How Would Leeds United Fare In The Premier League?


Liam Cooper –

In some ways, it seems premature to even think about Leeds United in terms of next season, with their current campaign on a knife-edge.

The Whites are currently one-point behind Sheffield United, who currently occupy the final automatic promotion spot – and a Jack Grealish-inspired resurgence from Aston Villa is not good news for the team that misses out on the top two.

However, it is hard not to be compelled by the impact Marcelo Bielsa has had not just at Elland Road, but on English football as a whole.

Fifteen years since Leeds dropped out of the Premier League, finishing 19th in the EPL Table in a nightmarish 2003-04 campaign under Peter Reid and then Eddie Gray, Bielsa’s approach – and thus far success – has made the club and city feel united again. One cannot help, therefore, but admire the Argentine’s methods.

‘El Loco’s team dominates possession and regularly has twice as many shots on goal as the other side; no-one in the Championship has had more shots per game than Leeds’ 15.9 while only Norwich and Brentford have managed more shots on target than their 5.1.

Leeds are one of the grand old clubs of the north. At times, they have been forced to look back towards distant memories of glory more often than they can look forward to the future. But this season, Leeds United have been one of the most exhilarating and enjoyable teams to watch in English football; alongside the top six in their EPL fixtures.

The Championship promotion race is looking to go right down to the wire and with Leeds United looking bright to make a return to the Premier League next season, here are two reasons why they could survive there.

They have a great manager

Having lost Jamal Blackman, Samuel Saiz and Lewis Baker from the squad that started the season, Leeds’ progress with essentially the same team that ended last season 13th is a testament to Bielsa’s coaching skills. The 63-year-old’s side have been a wonder this season: brave on the ball, always looking to progress up the pitch and playing with their head coach’s trademark intensity, Bielsa had put the squad through in pre-season.

Bielsa’s preference for a small squad, confidence in his youth players to cope when the injuries have mounted and inclination to keep attacking, to try to win every game, is a high-risk strategy.

Leeds hired him knowing his methods – they have become one of the best three teams in the Championship because they have empowered and trusted him. He has instilled a belief in the players that his ideas and way of playing the game is the way to go about it. With only a few tweaks to the squad, Bielsa has turned the White’s into a real force immediately after a mediocre campaign.

Bielsa gives more importance to things off the pitch than on the pitch. After every game the coach insists his squad to clean the dressing room from top to bottom and he also helps the squad in the process. He brings about a change in the mentality of the players and commands respect. He develops a player on the football field and also how he is outside. None of the players have worked like this before and this is the stuff of which great teams are made.

A great core group of players

Pablo Hernandez is undeniably Leeds’ key man during the promotion race this season. He has directly been involved in 17 goals this season, scoring ten and assisting seven. When he has the ball it appears to be an entirely different game and if Leeds are to survive in the Premier League, Pablo Hernandez must be in his best of forms.

Leading the charge for Leeds has often been Kemar Roofe. The 25-year-old took some time to adjust to Championship level after jumping two divisions off the back of a star 2015-16 campaign with Oxford, but his industry and link up play has seen him thrive as a false nine this term, bagging the Player of the Month Award for August. Although Roofe is not particularly quick, it’s his willingness to run and graft as well as learn and improve different areas of his game that has seen Bielsa take a real shine to him.

Roofe has missed recent games through injury and is a doubt for next week’s hosting of Millwall, but Patrick Bamford proved with a very strong line-leading display in the 4-0 win over West Brom that he can provide excellent cover; the former Middlesbrough man averages 135 minutes per goal this season, which is actually better than Roofe’s return of 154 minutes per goal, even if he is slightly more inconsistent in aspects of his work off the ball.

Pontus Jansson is enjoying a very impressive season. The centre-back, who kept Victor Lindelöf out of the Sweden team at Russia 2018, provides composure in possession and calming leadership qualities next to the more aggressive Liam Cooper, whose aerial strength has allowed him to chip in with three league goals.

Luke Ayling started the previous campaign superbly and although there have since been one or two issues regarding form and fitness, he has got back to his best since returning to the side in December. Ayling might not attack the flank directly like an athletic right-back; rather, his main strength is his speed of thought and ability to combine closely with his teammates in tight areas, as we saw in the first half of Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat to Sheffield United.

Barry Douglas had been faring well on the other side to Ayling but when he got injured, Bielsa deployed Ezgjan Alioski at left-back and the 26-year-old did not disappoint. The Macedonian, helped by having played in that position at international level, is arguably better suited to playing deeper because his industry and preference for attacking on the outside rather than cutting in is more applicable.

If Leeds continue to develop the way they have, it would not be the biggest of the surprises that they survive their First Season in the Premier League pretty comfortably. Promotion though, is the first task.