What a rollercoaster this season is proving to be. The early favourites to be dominating the top of the table are struggling to find the kind of rhythm you need to challenge for those automatic promotion spots (or are languishing in mid-table for sides like Stoke). Equally, one need only look at Reading as a great example of how fine the margins are in this league – playoff finalists for the 2016/17 season but now condemned to trying to stave off relegation. I’ve long maintained that the Championship is one of the hardest, most demanding (and unpredictable) leagues in the world.
Few could have truly anticipated that Leeds United could attract Marcelo Bielsa, who would then do very little transfer activity and yet create a side who are (statistically) the most likely to get promoted. Only 11 teams have ever had 45+ points after 22 games at this level in the last 15 years, and every single one of them got promoted. So if we ignore the inevitability that Leeds will be the first to somehow manage that, it sure shows how exciting this league can be. But the football isn’t the only thing that’s interesting about Leeds at the moment – we’re still fundamentally cursed.
Injuries have been an obvious problem this season; it’s hard to believe that we’re sellotaping a viable promotion run with so many significant injuries, especially in defence. We’re routinely needing to field a back-line consisting of a goalkeeper who was close to being released (and was 3rd choice last season), a left back, a centre-back, a central midfielder and a right-sided attacking midfielder. We’ve even needed to win games where we’ve handed a senior debuts to Will Huffer and Aapo Halme, meaning our back 5 only had 2 recognised senior players playing in their natural position. It’s unfathomable to think that we’re piecing this together with little more than a footballing ethos, a world-class coach and an assorted bag of players who are largely expected to fill any role required of them.
Patrick Bamford hit a long-term injury, Izzy Brown came to the club injured, Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi both hit long-term injuries. Liam Cooper, too, broken against the Championship’s unforgiving shores. Yet we’re carrying on, persevering and finding that once again our Academy is able to step up and plug the gaps. It’s really quite heartwarming to see players like Jamie Shackleton called up to the senior team and not only look competent, but look comfortable and accomplished in a position he doesn’t routinely train for, in a squad in which he was 3 players down the pecking order. Baby Shack (a cunning pun on Baby Shark, a combination of words any parent of young children will know better than their own Amazon login credentials) has been a superb (if not entirely unexpected) surprise.
Jack Clarke, too, has been a player I’ve called for to see in the senior team for a while. Anyone familiar with our development squad who has seen the young lad play will know there’s something very special about him indeed. He’s been our de-facto response to Alioski’s dip in form. If the Macedonian’s movement, passing and decision-marking has been sub-standard, Clarke is introduced at half time and changes the game. The confidence in a lad barely old enough to buy scissors means that if you give him the ball he has one thing on his mind – run at the defender. It seems wrong, somehow, that a lad who looks like he should be revising for his GCSE’s is skipping past seasoned professionals and looking at home alongside genuine greats like Pablo Hernandez.
It’s not all rosy though, this week. Fairly unexpectedly the news broke that Samu Saiz is unsettled at the club, unsettled in England and pining for a move back to Spain. Before we could adjust to this revelation the move was largely done. A loan move to Getafe would materialise before we could consider truly how we felt, with a permanent transfer presumably cemented for the end of the season. This is disappointing for a number of reasons (though I am sensitive to the personal/human factors attached to this move). It feels like the £6m rumoured is low for a player who is – on his day – about as good as you’ll find in the Championship. It also feels like a loan move is an unusual decision, considering he could move permanently in January – though perhaps with the complexities of footballing finance, if Getafe have committed to a transfer fee, that’s sufficient for us to operate in the market (amortisation, instalments and the like).
It’s sad to see Saiz go (especially as I only just wrote a piece for him in the latest The Square Ball, questioning whether he’s realising his potential here and if not, whether he’s doing enough) because we know how good he can be. There’s an on-going debate as to whether he should be doing more, realising that potential, or if his current contributions are enough. Given dull games often result in the crowd calling for Saiz, that’s justification enough for feeling sad for his impending departure. While we’ve still got the best attacking midfielder in the league (Pablo) and enormous potential in players like Clarke (and in Alioski), it does very much seem that this leaves a hole. The plan is clearly to utilise Izzy Brown in this role, though he has barely kicked a football for months and therefore will need a slow reintroduction to regain fitness and embed himself in the Bielsa-ball system.
But for all of this, all of the misfortune, all of the surprise, we’re sat top of the table. Crucially there’s an 11 point gap between Leeds and 7th place, and we’re 26 points from the relegation spots. So you’d like to think that we’ve at least ensured our safety! Our next run of games are huge. Aston Villa away, Blackburn at home, Hull at Home and finally Forest Away to kick off 2019. Villa are 8th, Blackburn 12th, Hull 17th and Forest 7th. Villa, Blackburn and Forest are all within touching distance of the playoffs and will be clambering to get in. It’s going to be exciting – but Leeds need to get a good points haul to stay in the top 2.
Very different story this season so far, isn’t it? 5 wins on the bounce since West Brom “found us out”. By anyone’s reckoning, that’s a cracking response to what was a very humbling defeat. Brilliant stuff.