It was incredibly hard to anticipate how Leeds would settle into the Premier League, not forgetting how much things have changed since we were last here. The 2019/20 Championship season may have gone some way to answer the questions posed about the frailties of Marcelo Bielsa’s methods (namely the tiresome accusation that his sides ‘burn out’ as a way of explaining a dip in form), but the gulf in quality between the Championship and Premier League is now so vast that it was tricky to know how we would fare.
Some were arguing that Bielsa had extracted every ounce of performance possible from a “bang average” squad, and that without significant investment we would be destined for a humbling season of resounding defeats and relegation. Others were suggesting that our tactics and players were more suited to the style of play found in the Premier League and it would show players rising to a different level. So what have we learned?
1. Leeds United are the fittest side in the Premier League
We’ve surprised a few people in this (perhaps showing how few people monitor the Championship) by how incredibly fit we are. I know that Aston Villa’s fans were tweeting the FA asking for doping tests to be conducted because it seemed unfathomable that we could be so much fitter, faster and stronger than them without performance enhancing drugs. This was of course no surprise to us, having seen players like Klich, Alioski and Bamford run beyond what it seems a human should be capable of. After the first few games pundits were analysing that not only were Leeds running the furthest in each game, but sprinting a significant amount more than anyone else.
2. Patrick Bamford can step up and remains a key player
Many people clearly thought the arrival of Rodrigo was the indication that Bamford’s time as first choice was over. This perhaps subverts any understanding of Bielsa’s dogged commitment to Patrick – long has the enigmatic coach backed the forward to help Leeds win games. 6 goals in his first 6 games certainly demonstrated that he could score at a higher level, while his all-round performance in games where he didn’t score still drew plaudits. His growing partnership with Rodrigo has been a delight to see, too, as their understanding improves we’ll only see more exciting stuff from the player many had written off.
3. Absences are more harmful at this level
Bielsa is famous for his fondness of smaller playing groups, instead leaning on the youth setup to bolster options should his first team suffer injuries or suspensions. With multiple options for every position, it is (theoretically) a squad with enough cover to cope, but we’ve seen very quickly how just a few key players being out of the picture can be incredibly harmful. Especially in the Phillips position – with Kalvin injured (and having looked a bit off-the-boil, presumably playing through discomfort) we’ve had a gap in that key role. Pascal Struijk has had to step-in having barely featured in this position previously (Ben White deputised last year, don’t forget) and it’s no disservice to the player to say that it hasn’t been an easy start.
It wasn’t for Kalvin either – it takes time to adapt to Bielsa’s tactics and specialise in an important role. Struijk has had to play centre-back while Cooper and Llorente are injured, whilst also being able to step forward into Phillips’ role. But the poor lad didn’t even play much in the Championship let alone being expected to carry us in the Premier League.
The lack of Rodrigo has hurt us too, as the player has tremendous quality – further harmed by Pablo’s fitness, injuries and mystery withdrawals from the squad. Without many players to choose from, select absences have really hurt us. With margins as fine as they are against competition of this quality, we’ve genuinely suffered from just a few absences in ways that you don’t in the Championship.
4. Bielsa-ball does work at this level
The proof will obviously be in the results – and the results have not been too kind recently – but the performances have been excellent in some areas, providing assurance that it is still a suitable tactic at this level. We looked hungry and direct against Liverpool, surprising the footballing world with our tenacious spirit. Or naivety too, perhaps, but the swift vertical transitions, the extreme pressing, the fitness, the energy and the overlapping play – it all continues to work.
The problem is that our competition at this level are also better at everything than in the Championship, so they’re more compact and robust when defending, more incisive and efficient when attacking… So while we haven’t yet found our stride, the fundamentals of what we’re trying to do are valid – which is reassuring.
5. Ben White can be replaced
Leeds’ inability to convince Brighton to allow Ben White to make his loan to Leeds permanent was a really sad period during the Summer transfer window. Despite his glorious bromance with Kalvin and his astonishing abilities as a defender, we had to seek a permanent replacement. Robin Koch may have had an inauspicious start at Leeds, conceding a penalty against Liverpool early in his debut game, but he has grown into a quality defender. He wins a lot of aerial battles, his passing looks good, his confidence looks high. I wouldn’t necessarily say that he’s as good as White, but that’s because I’ve seen White mature over a full league season under Bielsa whereas we’re only 8 games into Koch’s life at Leeds. I’m hugely encouraged by him, I really am.
6. Liam Cooper has to work hard to prove himself again
It might feel like groundhog day to question Coop’s quality (and uncomfortable to do knowing how great a character he is), but I haven’t been convinced by his performances so far this season. We looked reasonably confident against Liverpool without him in the side, whereas we’ve looked more fragile and misshapen in more recent games where he’s started. He’s suffered with injuries which haven’t helped, and the whole side is struggling to find its groove at this level, but you’d have to imagine that a fit Llorente will start to really pressure him for that starting position. On that basis, I feel Liam has work to do to convince us that he’s capable of playing consistently at this level.
7. Alioski looks a little out of place now
I like the Macedonian lunatic. I enjoy having players with character in the squad. I enjoy having figures who run hard and commit themselves fully to the game – but the few times I’ve seen him come on this season, I’ve been left feeling that he now looks slightly above his level. In the Premier League you have to make better decisions, you have to make them quickly and the cost of wasted chances is much, much higher. This is where his propensity to shoot whenever he has sight of goal frustrates me, because there are often better options (and his shooting is rarely on-target). He’s a fabulous utility player and a brilliant option to have on the bench – he’s fast, he can play multiple positions and he’s incredibly fit. These are superb qualities for a Bielsa player to have. But when you start to see the likes of Raphinha and Rodrigo, you start to see the rising bar we’re setting for ourselves, and despite being a great athlete and a terrific character, I’m wondering if Alioski is someone who might be slipping below the bar.
8. Luke Ayling is still brilliant
One of the last, great bargains in football – Luke has demonstrated that he’s capable of playing consistently at this level.
9. Mateusz Klich looks even better at this level
An assertion I saw a few times on Twitter last year was that Klich is arguably more suited to Premier League football than the Championship. It seemed a strange statement at the time, given how consistently good he was in our Promotion campaign, but the extra yard of space you’re afforded at this level seems to really enable him to elevate his game further. His understanding with Bamford has matured over time – and even in the recent loss against Palace – it was clear they were dialled in to one-another.
10. Jack Harrison is still brilliant and still brilliantly frustrating
Jack’s first season at Leeds was blighted with frustration; his propensity to over-complicate simple things meant that a lot of excellent attacking play was undone by him just trying a little too hard. Instead of playing another attacker in, he’d feint and try to play through the defender. Losing the ball and turning over possession. Credit to the player, though, he worked incredibly hard on his play during the close-season before the 19/20 campaign and looked to have elevated his game.
His pillow-feet seemed more cushioned, his decision-making seemed sharper, his positioning seemed better. He was just a far, far better player. Bielsa’s input will have helped massively here, but it’d be wrong to not lay credit at Jack’s feet too as we know he privately brought in extra assistance to aid his development. He was devastating against Aston Villa and hasn’t looked short on quality so far this season. But the recent misfires against Leicester and Palace brought an uncomfortable return to his better-forgotten traits. The intent to complicate things too much, to resist the simple and aim for the sublime. Against better opposition, once worked out, he was able to be completely nullified.
He’ll find his feet again quite quickly, and he’s still a quality player, but it’s a reminder that there’s a reason players like Harrison aren’t £50m and playing in the top-6. They still have growth to do, development to experience and work to complete. But when we’re relying on a player to make the right decision to get a result from a game, we’ll always lament the fact that they made a mistake and wasted the chance as part of their process of learning.
Unofficial #11. VAR is rubbish
No explanation needed.
We’ve now got an International break to regroup from some disappointing results and lick our wounds from a staggering negative goal-difference (conceded 8 in the last 2 games!). The opportunity for players to find fitness, recover from injury and regroup on the training ground will be warmly received I’m sure.
Everton, Arsenal and Chelsea as our next 3 games? Oof.