Leeds United Season Preview: the Bielsa era

With the 2018-19 Championship season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Leeds United fan Ryan Owen (@whiterosephilly).

Marcelo Bielsa to Leeds looks like one of the most audacious appointments ever made in the second-tier. You must be incredibly excited for this new era?

As Leeds fans, we are expert at being both terrifically excited and cynically cautious at the same time. Marcelo Bielsa comes in with a very impressive CV and has won plaudits around the globe for his modernised tactical approach. There is no doubt that we’re all on tenterhooks to watch his plan unfold on the pitch. Having said that, we’re also fully aware that Bielsa had very short stints in charge of Marseille, Lazio and Lille, and the worry is that he won’t hang around long enough to implement any long-term tactical revolution. Bielsa’s Leeds will have to hit the ground running, or this could quickly descend in to business as usual at Elland Road.

Some fans last season had questioned chairman Andrea Radrizzani; most notably for the appointment of controversial Director of Football Victor Orta. Has Bielsa’s arrival converted some of Radrizzani’s doubters?

We’ve seen managers come and go at a rate of knots in recent years, so many fans now subscribe to the view that the playing staff is the problem at Elland Road. This brings with it impatience when it comes to transfer dealings.

Fans simply have to realise that Leeds United, in their current situation, are not going to be the biggest spenders in the Championship transfer market. It is extremely difficult for the club to compete with recently relegated clubs, who benefit from parachute payments as well as the ability to sell star assets for big fees (e.g. Shaqiri, Evans, Fabianski).

With that said, it is true that the club made numerous mistakes last summer, when they blew a fairly healthy budget on numerous high-risk young players. It was naïve to believe that players such as Jay-Roy Grot, Caleb Ekuban and Pawel Cibicki could contribute to a promotion push in their debut seasons in the Championship.

The appointment of Bielsa seems to mark an acceptance by the club that if they can’t outspend other clubs on transfers, then they can outmanoeuvre their competitors by spending a little extra on a top coach. Furthermore, Bielsa appears to be employing a “quality over quantity” approach, with a reduction in the size of the squad and a more focused transfer policy.

Left-back Tom Pearce and forward Ryan Edmondson have caught the eye of some fans. Are they the academy graduates that excite you the most?

Tom Pearce caught the eye late last season, showing serious ability to get forward from left-back, and that is likely to fit with Bielsa’s philosophy.

We know less about Edmondson, and I’d expect him to remain a bench option at best, especially if the club land a striker in the transfer market.

Edmondson will also be fighting with Sam Dalby, Jack Clarke and Kun Temenuzhkov for the role of top young striker – any one of those guys could make the step up in the near future.

Oriol Rey is a talented young midfielder, and could be a versatile type for Bielsa to call upon.

Another youngster is goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell, who finished last season in decent form. Could he challenge loanee Jamal Blackman for a place this year?

It would seem odd for Blackman to arrive here as backup, so I’d fully expect him to begin the year between the goalposts.

That might be slightly harsh on Peacock-Farrell; however, he is still very young and doesn’t have the same level of experience as Blackman at this level. He’ll have to work hard as backup, and wait for his next chance to shine.

Luke Ayling looks an intelligent right-back; he showed excellent movement for that goal at Forest Green in pre-season. Could he move up another level under Bielsa?

We really missed Ayling once he got hurt last season. He isn’t the quickest, and can get caught out by quick forwards at times, but so can most defenders. Ayling is indispensable to this squad, due to his ball-playing ability and football intelligence. He always wants to play the ball out from the back, and that is surely a key attribute in a fluid system.

Ayling is adept at right-back, but could also be used in a back three. Bielsa doesn’t seem the type to use only one system during the course of an entire season, so adaptable, intelligent, flexible players such as Luke Ayling will become key cogs.

Your centre-back pairing so far has been Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi. Is an addition needed in that area?

We ought to be careful to read too much into one pre-season fixture at Forest Green. Pontus Jansson is still away following World Cup duty with Sweden, and he’ll obviously be a top centre-back option.
There is no guarantee that we’ll play with four at the back, and there is no guarantee which players Bielsa views as capable of being an option in defence.

As previously stated, Luke Ayling is a very capable centre-back option.
Nuno Santo used Conor Coady at centre-back for Wolves last season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bielsa has earmarked some midfielders as potential centre-back options. Adam Forshaw and Ronaldo Vieira might be prime candidates.

Or, just as Southgate used Kyle Waker at centre-back, Bielsa might choose to use Tom Pearce or Gaetano Berardi in a back three.

I’d advise all Leeds fans to erase their traditional view of this squad.

Stuart Dallas has been used as an auxiliary left-back in pre-season, meaning three of the back-four can play in more than one position. Does that suggest you’ll have flexibility this year?

Flexibility is the name of the game.

It seems fairly obvious the Bielsa expects his players to be capable in more than one phase of the game, and that requires intelligence as well as versatility and good fitness levels.

Dallas, Alioski, Berardi, Ayling, Forshaw. These are all players that have played in numerous roles throughout their careers. Hopefully Bielsa can unlock their ultimate potential.

You weren’t entirely convinced by Kalvin Phillips last season. Do you need a natural holding midfielder capable of slotting into the defence?

If we’re going to allow full-backs and centre-backs to bomb on, then intelligence is required from other squad members in order to cover when necessary.

Kalvin Phillips is a very physical central midfielder with a serious work ethic.

If he can become a more intelligent player, and limit the amount of times he needlessly gives the ball away, then he can become that natual holding midfielder capable of slotting into defence.

Bielsa is a coach. He’s here to coach the squad. Fans need to stop thinking that the only possible fix is eleven new singings. We’ve got some talented players, and while we do need some help in a few key areas, Bielsa will also be looking to improve the current set of players.

Pablo Hernandez clearly has a pin-point delivery on him and Samuel Saiz looks an exciting dribbler. Are you confident you can incorporate them into the same team?

Here’s to hoping that Bielsa can coach Samuel Saiz enough to stop the incessant moaning, diving and arguing with referees, for a start.

Saiz can look to Pablo Hernandez as an example of a true professional.
I read that Gabriel Batistuta credited Bielsa with teaching him how to “truly respect his teammates”, and perhaps that is what Saiz needs more than anything.

Saiz is incredibly gifted, but he is nowhere near Pablo in terms of football IQ, work ethic or attitude.

With that said, if Bielsa can help him in those areas, Saiz can and will play alongside Pablo. I’m confident that the right system will be able to incorporate our two most skilled creative types, and most of us are excited about the day that it clicks.

Midfielder Adam Forshaw and wide man Ezgjan Alioski appear to be quite selfless performers. Given the intensity in pressing that will be demanded, do you need players willing to sacrifice themselves for the team?

Alioski struggled at times last season, though once Ayling went down with injury there wasn’t much attacking help on offer from the right full-back position.

Nonetheless, even when he struggled to impose himself on games offensively, he never stopped working tirelessly for the team. I recall him sprinting the entire length of the pitch vs Norwich in order to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity, and that work ethic won’t be lost on Bielsa.

Despite some theatrics at times (and despite a fancy hairstyle that probably opens him up for extra criticism on that front), Alioski is actually very decent defensively, and isn’t scared of putting his body on the line. For that reason, I’d like to see him move back to full-back this season.

Either way, he is sure to play a key role, and I’m excited to see him develop in his second year.

Bielsa doesn’t seem the sort to suffer fools gladly, so any lack of effort or silly yellow cards are sure to land players in the doghouse.

There were a few games last season – notably Cardiff away – when Kemar Roofe started as a false nine but you suffered from not having an obvious focal point up top. Do you think it would be different this time, or would you welcome the arrival of Mbaye Diagne?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Mbaye Diagne, and so I’ll pass on that particular reference.

Roofe is definitely not a winger, so I’ll be glad to see him used exclusively as a striker.

Still, he needs to become more physical at this level if he wants to play every week as a lone striker.

I’d be inclined to spend a big chunk of the budget on a striker, and that might yet materialise. Who that striker will be remains to be seen, but I think “quality over quantity” will reign supreme.

Whites aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

This could be a very interesting Championship season. Plenty of clubs you’d expect to be in the mix are suddenly feeling the pinch financially – Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County – and that could push them out of contention.

You’d expect the recently relegated clubs to do well, though perhaps Swansea will find it tougher than Stoke and West Brom. We’ve also seen that an immediate return isn’t easy to achieve in recent times.

All of this opens the door for more frugal clubs to emerge as promotion contenders.

I’ll stick my neck out and say that I expect Brentford & PNE to emerge as top six contenders.

Where will you finish?

Without the knowledge of seeing how the transfer dealings unfold, I’ll predict that we add two or three impressive signings on top of Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman.

I think this squad underachieved last season and is capable of much more given the right discipline, scheme and a sprinkling of added quality.

Final position – 6th.

Thanks to Ryan for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on Leeds can be found on We Love Betting from late July.