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Can Leeds reclaim their position as a regular Premier League club?

Mateus Carvalho casts a discerning eye over Leeds United to assess their prospects in the Premier League.

I still remember being a little kid, and obsessively watching football matches, reading sports newspapers and playing Championship Manager. It was inevitable that a number of stories started popping up in my football imagination, some of them self-discovered, some of them told by my grandfather. He often spoke to me about this English club called Leeds United, who once played the Champions League and then fell abruptly into the lower divisions of English football. Leeds United was perhaps the first story I heard about a football club falling into demise.

Indeed, in 2004 Leeds United were relegated to the Championship after years of being one of the top teams in English football. 16 years (and even a subsequent relegation to League One) have passed and finally Leeds returned to the topflight. This historical and globally famous achievement received all the more attention due to the man at the helm: Argentinian world-renowned coach, Marcelo Bielsa.

In this article, I do not intend to re-tell the story of Leeds United’s ascension. I instead wish to focus on the question formulated in the title: can Leeds reclaim their position as a regular Premier League club? I do not wish (or feel competent to) delve into the question of where in the table will Leeds United finish on a consistent basis or even whether they will become one of the best clubs in the Premier League again. Neither will I focus on the economic overview of the club, even if Leeds’ previous struggles were deeply financially rooted (I assume that the reader would not want that as well).

Instead I will focus on Leeds United short-term and long-term chances of re-solidifying a place in the Premier League, wherever in the standings that may be and assuming relative financial health of the club. After a brief statistical and tactical overview that I find useful to sustain my opinion, I will focus on the key factors that I believe to be integral for Leeds United to be competitive year in and year out in the Premier League: depth, experience and long-term club stability.

Brief tactical and statistical outlook

Leeds United under Bielsa has been incredibly consistent in their squad composition, style of play and tactical formations. I do not mean to be exhaustive in this analysis, but I do want to point out some patterns and characteristics of the team in the last two years (since ‘El Loco’ took over as coach of the Peacocks). Knowing his football philosophy and having watched Leeds’ first games of the season I’m confident in saying that the overall characteristics of the team will remain the same in the Premier League.

Leeds United displays itself in a 1-4-1-4-1 resting formation (the goalkeeper very much accounts for Leeds’ playing style) that will often develop into Bielsa’s trademark 1-3-3-1-3 or a 1-3-3-3-1 in attacking movements: (i) the defensive midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, dropping deep between the centre-backs in build-up; (ii) the full-backs going up and playing alongside the other central midfielder, Mateusz Klich; (iii) and then, in a very nuanced way, the wingers supporting the forward or alongside an offensive midfielder or second-forward depending on the degree of attacking inclination Bielsa wants to adopt for each match. It all becomes easier with some visuals:

Bielsa’s Leeds is a very intense, all around-pressing squad. Nonetheless, it is heavily dependent on a select core of players that will play almost every minute. Some indicators prove this:

  • In the 2019/2020 season, 11 players played more than 3000 minutes and apart from those only 4 players played more than 1000 minutes. A similar (yet less extreme) state of affairs can be found with regard to the previous season;
  • Also, last season amassed an impressive 30% of ‘aggression’ metrics, meaning the percentage of opposition pass receipts faced by a pressure event or defensive action;
  • If you look into any pressing heat map, you will see that Leeds United press in all areas of the pitch with around 1.5 times more defensive actions to opposition passes in any zone of the pitch (except for the back goalkeeper line). Their pressure starts from the striker – e.g. Patrick Bamford their starting striker the last two seasons has had an above 80% percentage of pressure events in the opposition’s half.

Just look at one example:

Lastly, Leeds United managed to attain positive xG differences (xG – xG against) in the last two seasons (before Bielsa took over they actually were a negative xG team) and in the promotion season their actual production more or less matched their xG data.

Leeds United only allowed 35 goals (best in the division, with roughly 0.8 goals conceded per match, a number a little bit superior to their xG against of around 0.5) and had the best goal difference of the Championship (+42, tied with Brentford FC). Their offensive production remained fairly stable throughout these two seasons, hovering around 1.5 xG and translating into 153 goal scored (an average of 1.62 per match).

Of course, the Premier League is more demanding, and this already shows this season: having started the season with a 3-4 loss against Liverpool and a 4-3 win against Fulham, they scored 7 goals (with an xG of 3.1) and conceded 7 goals (6.7 xG against). It is not difficult to understand that such a high pressing style will augment shot quality for the opponent when it does manage to surpass Leeds’s pressing lines. They seem, however, to have improved this side of their game in their last match against Sheffield United (won 1-0), with a xG result of 1.71 – 1.32 (positive differential of + 0,39).

The sample size this season is, nonetheless, very small.

So, can Leeds reclaim their position as a regular Premier League club?

By answering this question, I will spare you a redundant conclusion at the end: yes, they can. Easy, right? End of the article? Not even close. The key word here is regular. In order to reclaim a regular status in Premier League and avoid a return to Championship woes, especially in England’s top flight, a lot of factors need to concur. There is, obviously, a certain degree of uncertainty, especially in such a competitive league. Not always a ‘positive’ and offensive approach to football grants you success therein (just look at last season’s Norwich City). However, in my view these are some of the key factors for Leeds United to ensure long-term stability in the Premier League:

Squad depth

Depth for me has two veins, a short-term and a long term one. In what pertains to the short-term pertinence of squad depth, it seems to me that despite their extremely intense style of play documented above, Leeds United will fare well in the Premier League: the Championship has way more games and they managed to achieve incredible success and, above all, extremely consistent performance stats (even when results seemed to slag a bit). Not playing in European competitions and already eliminated from the Carabao Cup, it doesn’t seem to me that the core of players Bielsa relies on will falter too much under fatigue (also due to their incredible physical preparation under the Argentinian, with very rigorous trainings and body fat and other physiological demands imposed on players). That being said, squad depth sure plays a role on allowing Leeds United to nuance their approach to matches.

Case in point: the offensive midfielder/second forward role is very much interchangeable in Bielsa’s system as we’ve seen above. The signing of Rodrigo Moreno, a mobile striker, despite having already Patrick Bamford and Tyler Roberts in the squad, provides more solutions in the attacking front. Bielsa can play Roberts or Moreno as main strikers, substituting Bamford, or as a second-forward, but also as a No. 10-type player (although not a pure one). Bielsa might even want to combine the two of these three strikers, and play in somewhat of a 3-1-4-2 (like in the most recent Sheffield United clash, where he played left-back Dallas more in front, pushing Jack Harrison to the centre of the midfield alongside Klich and thus making a midfield line of 4, and assembling somewhat of a back three with Ayling as a right-centre back). This is only one example, but I can name a few other players that were brought this season with a view to having more depth in the squad, like Robin Koch, Diego Llorente.

Long-term, and especially if Leeds United enjoy a certain degree of success that propels them to European competitions, we know how demanding the English calendar can be. There, irrespective of the coach or style of play Leeds United will need a deep squad, with sufficient players to endure such a long season.

We should also bear in mind that the answer to this might very well rely on player development. Firstly, Bielsa is known for this; as we’ve seen at Leeds he took a mid-table side, hardly made any changes to the playing staff and drastically contributed to a performance improvement of the likes of Bamford (look at his goals résumé) or Kalvin Phillips (an England international nowadays), for example. Secondly, couple this with the select group of young players under long-term contracts that the Whites have already on the senior side, being groomed under one of the best coaches of the world: Meslier now the starting goalkeeper, Pascal Struijk, a centre-back from Ajax’s academy, Ian Poveda, a former Citizen, Leif Davis, Jamie Shackleton, Mateusz Bogusz, Robbie Gotts, Tyler Roberts, a more and more influential player since he started being developed by Bielsa at the age of 19. The list goes on, but the future sure seems bright.

Experience and defensive consistency

However competitive the Championship, nothing compares to the Premier League. Being a fairly inexperienced squad in this division, Leeds United could face no better first test than the first matchday clash with champions Liverpool FC. After losing 4-3 and conceding two penalties in the process, Bielsa laconically put it in the post-match presser: “at this level, errors equals goals”.

I believe it will be key for this team to be compact at all times, focused at all times and avoid not so smart decisions, mainly on the defensive side of things, that will amount to goals. In this aspect this is a learning curve and (sorry for the cliché) the more you play the better you’ll get. Of course, to have such an experienced coach at the helm in this first season back in the Premier League can be hugely beneficial to Leeds United; especially one that so carefully analyses their opponents and assembles his team’s game plan.

For Leeds you can also see this learning curve in the last matches, with one clean sheet and despite still allowing a fair number of shots, diminishing their quality (we can see that in the drop in xG against compared with the first two matches of the season but also in the mere 28% of shots on goal that Sheffield managed to make). To sum up, experience will be key especially in the defensive side of things – to allow 3 penalties in 3 matches in the Premier League is the most glaring example.

When you leave fewer things to chance and every player knows what they should be doing, you significantly diminish the risk of avoidable errors. Even then, Leeds players should be persistent even when things go wrong; because they might and almost certainly will eventually during a long season. To quote Bielsa yet again: “the fact that you can imagine and anticipate some situations of the game, doesn’t mean you can necessarily avoid them”.

Long-term club stability

When you rely so heavily on a coach as Leeds United have for the past two years, you might face a long-term risk: what to do once that coach leaves?

Indeed, as many journalists covering the team and club officials have publicly stated, Bielsa drastically changed the club’s culture and organization: not only on the pitch but off the pitch as well; from the analytics to the physical preparation of players; from the club’s transfer policy (to suit Bielsa’s system) to even some ethical dimensions of the game (look at his decision to force his team to concede a goal against Aston Villa after scoring when an opposition player was on the ground, injured). He is a fan favourite, the squad as presently constructed seems to enjoy (and more importantly) be used to his ideas and rhythm of play, and the board seems fully on board with his vision for the club.

This is great, truly! But it doesn’t seem that Bielsa can be a long-term coach of this team. And what will happen once he eventually leaves? A significant part of this team is very much the same to the one he took over, a mere mid-table Championship side.

I believe long-term stability is firstly ensured by keeping a core group of players in the squad, a skeleton identified with the club’s culture and pedigree and that has played together for a number of years. That presently exists at Leeds: Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas, Kalvin Phillips, Mateusz Klich, Hélder Costa, Patrick Bamford. It is important that at least some of these players stay at the club, helping to integrate new additions to the squad and to push forth the young players already brewing in the supporting cast. Even if a team ends up renovating itself, it should do so in a piecemeal way. I could now easily state various teams who got promoted, acquired a brand-new squad for the first-tier (spending huge sums in the process) and underachieving in the process (2018/2019 Fulham comes to mind).

And yes, I promised I would not delve into economics, but I cannot control myself: this would be much less burdensome on the club from a financial standpoint. Stability in the squad and in the club culture has undoubtedly economical benefits. In Elland Road that is known far too well (not for the best reasons). But that’s the good thing about history and our imagination – if we learn from it, hopefully we won’t repeat past mistakes.

Read all our Opinion articles here.

All data from Statsbomb.

Mateus Carvalho

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