After a brutal 46-game campaign in the Championship, Leeds United FC have regained their place amongst the elite of English football.
In doing so, the club has turned its back on sixteen traumatic years in the wilderness. Those years were characterised by repeat episodes of playoff heartbreak, three seasons in the third tier of English football, and more than a brush with financial oblivion leading to points deductions.
The dynamic nature of head coach Marcelo Bielsa’s setup is very indicative of a new dawn for the Whites, but the hard work has only just begun, and there are several factors that will prevent them from suffering an immediate relegation.
Relevant tactics are vital.
There is more chance of Leeds winning the Premier League itself than Bielsa changing the setup that saw Leeds win the Championship.
Even in the face of truly feared teams, there will be no alteration to his default 4-1-4-1 formation, which can morph into 4-3-3, or 3-3-1-3, in an instant. It is a formation that fully honours the demands of present-day top flight, offering swift counter-attacking, and better-defined roles in the centre of the park.
Having a devoted anchor, ball-winner and stopper in the midfield triangle provides the optimal balance between possession retention, creativity and distribution. As such, Leeds might lack top-flight pedigree between them, but the key sense of mutual familiarity – and a clear positional agenda to suit various situations – will be a major boost towards Leeds doing more than merely surviving.
Leeds’ ability to enact a high pressing game also fits well within the setup. By July of the 2019/20 season, Leeds’ efficiency in turning defence into attack was fully evident, with the Whites requiring just 5.86 passes on average after an interception (or opposition clearance) to launch an offensive move.
Star quality and important personnel
Every player without exception is key to the success of this setup, but Kalvin Phillips, who was blown away this week after receiving his England call-up, is particularly crucial when it comes to maintaining the efficiency of Bielsa’s fluid approach.
He covers an extraordinary amount of ground, even for a central midfielder. In addition, Phillips offers service as a makeshift defender – or a defence-fronting sweeper – in Bielsa’s trademark iteration of the 3-3-1-3.
Phillips’ fitness will be key to Leeds’ survival, which will be a particular point of focus in long-term markets seen on well-established sites such as Sporting Index.
Rodrigo represents ‘positive’ gamble
Regardless, the honour of being Leeds’ most esteemed player comfortably goes to new signing Rodrigo. The £27m Valencia star can play anywhere across Bielsa’s front three, and was very nearly an Atletico Madrid player for twice that amount only last summer.
A return of just 0.22 goals per game in La Liga has led to some doubts around his ability to cope with the demands of the Premier League. Yet, what he lacks in goals per game, he more than compensates for by his speed, hold-up play and vision.
Encouragingly, the latter of the above attributes saw him ranked inside the top 12% of passers into the final third in last season’s La Liga campaign. Having already familiarised himself with a system that employs overlapping full backs, Leeds’ front three will be amongst the most unpredictable in the upcoming campaign.
Costa is one to watch
The prospect of Rodrigo playing next to the now-permanently signed Helder Costa is particularly enthralling, and further deepens Leeds potential to be unpredictable.
Compared to notable others that operate in the same position across a front three, such as Salah and Mahrez, Costa concentrates far more on playing in the wide areas. While cutting inside is seen as essential towards the worth of a wide man, Costa’s ability to control the ball, even inches from the whitewash, will buy his teammates ample time to receive any successful crosses and find gaps in the defence.
Instant momentum will be key
Leeds and Bielsa can plan from dawn until dusk, but ultimately it is what happens on the pitch that matters. While there is far more optimism surrounding Leeds compared to most newly-promoted sides of years past, they still bear a tag – of being ‘newcomers’ – that has applied to at least one relegated team in all but three of the previous 28 Premier League campaigns.
Building momentum, and learning from losses is the only way the Yorkshire club can move forward. Taking any positives at all from Anfield on the opening weekend of 2020/21 would be a good start to the campaign, regardless of the result. Above all, it will act as an indicator of how ready they are for the games they ‘have’ to win, with Leeds’ first Premier League home game in 5,978 days (vs relegation favourites Fulham) undoubtedly amongst them.
Overall, there is significant optimism surrounding Leeds’ chances of survival.
Based on pre-season averages taken across ever major bookmaker in the UK, Leeds are 7/2 (or +350) for relegation in most places. While those odds may seem short, Leeds still enter the new season projected for a mid-table finish, if using the long list for relegation as a guide to predicting the league table come spring 2021.