Last season ended in heartbreak for Leeds United. Despite spending most of the season in the top two they failed to make automatic promotion, then crashed out of the play-offs to Derby County despite being favourites to progress.
But Marcelo Bielsa signed on for another year, and they bounced back to go one better in 2019/20. Now, after 16 years of waiting, Leeds are back in the Premier League.
This is how they did it…
Avoided the play-off hangover
Losing in the play-offs is tough.
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The manner in which Leeds lost to Derby in the semi-final last season led many to question what their mental state would be like at the start of this season, but all doubts were answered immediately and emphatically.
Leeds romped to a tally of 16 points from their opening seven games, and have only ended seven gameweeks in the entire campaign outside of the top five. Since mid-November they haven’t dropped out of the top two once.
Some key acquisitions
Serious eyebrows were raised in the summer when Pontus Jansson, a crucial centre-back and cult hero at Elland Road, was allowed to leave for Brentford with seemingly no replacement.
The only centre-back arrival was a virtually unknown 21-year-old on loan from Brighton, who had spent the best part of the past two campaigns on loan in League Two with Newport, then League One with Peterborough.
Bielsa, naturally, knew what he was doing, and Ben White has emerged as arguably the best centre-back in the Championship. Leeds will be desperate to keep hold of him for next season.
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“Whether Leeds go up and try to buy him or not, I’m sure he’ll firmly be in Brighton’s plans because he’s a huge talent,” Newport boss Michael Flynn told Sky Sports earlier this season. “He has gone through the leagues and done well in every single one of them.
“I think he’ll play in the Premier League and for England.”
Helder Costa also arrived from Wolves, initially on loan, to provide an extra dimension to their attacking play. His pace and directness was something they lacked at times last season, and has helped them find the key goal in many games they were struggling for a breakthrough.
Improvement of his players
When owner Andrea Radrizzani appointed Bielsa in 2018 he made it clear that there wouldn’t be huge money to spend, but he was bringing in the Argentine to help improve the players already there. And there is no doubt that almost every player in the Leeds squad has improved under his stewardship.
There are the obvious ones such as Kalvin Phillips and Luke Ayling, in which you saw clear improvements from virtually the moment the Argentine came in, but also others such as Jack Harrison – who has come on leaps and bounds during his time at Elland Road.
The Manchester City loanee enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, first campaign in 2018/19, but this season he has been undroppable. His relentless energy has proved a vital cog in Bielsa’s machine.
Mateusz Klich was on the periphary of the squad when Bielsa arrived, having barely featured the season before, but has been a virtual ever-present for him in midfield. Stuart Dallas has turned into a rampaging full-back and vital utility man.
“[Bielsa] is relentless, especially with his weight targets and how he goes about training every day,” Phillips told Sky Sports earlier this year. “I never thought he would improve me as much as he has. He is on my case about my weight all the time!”
Captain and centre-back Liam Cooper added: “Fitness-wise for me it’s been unbelievable. When I signed I was weighing in around 92kg, now I’m more like 81kg. You never think your body can do what it does, and since he’s come in he has changed the whole way the club works. It is chalk and cheese.”
A helpful suspension
It can’t be overlooked that the suspension helped play into the hands of Leeds a little. There is a feeling, looking back on Bielsa’s career, that his relentless demands tend to lead to burnout among his squad towards the end of the season, so a three-month break to recover before the run-in can’t have hurt.
Since returning from the Coronavirus-enforced suspension, Leeds have won five of their seven games. Last season, they lost five of their final nine to slip out of the top two.
The Leeds fan base are a passionate, vast and demanding lot. They can drive you on, but also the pressure of delivering them Premier League football is huge. It could also be argued that being able to play their final few games at home in an empty stadium – while not in any way desirable – may certainly have helped mentally during the run-in.
Faith in Bamford
Bielsa tends to prefer a tight-knit group of players, and where possible has picked from the same group of 14 or 15 players all season.
The Argentine likes to work with his squad and use players he can trust to play his system. And that is no truer of anyone than striker Patrick Bamford.
As Bamford’s form dipped in the first half of the season, there were calls to bring Eddie Nketiah – perhaps a more natural goalscorer – into the starting line-up. But Bielsa would never bend on his principles and eventually Nketiah returned to Arsenal early from his loan spell.
In late January, Jean-Kevin Augustin came in on loan from RB Leipzig with a big reputation, but a mixture of injuries, Bielsa deeming him not ready for the Championship, and the eventual suspension of football meant he ended up making just three substitute appearances for Leeds, and not scoring a single goal.
Bamford has come in for his fair share of criticism. Despite his 16 goals this season his finishing can, at times, leave a lot to be desired. But his pressing from the front and link-up play is invaluable to Bielsa. And needless to say his faith has paid off.
“I owe a lot to Marcelo because he’s the first manager who has seen me as an out-and-out No 9,” Bamford told the I Newspaper in an interview earlier this year. “Other managers have known that I can do it, but have played me as a second striker or as a right winger. Bielsa has fully trusted me and he’s made me a better player.”
How will they cope in the Premier League?
It may have been an FA Cup game that they lost, but the way Leeds played against Arsenal for large swathes of their third-round tie at the Emirates in January suggests they won’t be overawed when they return to the top flight.
Bielsa will have the respect of all his fellow managers, with Pep Guardiola in particular speaking in the past about him in glowing terms, describing him as more loved “than any other manager in the world”.
Some investment will be needed to be sure they don’t go the same way as Norwich, but anyone who comes in will have to fit the Bielsa mould.
It will be interesting to see if Bamford remains the focal point and how he will cope at a level he has struggled before at the past, while a player such as Pablo Hernandez – who has been so influential in their creative capacity in the last couple of seasons – may not have the legs to cope again in the top flight.
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