Player Analysis: How Meslier, Struijk and Bamford exceeded expectations

Leeds United proved everyone wrong this season. The West Yorkshire outfit finished 9th in the league above the likes of Wolves and Everton defying expectations at every turn thanks to the widespread quality within the squad and the way Marcelo Bielsa harnessed it through his energetic style of play which, it has to be said, was built for the Premier League.

Leeds definitely had plenty of players going into this season people expected to impress. Fans of big clubs were already suggesting that their teams wait for Leeds to suffer relegation before swooping in for the likes of Kalvin Phillips picking him up on a post-relegation bargain. But some Leeds players have exceeded expectations with some outstanding performances that fans and pundits did not see coming.

When you consider the injury woes of Kalvin Phillips and other key players last year, the performances of others deserve even more credit. With that in mind, here’s three Leeds United players who exceeded expectations this season.

Illan Meslier

When Meslier arrived at Elland Road last season he was expected to develop into a brilliant keeper but few expected him to look so settled so fast. Even fewer expected him to impress in the Premier League this season. But he went on to be one of the league’s best keeper’s this campaign.

His 11 clean sheets was the fifth most in the league whilst only three keepers made more saves than his impressive total of 140, a stat made all the more impressive by the fact he faced an average of 1.7 quality chances per game – a similar amount to the likes of Sam Johnstone at West Brom – and yet Leeds conceded less than 1.5 goals per game on average last season. This demonstrates him literally exceeding expectations given the number of quality chances Leeds gave up and the number he stopped with a save percentage of over 70%. He defied the odds denying teams the chance to kill off Bielsa’s boys.

Furthermore, despite playing in a league where pressing teams dominate in the shape of Liverpool and Manchester City and where everyone tries to play out of the back, no keeper attempted more passes than the young Frenchman. Knowing how key this is to the way Bielsa sets up, this depicts him becoming a central part to the way Leeds play perhaps more so than anyone anticipated.

Thus, there’s no doubt that in 20/21 he was better than anyone expected. Leeds United certainly have a special young keeper on their hands.

Pascal Struijk

He hardly featured in Leeds’ promotion campaign last term, but in 2020/21 Pascal Struijk was one of Leeds’ best defenders and is now arguably Marcelo Bielsa’s first choice left centre-back going into next season. He adapted hastily to the top flight despite his lack of experience and even attracted interest from the likes of Leicester by Christmas.

The fact he made 22 more appearances in the league last season compared to when Leeds achieved promotion shows development beyond what anyone expected. After all, developing enough to play 22 more times than the previous season is impressive itself, but to do so in a tougher league is exceptional.

Even more so is how he settled himself into the role and became virtually undroppable. In his 27 appearances, he didn’t make a single error which led to a goal, he won over 50% of his duals and made over 80 clearances and nearly 50 headed clearances showing his ability to stifle attacks and force teams to reset enabling Bielsa’s pressing to take effect further up the field.

We should also give him credit for the way he stepped up into the number six role at times in Kalvin Phillips’ absence. Perhaps that’s why he registered more interceptions than Phillips displaying quality in closing down passing lanes and effectively deploying Bielsa’s man-marking. Meanwhile, he proved confident on the ball averaging 48 passes per game.

Patrick Bamford

17 goals. 17 goals. I don’t think anyone expected Bamford to score that many this season. At times the ex-Middlesbrough striker struggled to score in the Championship and often squandered big chances. But boy did he wow in the Premier League this season.

In terms of English strikers, only Harry Kane out scored Bamford in the league this season whilst Bamford’s shot accuracy of 45% was akin to Kane’s record in the Premier League demonstrating a shooting accuracy on par with the very best strikers in the league despite the fact he squandered 21 big chances in the league last year. That may seem like cause for concern, but the fact he scored 17 goals and put himself into the right position to receive a further 21 big chances demonstrates a positional intelligence capable of rivalling anyone’s.

We should also give credit to his willingness to get others involved in play. He averaged over 13 passes per game which is a surprisingly high number for a number nine. Seven of his passes led directly to goals as well and a further five culminated in the creation of big chances for his teammates.

Meanwhile, he demonstrated his importance in defence and to Bielsa’s high press coming up with a huge 18.72 pressures per 90.

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