With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at new boys Leeds United and their prospects in the upcoming campaign.
This is set to become arguably the most important season for Leeds United in the club’s recent history, following their promotion to the Premier League, after 16 years.
The Yorkshire outfit had unluckily missed out on promotion back in 2018/19, in what was their first season under their enigmatic coach, Marcelo Bielsa. The Whites came back strong last term, finishing the campaign as by far the best performers in the Championship and winning the league title.
However, Leeds United will now face the daunting task of preserving their Premier League status as owner Andrea Radrizzani and coach Bielsa look to restore the club’s former glory. And ahead of their return to Premier League football, The Hard Tackle takes a look back at their successful 2019/20 season and their prospects for the upcoming campaign.
Prelude – The Backdrop
Missing out on promotion certainly hit hard not only to Marcelo Bielsa but also to the fans, especially after a dramatic game against Aston Villa in the promotion play-offs. The Argentine tactician, therefore, only had his eyes on a direct ticket to the Premier League at the start of the season.
The Whites started their campaign in a positive manner as well, experiencing only one defeat in their first eight matches. Although their form did dip following a loss to Charlton Athletic in September, they regained their mojo in early November, securing six consecutive wins in the league.
However, Leeds United were closely followed by West Bromwich Albion throughout the course of the season. The Baggies, in fact, got the upper hand during the club’s barren run during the start of the year when Bielsa’s side secured only one victory in first seven league games of 2020.
Fortunately, Leeds regained their form quickly in February and despite a tricky restart period that notably saw them fail to win against clubs like Luton and Cardiff City, they suffered only one loss in their last 14 league matches to end the campaign ten points ahead of second-placed West Brom.
One of the main reasons behind Leeds United’s success was their solid defence. They kept a league-high 22 clean sheets in 46 league matches, with Illan Meslier notably attaining a clean sheet percentage of 70% – more than double the tally of Bartosz Bialkowski, who kept the most number of clean sheets in the league.
The Whites weren’t exactly as sharp when it came to converting goalscoring opportunities, but they did create a lot of chances. In fact, their tally of 570 key passes and 755 shots on goal were higher than any other team in the league last term. They also shared more possession than anyone else in the league, which is indicative of Bielsa’s tactical system that revolves around keeping the ball.
[Stats have been taken from Whoscored]
At the time of writing, Leeds United have been one of the busiest teams in the transfer market so far.
Although most of their activity in the market has come in the form of youth team development, they have managed to extend the loan of Jack Harrison from Manchester City while Helder Costa and Illan Meslier were signed from Wolverhampton Wanderers and FC Lorient, respectively, having spent last season at Elland Road on loan.
Unfortunately, Bielsa’s team looks unlikely to re-sign Ben White from Brighton and Hove Albion, who have fended off interest from Liverpool to convince the defender to sign a new deal. But, Leeds have managed to rope in German international Robin Koch as an alternative. Leeds United’s biggest coup, however, has been Rodrigo Moreno.
The 29-year-old forward, who was regarded as one of the best strikers in La Liga at one point, has arrived for a club-record fee of €30 million. He is expected to provide more bite in the attack and potentially replace Patrick Bamford as the main number nine.
— Fantasy Premier League (@OfficialFPL) September 1, 2020
There is also interest in Argentine midfielder Rodrigo De Paul, whose arrival could potentially boost Bielsa’s unit in the middle of the park. Meanwhile, there have been some exciting youngsters joining the ranks too, with Arsenal prodigy Sam Greenwood, in particular, set to don the iconic white kit next season.
Joe Gelhardt, Charlie Allen and Ajax youth goalkeeper Dani van den Heuvel are other talented players arriving at Elland Road as part of the club’s massive revamp in the youth development project. It won’t be surprising to see at least one of them making a breakthrough in the upcoming campaign.
Leeds U21 signings this summer:
Sam Greenwood, Arsenal (18)
Dani van den Heuvel, Ajax (17)
Cody Drameh, Fulham (18)
Charlie Allen, Linfield (16)
Joe Gelhardt, Wigan (18)
Illan Meslier, Lorient (20)
— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) August 28, 2020
Overall, Leeds United deserve credit for smartly strengthening their unit this summer without spending too lavishly in the market. They have created an ideal balance between their existing stars and the newcomers, which only bodes well for the club in the upcoming campaign.
Leeds United, unfortunately, have been dealt with the biggest challenge they could possibly face, in their first match back in the Premier League, when they lock horns with England’s reigning champions, Liverpool.
It will be a daunting task for the Whites, who are playing in the Premier League after 16 years and the primary objective will be to avoid any potential embarrassment. It could, however, give Bielsa’s side an opportunity to showcase their spirit and defensive solidity, knowing any positive result could significantly increase the team morale.
The Gameweek 1 encounter against Liverpool will be followed by a game against Sheffield United, their local rivals, in Gameweek 3. The Blades did an incredible job following their return to the Premier League last season, but it will serve as an opportunity for the Whites to make a statement by winning this fixture.
However, it isn’t until Gameweek 14 (in November) when Leeds United face their biggest rivals – Manchester United. Although the stakes won’t be as high as they were back in the 1990s to 2000s, neither of these two teams can afford to face a defeat in what is regarded as one of the fiercest and historic rivalries in English football.
Thereafter, Bielsa & co. will have a tricky set of fixtures, never really getting a run at teams that could be around them on the Premier League table. The end to their 2020/21 Premier League campaign presents an opportunity, perhaps to make a run at the top half of the table, as they face Burnley, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion in the last three games of the season.
Kalvin Phillips is, without a doubt, one of the few Leeds United players who has already built a massive reputation and is cut out for the highest level of football.
A holding midfielder by trade, Phillips is the link between defence and attack in Bielsa’s possession-oriented football. He has an extraordinary sense of positioning and is capable of distributing the ball around the park. His ability to provide assurance during possession phases is what makes Leeds United such a cohesive unit.
Moreover, the Englishman is a fierce tackler, who is more than capable of creating turnovers in the middle of the park. Such quality should help the Whites become proactive without the ball and given the fact that Leeds might not enjoy as much time on the ball in the Premier League as they have been accustomed to, it will be interesting to see how Phillips shifts his game next season.
Missing out on Ben White is one of Leeds United’s biggest undoings in the transfer market. And the onus will be on Robin Koch to replace the Englishman in central defence.
Koch has been one of Bundesliga’s most promising defenders over the past year or so, and he does have the quality to integrate into Bielsa’s tactics. However, it will be a challenging task for him to replicate his performances in the high-paced nature of the Premier League.
One thing is for sure – Koch’s performances could go a long away in shaping Leeds’ fate this season as the club does not really have any better alternatives in central defence. So it is imperative that he finds a strong connection with Liam Cooper as soon as possible.
Patrick Bamford has always been a subject of criticism, especially due to his lack of productivity. But with Rodrigo arriving from Valencia for a record fee, it will be up to the Spaniard to add that extra bit of spice going forward.
Rodrigo is not necessarily a goalscoring forward. He is equipped with the ideal characteristics that could help him thrive at Elland Road, however. His intelligent movements into the wider areas of the pitch, in particular, should provide a tactical dimension to the offensive game, especially knowing the fact that both Helder Costa and Jack Harrison love to do the opposite by moving inside, thus creating a more versatile offensive trio.
Last but certainly not least, it is Leeds United’s most experienced player in Pablo Hernandez who could carry the club’s burdens in the upcoming season.
About as cool as it gets 🥶
— Sky Bet (@SkyBet) August 31, 2020
The Spaniard was one of the best performers at Elland Road last season, making a massive impact with his technical quality and an ability to create chances in the final third. He is, in fact, unplayable, at times, with the ball at his feet.
That said, it will be a challenge for Hernandez, 35, to keep up with the fitness requirements of the Premier League. Yet, he is Leeds United’s biggest weapon when it comes chance creation, and it is useful now more than ever as the club braces itself for a more conservative style of football.
Leeds United return to the Premier League under the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa and a proper tactical identity. It bodes well for any newly-promoted club, which, most importantly, is combined with an owner and a sporting director who have backed the manager throughout the past two years.
The Yorkshire outfit may not have a star-studded squad, but the players share a good connection and are ably led by Liam Cooper, a childhood Leeds United fan. It should build the foundation of the club’s return to relevancy after 16 dark years in the lower leagues.
Much like Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United, it won’t be surprising to see the Whites perform well upon their return to the Premier League and possibly secure a mid-table status, in the upcoming 2020/21 Premier League campaign.
THT Prediction: 13th
Author Prediction: 10th