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The Championship is back, back, back, and there’s just one question on everyone’s lips: how are Leeds going to stuff it up this season?
Marcelo Bielsa’s side are top of the table, seven points clear of third having won their last five games before football was suspended, with nine games remaining. Surely they’re not going to make a mess of it from here, are they?
“Well, this is what we were all saying with about five or six games to go last season,” said Phil Hay, the Athletic’s Leeds United correspondent, on the Totally Football League Show.
But, then again, this is Leeds.
“Over the years, people have said to me that there’s literally nothing that Leeds United can’t bottle. I think if anything demonstrated that perfectly, it was that the playoff semi-final [against Derby County] last season.
“Prior to that goal, before half-time [when Leeds were 2-0 up on aggregate, before Jack Marriott scored for Derby and they eventually won 4-3], you would put it would’ve put a mortgage of any size on Leeds going through the final.
“That has been the trend for years now. And you were talking there about the mission of getting back to the Premier League. It’s almost 20 years and counting with this – it’s 16 since they got relegated from the top division.
“But it does feel slightly different this time round. I think one of the key differences is that the table itself and the fact that there isn’t a three horse race in the way that there was last season with Leeds, Sheffield United and Norwich.
“Fulham [in third place] are still very much in the running, they aren’t out of it. But it was tighter last year and there wasn’t this kind of advantage over third place.”
Will that run of five straight wins before the break stand Leeds in good stead for the remainder of the season?
“Bielsa is very big on analysing games, but he’s not big on dwelling on them. And he doesn’t think that one game – or the result in one game – is indicative of what will happen in the next. I don’t imagine he’ll be thinking at all about the form in that run of five games, anymore than he was thinking about the form in the period where they really struggled after Christmas.
“There was a real watershed moment after they lost at Nottingham Forest in February. I did a piece with Luke Ayling on the Athletic, and he spoke about it. It was that night where you worried that the wheels were coming off, and were coming off even earlier than they had last season. For one reason or another, everyone was able to just draw a line at that point, and Bielsa was able to diffuse the tension at the right time.”
What may stand them in more good stead is how they responded to the current crisis.
“Leeds were very alive to the to the COVID infection,” Phil said. “They had their first meeting about it back in January – the head of medicine and performance, Rob Price…could tell that it was likely that the UK was going to be affected.
“They weren’t sure at that stage what what the impact was going to be, but they would almost preempting in a lockdown and a scenario where people might have to train from home, or where training might have to be done in in more isolation.
“But at the same time, they were one club who were always convinced that the season would start up. So they had daily fitness sessions, they had to submit the weight every morning in the way that they do with Bielsa. He insisted that they were kept as close to full tilt as they could possibly be, minus being actually able to get out in a collective group at the training ground.
“So they, by all accounts have come back in extremely good shape and whereas you’ve had a handful of clubs, particularly in the Championship, who haven’t been so keen on a restart and weren’t so keen on a June 20 restart – this is absolutely what Leeds wanted and how they wanted it to play out.”
One other interesting question hanging over Leeds is the deal for Jean-Kevin Augustin, who arrived on loan from RB Leipzig in January amid much fanfare, but who hasn’t made much of an impact so far.
“Our understanding when he came was that if Leeds were promoted, they were they were obligated to do a permanent deal for about £18million, and I don’t believe that has changed.
“But I think it’s very possible now that Leeds will get cold feet. I question whether Augustin might get cold feet too, on the basis that he’s played three teams as a sub, his body hasn’t held up to what Bielsa has been asking him to do. He isn’t realistically going to play much, if any part before the end of the season. It will be a big decision all round, but that will ultimately be on Bielsa.
“If you look at Augustin’s background and his strengths and his weaknesses, he does look like a good fit in that sense. But clearly, there’s there’s more to it than that.”
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