Upon their return to the Premier League after a 16-year absence, Leeds United have had a real season of ups and downs. Under the stewardship of ‘El Loco’ himself, Marcelo Bielsa, the Whites have built up a reputation for fast-paced football, intense pressure and entertaining matches. But could they bring their Championship winning form and style to the heady heights of the Premier League?
Leeds United Return to the Premier League
A Special Campaign
Last season was something special for the masses at Elland Road. A standard of football to be proud of, a manager to believe in, and a club run how it should be for a change. Make no mistake about it, however. If Leeds had not been promoted it would have been a problem. Financial fair play would have forced the hand of the owners in terms of player sales and other drastic measures.
But despite Covid-19, some say because of Covid19, Leeds United managed to maintain their charge and reach their destiny. A fan base so hungry for success, so desperate for top-flight football, now had it. Heroes were born. Murals decorate the walls of this city in tribute. Leeds will never forget. Leeds United were back in the Premier League.
New Faces to Boost the Championship-Winning Squad
In order to attempt to stay in the top flight, Leeds United knew they had to make moves. Director of football Victor Orta had to be smart, and any players brought in had to improve to the starting eleven. With around £100 million spent in total, the Whites didn’t mess around.
With Ben White unavailable after a stellar Championship campaign, Leeds needed to strengthen their backline. How does a Spanish and a German international sound?
Diego Llorente made his way over from Real Sociedad for a fee believed to be around £17 million. Robin Koch soon followed, Leeds having overcome interest from Borussia Dortmund to secure his signature for approximately £13 million. Two international centre backs for around £30 million, the figure Leeds attempted to sign Ben White for in the first place. Good start.
Creative Additions With Brazilian Roots
If Leeds fans were looking for a marquee signing, they weren’t left disappointed. As Spain’s number nine at the time, Orta managed to secure the £27 million signature of Rodrigo. Valencia were in financial trouble, and the sudden availability of the Brazilian-born forward sent tongues wagging at Elland Road. And he was not the last flair signing of the summer.
Perhaps the most surprising signing of the summer came from Ligue 1. Raphinha, the Brazilian wing-wizard, was on the wanted list of all three of the Leeds supremos. Bielsa, Orta and owner Andrea Radrizanni loved his style, commitment and skill. The sudden openness of Stade Rennais to the sale took everyone by surprise, and at £17 million it might just prove to be the bargain of the whole transfer window.
Leeds United Season Review 2020/21
In stats terms, it’s very straightforward. A ninth-place finish with 59 points was Leeds’ highest finish since 2001/02. There were ten away wins for the first time since the 70s and Patrick Bamford’s ten goals away from home matched the achievement of Andy Johnson. Fifty-nine points was the highest total achieved by a newly promoted team since Ipswich Town in 2000/1, yet still a long way short of the record held by Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest with 77 points.
Stats are nice but they don’t paint the whole picture. After scoring 62 goals, but conceding 54, Amitai Winehouse of the Athletic describes Leeds United as “great entertainers.” It has been a season to remember, so let’s break it down.
The Start: Inconsistent but Incredibly Fun
The return of the Whites to the promised land was not a quiet one. Not at all.
A baptism of fire at the defending Champions drew intrigue and wonder from the league. Leeds may have lost 4-3 that night at Anfield but they gained many fans too. Another 4-3 followed straight after, this time a victory of Fulham, and an honourable draw with Manchester City soon after that.
But Leeds were inconsistent and often referred to as naive in terms of their defence. The “we’ll score more goals than them” approach was winning some new fans, but also causing a lot of concern from others. Bielsa’s boys would destroy Aston Villa one week, then be humiliated 4-1 two weeks running. Hammer Newcastle United 5-2 and then be devastated 6-2 by the enemy, Manchester United, the week after. Fans would turn on the TV to watch Leeds United play and know they would be in for a hell of a ride. But which way the result would go? Nobody could even guess!
The Middle: New Players Make Their Mark
Pundits seemed confused by Leeds United. They weren’t sure whether to praise them, lambast them or just enjoy the show. But by the middle of the season, while results were still up and down, the Leeds new boys were making their mark.
Injuries had plagued the early part of the season with Llorente, Koch and Rodrigo all facing time on the sidelines.
That being said, a certain Brazilian was setting the world on fire. Raphinha was tearing Premier League defences apart, just ask Gary Cahill, and delighting the Leeds fans at every turn. With goals, assists and a real fire in his belly, Raphinha had everyone on the edge of their seats. His goal against Everton, in particular, claimed a vital win, and a first victory ever at Goodison Park in the Premier League for Leeds United.
The End: Bielsa Burn Out the Myth
Llorente was now fit, young Pascal Struijk a revelation and captain Liam Cooper was proving himself more than capable at this level. Bielsa was learning all the time, and Leeds suddenly didn’t look so naïve anymore.
Stuart Dallas was rapidly emerging as one of the first names on the team sheet, Kalvin Philips was running the midfield and Patrick Bamford? Well, he finally had his chance with the big boys, and he was taking it.
April was set up to be the month of doom for the Whites, but El Loco and his boys had other plans. A win at Sheffield United, honourable draws against the Red Devils and Liverpool, and then the win of the season. Manchester City and their bench of multi-million-pound superstars could only watch on in shock and wonder as Stuart Dallas won the game for ten-man Leeds United on the break in the 90th minute. An unbelievable achievement against the runaway Premier League winners, and still the only Premier League side that Pep Guardiola is yet to beat. Aside from a slip up at Brighton & Hove Albion, Leeds United went unbeaten for the whole of April and May, progress indeed.
A season filled with great football, goals and drama has a lot of positives to list.
Player of the season Stuart Dallas has been a revelation. Eight goals from five different positions on the field, countless yards covered and of course that moment at the Etihad. Memories for a lifetime.
Young Frenchmen Illan Meslier has been a revelation between the sticks. Eleven clean sheets this season, the youngest to ever do so, has led to his inclusion in the European U21 team of the season. A bargain £5 million purchase which should serve Leeds well for years to come.
Kalvin Phillips is now an England regular, Raphinha is a magician and Jack Harrison’s stats left him amongst the Premier League elite. The defence has improved as the season has gone on, and Patrick Bamford’s goals left him fourth in the rankings, an admirable return.
Are there any downs? Aside from the Covid-19 restrictions on fans being able to worship their heroes, of course.
Leeds have impressed this season without a doubt, but there are areas to improve. If the Elland Road faithful want European football in the future, then a new left-back is a must. Gjanni Alioski has been fun, equally exciting and terrifying. But if Leeds are to go up a level, their left-back needs to do the same. Midfield support to cover for Philips, and also to improve the overall standards will also be high on the list.
A humbling early defeat to Manchester United aside, results aren’t really what will bring a tear to the eye of the Leeds supporters this summer.
Save that for Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi. The Leeds United icons left Elland Road on the last day of the season to raucous applause and stifled sniffles. There was barely a dry eye in the house as the heroes of old took their last steps on the hallowed turf. Both will be remembered fondly, both for rather different styles of play.
Tears for the old heroes and frustrated fury for the new. Patrick Bamford ended the season as the second-highest English goal scorer behind Harry Kane. But still, no place in Gareth Southgate’s England set up. England’s loss could be Leeds’ gain with a well-deserved rest this summer.
Final Word: The Man, the Legend, El Loco
The last word must go to the man who made it all possible. Not that he would ever admit it of course.
Marcelo Bielsa has turned “dirty Leeds” into exciting Leeds. “Everyone’s second favourite team” according to Alan Brazil. The hype around Bielsa-burnout has been put to bed with Leeds’ end of season form, looking stronger than ever. No one in the squad wanted the season to end.
Now the real trick is whether this momentum can be carried over into next season. With international players comes international attention. Leeds United’s stock is on the rise without a doubt.
Second season syndrome you say? El Loco wants to see you in his office…