The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Leeds United’s prospects in the Premier League and the problems they need to address in order to stay in the top-flight.
Leeds United’s rise to prominence under Marcelo Bielsa has already been documented after they recently gained promotion back to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years. There is already much hype brewing in social media regarding the Whites’ return to the English top-flight and whether or not they can rekindle their lost glory.
It is, however, fair to argue that any success Leeds could potentially have in the Premier League will largely depend on how they perform in the upcoming season. A quick return to the Championship should be a disappointing sight for the fans and, most importantly, the owners.
In our perspective piece, therefore, The Hard Tackle will be taking a look at look at the problems Leeds United could face in the English top-flight next season and what measures they need to take to replicate the success of a team like Sheffield United.
Where’s the goalkeeper?
The lack of a reliable goalkeeper is one of Leeds United’s most significant issues heading into the new season. It was a problem for them throughout the course of the 2019/20 Championship campaign.
Kiko Casilla, former number two to Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, is currently Leeds’ first-choice goalkeeper. The Spaniard has kept an impressive 15 clean sheets in just 36 league outings in the recently concluded season. However, that is somewhat misleading as the Whites concede very few shots on target.
As a matter of fact, Leeds’ tally of just nine shots conceded per game was lower than any other club in the Championship. So essentially, Casilla had to make only two saves per game, meaning he doesn’t even make the top 30.
In reality, the ex-Real Madrid goalkeeper has provided very little assurance in between the sticks and has appeared to make several defensive errors. He was also given an eight-game suspension following a racial slur earlier this year. And with that in mind, the Spaniard isn’t best suited to the Premier League.
Casilla’s number two, Illan Meslier, has done an excellent job. He has kept seven clean sheets in ten games and has been able to remain consistent. But once again, the low value of saves, as well as a lack of experience at the highest level of football, raises doubts over his credibility in the top-flight.
Therefore, Leeds United must sign a new goalkeeper this summer – one who is experienced enough to survive the rigours of the Premier League. Emiliano Martinez, for one, is an exciting candidate, and Bielsa might be making the right move by reportedly going after him this summer. Manchester United’s Sergio Romero is another viable target.
Ben White Must Remain White
Ben White was one of the emerging stars of the Championship this season. One might even say that he was one of the most consistent performers, having quickly established himself as a defensive mainstay alongside Liam Cooper, in the Leeds United back-line.
Part of the reason why White became such an asset for Bielsa was a fierce mentality and a healthy attitude. The defender’s determination and fighting spirit did indeed tune in perfectly with Bielsa’s ethos. It paired up well with a lifelong Leeds United fan and club captain, Cooper.
Mentality aside, the Brighton & Hove Albion is also a gifted defender. He is capable of building out from the back, with only four players making more successful passes than White, who attained a pass completion rate of 84%. Additionally, the defender completed the most number of interceptions in the Championship, thus indicating his ability to read the game.
Such qualities also enabled Bielsa to even employ White as a holding midfielder, at times. And with that in mind, it is rather easy to conclude that the 22-year-old is an indispensable figure in the Leeds United setup. Therefore, they cannot afford to lose him at all.
Although the Whites are actively trying to sign White on a permanent deal this summer, the Brighton & Hove Albion defender is also strongly chased by Premier League champions, Liverpool. The outcome of his transfer battle could play a key role in shaping Leeds’ fortunes in the league next season.
Creativity is a Major Issue
Creativity could be a major factor in deciding Leeds United’s fate in the Premier League, knowing they will not get as much of the ball as they have in the Championship this season.
Pablo Hernandez is currently the primary source of inspiration for Bielsa’s side. Among players who played at least 35 games, only West Bromwich Albion ace Matheus Pereira averaged a higher key passes per 90 minutes (3.1) than the Spaniard (2.9).
Indeed, Hernandez, no doubt, has the quality to thrive in the Premier League. However, one major problem is that he is 35 years old, meaning the playmaker can only be considered as a rotation option, as Bielsa has used him for the most part of the campaign.
Although the Whites do have other sources of creativity in the likes of Jack Harrison and Helder Costa, they must find a better and more reliable alternative than Hernandez. It essentially means they need to enter the market for a new attacking midfielder.
Adam Lallana could have been an excellent option. But, with the Liverpool star joining Brighton, Leeds have to look elsewhere. They could try loaning Arsenal whizkid Emile Smith Rowe while Roberto Pereyra from relegated Watford might not be a bad option either given the Argentinean connection between him and Bielsa.
The Fragility in Productivity
One of the main criticisms thrown at Leeds United is their lack of productivity going forward. The Whites tend to create a lot of chances, which isn’t surprising given the fact that they have averaged 59% of possession – higher than any other team in the Championship. But, they often fail to come up with the telling pass.
Another key issue is the conversion rate. Leeds United had the fifth-worst conversion rate in the Championship, and this must be improved as they are unlikely to receive as many scoring opportunities in the Premier League. Patrick Bamford has been an excellent servant for Bielsa. But, he simply lacks the goalscoring qualities to thrive in the English top flight.
Even from a tactical perspective, Bamford’s playing style that revolves around the idea of tracking back and linking up with teammates is not exactly suited for a newly promoted Premier League club. Instead, the Yorkshire outfit need someone who can offer the physical presence, has a good sense of positioning and can convert chances.
Jean-Kevin Augustin was an excellent candidate. However, the Frenchman’s short spell at Elland Road has been marred by injuries, leaving Bielsa with Bamford as the only other option. Hence, Leeds must sign a robust centre-forward this summer if they are to have any hopes of staying up in the English top-flight next season.
The Championship winners have been sensationally linked with a move for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But, an experienced campaigner like Callum Wilson from the relegated Bournemouth, Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi or even Liverpool outcast Divock Origi are far more realistic options.
Lack of Experienced Figureheads
Last but not least, Leeds United lack the services of a real leader on the pitch. As mentioned earlier, Pablo Hernandez will likely be considered as a super-sub, and while Kalvic Phillips and Liam Cooper have done extremely well, they do lack experience at the highest level of football.
For a newly promoted or a transitioning Premier League club, there always needs to be an ever-present campaigner, who can not only influence the team but can also add a new dimension to the side. It was evident with Esteban Cambiasso at Leicester City as well as James Milner at Liverpool.
Leeds United need a similar figure – something they do lack in the current crop of stars. Fortunately for the fans, however, the club have been linked with players like Fabian Delph and Danny Rose, both of whom are seasoned Premier League veterans and can add a lot of depth to the side.
If Leeds manage to undertake all the measures mentioned and perhaps, more, they could be on their way to doing what the likes of Southampton, Burnley and Crystal Palace have done in years gone by – remain in the Premier League beyond the difficult first couple of years.