Will Leeds hang on this season? Having ‘the best player in the Championship’, a tighter defence and a more mature vibe suggests promotion will finally come…
Leeds United are three points better off than they were at this stage last season. They’re firmly in the automatic promotion places, when a year ago they were jostling with the pack, one of five teams separated by three points. They have won two more games than they had then. They’ve scored seven fewer goals but they’ve also conceded seven fewer.
But it was not long after that things started to go slightly south. They sailed close to the wind in a couple of games against Aston Villa and Blackburn around Christmas, then went on a run of four defeats in seven, before the really damaging few games in the last month of the season, which saw them miss out on promotion and cast into the pit of chaos that was the playoffs.
Promotion means more to Leeds than many. How could it not for a team who fell so hard from so high? And specifically, promotion now: there is a definite sense that this is a ‘shit or bust’ season at Elland Road, that while something special continues to happen under Marcelo Bielsa, if they don’t go up now, when will they?
Things will look very different if Leeds start next season as a Championship club. The loans of Ben White, Jack Harrison, Jack Clarke, Eddie Nketiah and Helder Costa will all be over. Kalvin Phillips, talked about in serious tones as a potential England player, will have plenty interested in him, and although Leeds would only sell for a healthy fee, he will almost certainly be in the Premier League one way or another by August. The likes of Liam Cooper and Tyler Roberts will have their suitors too.
And then of course there’s Bielsa. There was an agonising two-week gap between defeat in the playoff semi-final to the announcement that he would be staying for another year back in May, but even when it was confirmed, the vibe was certainly that it would be just one more year. “Let’s have another go,” said chairman Andrea Radrizzani at the time.
The Championship is far too unpredictable to say that, even with all of those changes, Leeds would not be able to go up. But this team, with this manager and this amount of goodwill, represents their best chance of returning to the Premier League since promotion from League One in 2010.
So the looming question that Leeds fans might have been trying to avoid asking themselves is: will this season be different? The good news for them is there are a couple of sign that suggest the answer is yes.
Firstly, there has been a slight alteration in the way Leeds have played this season. They are still very much a Bielsa side, but they have not been quite so gung-ho, reckless even: their volume is only turned up to ten, rather than 11 as it was last season. They seem slightly cooler, more mentally mature.
Which has partly been inspired by the close call of last season. ”With us doing so well throughout the season and then going 1-0 up in the first leg [against Derby in the playoffs], it’s hard to think about those situations,” Phillips told Sky recently, “but they happen and it just makes us stronger and better to go on and do one better.”
It's not normal that one centre-back gives the kind of passes Ben White did.
The intensity is still there, and that demented fitness was demonstrated by the late goals they have scored, not least in Tuesday’s win over Reading in what was otherwise an absolute dog of a game. That was one of seven goals they’ve scored after the 80 minute mark, all but one of which turned defeats into draws and draws into wins.
But probably the biggest factor has been the tightening of their defence, partly down to the slightly more reserved style, but also personnel. When fit, Liam Cooper is a comforting and firm presence, like the sturdy beam in a barn. And while everyone loved Pontus Jansson, Cooper’s regular central defensive partner this season is undoubtedly an upgrade.
“From the first game of the season, Ben White has been outstanding,” said Sam Parkin on this week’s Totally Football League Show. “In fact I’d go as far to say he’s the best player in the Championship at the moment.
“Incredible consistency, strong, won everything from set pieces and when he comes out with the ball it is like watching a young Rio Ferdinand, or John Stones. He’s probably stronger and more physical than Stones.”
White, on loan from Brighton, is already being talked up as a potential international and target for some considerably wealthier clubs than the Seagulls. And you can see why: just watch his assist for Patrick Bamford’s opener against Luton last weekend, when he collected the ball in defence, strolled up three-quarters of the pitch and slipped a Bergkampian pass through for the striker to score. “It’s not normal that one centre-back gives the kind of passes Ben White did,” Bielsa said afterwards.
A few concerns remain. The intensity of Bielsa’s demands and his avoidance of rotation means injuries are inevitable, and the threat of burnout is a constant theme with his sides. A more consistent goalscorer would be helpful, even if Bamford’s recent form has been excellent.
But there is enough to present a convincing case that yes, things are different this season. That they are more likely to hang on and win promotion. And that Bielsa, the father most Leeds fans wished they had, will stay. God, they hope so.
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