the ball through Tomasz Kuszczak and scored, I said, out loud, “What a goal,” the first time anything like that has happened at Elland Road since Lewis Cook fully Mowatted into the top corner against Fulham. There was no equivalent force about Sacko’s goal — he barely got it over the line — but in the eleven passes that preceded that moment there was delight. Sacko was involved at the halfway line, exchanging fluid passes with Hernandez, who was artfully pulling Birmingham’s defence out of its shape; Hernandez then played another stretching pass to Luke Ayling, who rapidly gave the ball to Sol Bamba to give to Vieira, who had passed it to Hernandez in the first place.
Something was beginning to happen, and the move was brought to life by the movement of Marcus Antonsson, dropping deep and catching Vieira’s eye. His pass bypassed three City defenders, and although Alex Mowatt had to fight to keep hold of the ball after Antonsson’s lay-off, he was still able to balance himself in his mini-Maradona way and roll the ball between two more for Sacko to score.
What a goal. And it wasn’t the first time Sacko had been in that position; early in the game he’d traded passes with Ayling down the right, before firing the ball to Antonsson, again dropping deep, and setting off up the touchline. Antonsson laid it off this time to Hernandez, who played a through ball to the racing Sacko, but this time Sacko was further out and crowded out and couldn’t score.
The names involved are significant. Hernandez, of course. Sacko hasn’t blown me away that way yet, but you can’t deny his danger, or his goal. Luke Ayling had a solid debut at right back, playing arrogantly in a good way; he’ll probably make several eyecatching mistakes (it’s the ponytail) but he’ll probably also score a couple of sensational goals and serve some long suspensions for winning fights (it’s the ponytail). He’ll be popular. Marcus Antonsson is already popular after his goal in midweek, and for how lively he looks in attack.
Especially compared to Chris Wood. All the tactical tweaking that has gone on since QPR has still returned us to a side that has Chris Wood, in attack, doing absolutely nothing. If Garry Monk had wanted to keep the best elements of the Fleetwood performance intact against Birmingham, it would have been a simple matter to replace Wood with Antonsson, allow Hernandez to run free, and either keep Kalvin Phillips alongside Vieira or bring Toumani Diagouraga back there, until Liam Bridcutt signs. Instead, everything was pulled out of shape and Wood still contributed nothing.
There are question marks over whether Antonsson can play the big, lone number nine role that Wood is asked to; he doesn’t look as strong, so might not win the high balls that are booted up at Wood’s head. But players like Hernandez, Sacko, Vieira and Mowatt don’t seem especially keen on whacking the ball at anybody’s head, preferring instead the jinked one-two and the laser-guided through ball, balls that Antonsson looks much happier to receive. Antonsson seems to be the right striker for Monk’s preferred Leeds United, so why is Wood taking up a valuable shirt?
That shirt would have been of more value in midfield. It was only in the second half that Leeds were truly overrun, but the signs were there when Birmingham took the lead. With two passes they entirely bypassed the United midfield, and Jacques Maghoma got inside Charlie Taylor to score. It was much too easy, and it seemed to alert Gary Rowett to the opportunity; midfield was there to be run, and the game to be won. Plus Leeds still can’t defend corners, so he had that, too.
Garry Monk had his own theories for why Leeds didn’t beat Birmingham, that he seemed to have borrowed from a bloke at a pub backroom boxing fight in 1973. “We weren’t man enough … whenever you’re on the pitch you have to be a man … You have to be a man out there … The second half wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t man enough.” Okay.
“The bottom line,” Garry told Adam Pope on BBC Radio Leeds, “Is whenever you’re on the pitch you have to be a man, you have to step up, you have to put your body on the line, you have to hurt, and tackles, and that will always be part of the game, that’s the most important part, before you even do anything with the ball”; and there’s something to that. Adam asked him if he’d heard about Leeds United’s “soft underbelly,” and he certainly had: “That’s the first time I saw it today, and that’s not acceptable to me. I won’t stand for that.”
But what’s also been present at Leeds for a number of years is an inability to get the best out of players, not for want of effort, but because they’ve not been allowed to specialise where they can be especially useful. Look at the latter days of Sam Byram, a right back on the right side of an attacking three. Team selection is about compromise, sure, but sometimes you compromise in the wrong places and end up compromising yourself.
Monk doesn’t have much time to work on Leeds United’s tactics before Fulham come to Elland Road on Tuesday night, but that’s okay. I think most of these players know how to play, and how they want to play. Monk’s first job is to let them.