After sixteen years out of the big time, Leeds United finally made their long-awaited return to the Premier League at the hands of master tactician Marcelo Bielsa. After failing at the first time of asking, the Argentine fulfilled his goal of taking The Whites back where they belong: The Premier League. But how well would Leeds perform after being away for so long? Would Bielsa’s courageous style of play work? Would the players be able to make the step up? All of these questions have been somewhat answered as we pass the halfway mark, so let’s get into it.
Leeds decided to start the season by causing as much chaos as possible with a 4-3 defeat to reigning champions Liverpool followed by a 4-3 victory over Fulham. This of course drew criticism from the media. How could Leeds possibly continue to play this way and hope to stay up with the rate they were conceding goals? Leeds silenced the critics, for a short while at least, with a gritty 1-0 triumph over Sheffield United courtesy of a late Patrick Bamford header. A 1-1 draw with the formidable Manchester City would follow, a game where record signing Rodrigo grabbed his first goal for a club. Next, Leeds would end up on the wrong side of a 1-0 defeat to Wolves after a deflected Raul Jimenez strike took the wind out of their sails. Leeds had 7 points from 5 games and considering they had played the two best sides in the league already; things were looking up.
Many had doubted whether Patrick Bamford would be good enough for the Premier League considering his patchy form in the Championship as he netted 16 times on the way to the title. The next game against Aston Villa would be the moment the league looked up and noticed that Patrick Bamford was not messing around. The striker scored a hattrick as Leeds knocked the high-flying Villains off their perch with a 3-0 victory. Leeds had taken the league by storm and relegation didn’t seem as though it would be an issue. That was until back to back 4-1 defeats to Leicester City and Crystal Palace burst the Leeds United bubble and calls for a change in playing style emerged from people who knew nothing about Marcelo Bielsa.
Anybody who knows anything about the Argentine knows that he would live and die by his principles due to an unwavering commitment to playing football the right way and a duty to entertain the masses. With conversations about the shaky defence piling up, Leeds responded with back to back clean sheets with a 0-0 draw with 10-man Arsenal and a 1-0 victory over Everton, where Raphinha scored a screamer to open his account for his new club. Then when Patrick Bamford put Leeds 1-0 up against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea it seemed as though nothing could go wrong. But something did go wrong, and that something was Chelsea clawing back to earn a 3-1 victory in front of a fraction of the Stamford Bridge crowd. This began a stretch of results where clean sheets became a rare commodity, a 2-1 defeat to West Ham highlighted the clear vulnerability from set pieces before a 5-2 victory over Newcastle showed how deadly Leeds were on the counter attack but also deepened the concern surrounding dead ball situations.
Then we had the big one. Leeds United would be playing Manchester United in the Premier League and their fans couldn’t wait. Unfortunately for Leeds fans, they found themselves 2-0 down after 4 minutes and all anticipation evaporated. Captain Liam Cooper and hard-working Stuart Dallas would score in the 6-2 defeat to the Red Devils and once again discussion would arise about the weakness of the defence. How did Leeds respond? With successive clean sheets in a 1-0 win over Burnley and an emphatic 5-0 thrashing of relegation strugglers West Brom. The Whites were safely sitting in mid table and relegation fears had seemingly disappeared entirely, that was until Tottenham handed them a modest 3-0 battering and Brighton comprehensively swept them aside in a 1-0 defeat at Elland Road.
But if Leeds had proven anything this season it was that they refuse to give up and their form would pick up eventually and it did. A nervy second half against Newcastle was eventually calmed as Jack Harrison scored the winning goal before their best performance of the season against Leicester lead to a 3-1 triumph at the King Power. A Dominic Calvert-Lewin header was ultimately the difference between Leeds and Everton in the next game as The Toffees ran out 2-1 winners at Elland Road.
We are now 21 games into the season and Leeds are sitting comfortably in 11th place, 15 points above Fulham in 18th. It would take a monumental collapse for Leeds to get relegated at this point and they are instead looking up. A European push would probably be a step too far, but their objective this season was to stay in the league, and it looks as though they are going to do that. Bielsa’s style has now gone mainstream. Countless fans who had never seen the Argentine’s teams before being amazed at the fluidity and sheer confidence of the Leeds players to stick to the game plan regardless of the opposition. Most of the players have shown that they do belong in this division. Despite the disappointing form of Helder Costa and Tyler Roberts when called upon, and three-time player of the year Pablo Hernandez finally showing his age, the majority have impressed. Kalvin Phillips has been called up to the England squad and has seamlessly slipped into the Premier League, Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling have been consistently impressive regardless of where they’ve been asked to play, and who could forget Patrick Bamford? 11 goals in 21 games is somewhat surprising given his inconsistency last season, but the former Middlesbrough man has made the monumental step up and has more than risen to the challenge of being a Premier League number 9.
Overall, Leeds have had as good a start as they realistically could have hoped for and will most likely be in the division next season. Where do they go from there? That remains to be seen. But what we do know is that Marcelo Bielsa and his team are only just getting started and the biggest sleeping giant in English football has finally awoken.