After 16 years of near self-destruction, Leeds United are back as a Premier League club. A proper giant of English football, Leeds can once again rise to challenge for the Premier League in 2020-21.
Back in 2000, Leeds United were at the peak of their abilities and had appeared in consecutive UEFA Champions League semi-finals. Shockingly, they got relegated in 2004 – a day which will never be forgotten in the club’s history. Three years post that, Leeds United almost seized to exist. Due to the regular change in ownership, they failed to make it back to the Premier League and entered into administration in 2007. The resulting points penalty sent them further down to League One, something fans at Elland Road could never have envisaged.
START OF THE ANDREA RADRIZZANI ERA
In 2010, Leeds United were back in the second tier of English football – the Championship, but had to be content with being a mid-table side. The glory days of fighting in Europe and for the Premier League were way past them and promotion from the Championship seemed like an impossible task for the Yorkshire-based club. However, in May 2017, Leeds United’s fate took a positive turn when Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani took over the club to give the much-needed stability to the three-time top-flight champions.
The summer of 2018 will remain close to every Leeds United fan as Radrizzani managed to get the services of an Argentine legend, Marcelo Bielsa. In two years at Elland Road, Bielsa changed almost everything at the club. A man who is lauded by the best managers in Europe like Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone as the best football brain in the world, Bielsa has had an illustrious career in football. He is someone who has always won the hearts of the supporters and has tremendously improved players, but somehow getting hands on a trophy has eluded the Argentine.
It seemed like a match made in heaven. Leeds were in dire need of a certain direction and Bielsa is as streamlined as a football manager can get. The Argentine is renowned for his revolutionary football tactics, in-depth use of analysis and a meticulous way of preparing for matches.
INTRIGUING FIRST SEASON UNDER EL LOCO
Biesla used all his football knowledge to great effect in his first season in English football. There were many doubts whether his possession-based attacking football could sustain in a gruelling Championship season and whether Leeds had enough players who were capable of adapting to the high standards that Bielsa demands. All the doubters were silenced in just his first season. Leeds were the leaders for the majority of the season but seemed to fall off the gas at the business end due to injuries to key players. The infamous ‘Spy Gate’ incident and the memorable press conference which followed that didn’t help the season either. While not in breach of any rules, the club was fined 200,000 pounds for ‘failing to act in good faith’ towards the other Championship clubs.
However, Bielsa and Co. were also awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award in the 2018-19 season for allowing Aston Villa to score an unopposed goal in a Championship match at home. The team finished third, just outside the automatic promotion spot and ended up losing to Frank Lampard’s Derby County in the playoff. Many believed that could be the end of Bielsa’s story with the Whites and there would be no fairytale ending for him at Elland Road, but credit goes to Bielsa who identified the areas where they struggled in the previous season and vowed to scratch them off in the next.
PROMOTION TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE AFTER 16 LONG YEARS
There’s no doubt that Bielsa has improved the squad he inherited by leaps and bounds. The prime examples are players like Kalvin Phillips, Liam Cooper and Luke Ayling. With 93 points from 46 matches, Leeds United emerged as the winners of the EFL Championship 2019-20. By doing so, they secured automatic promotion and Bielsa and his team can start preparing for the biggest test of all, playing in the Premier League.
In the 2019-20 season, Leeds United had the best defensive record in the Championship by letting in only 35 goals. They had the joint second-best attack with 77 goals and lost the least number of matches in the division. Their holistic attack has often overwhelmed oppositions in the Championship. No side takes as many shots as Leeds United and the team has enjoyed more possession of the ball than any team in their division. The standout player of the season has been their defensive midfielder, Kalvin Phillips. The 24-year old is leading the team when it comes to tackles and interceptions and has formed a formidable partnership with Ben White. Pablo Hernandez has also been exceptional under Bielsa, leading to 15 goal contributions in the season. Patrick Bamford has been their highest goalscorer with 16 goals this season, but his dismal Premier League record of 1 goal in 24 matches will be a cause of worry for the Whites.
Manchester City loanee Jack Harrison has excelled in Bielsa’s attacking system but the problem is that he isn’t owned by the club and that could prove to be an issue for Leeds United next season. Another major headache would be to search for a replacement for Brighton and Hove Albion’s loanee Ben White, who the Potters are keen on using next season in the Premier League. White was Leeds’ most-used player in the season. In case, they have to replace him, they need another player with similar calibre. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that El Loco’s team will be more than handy next season and it’ll be fascinating to see them apply their trade in the Premier League.
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