This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Back in August 2014, former Forest Green Rovers manager Dave Hockaday – clinging desperately to the final few of his 70 days in charge of Leeds United – said it was “inevitable” that maverick chairman Massimo Cellino would take the club into the Champions League, and he wanted to be “a big part of that journey”.
Some days, that feels like a lifetime ago. Other times, it feels like yesterday. Every Leeds fan fears waking up to find that Marcelo Bielsa never came to Yorkshire, and it was all a crazy dream. To outsiders, much of the noise around Leeds can come across as annoying bluster but, secretly, the 20 years that followed the club’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Valencia have left fans quite fragile.
It may have looked last season as if Leeds were swaggering into their final position of 9th (once they’d finished staggering to 6-2 defeats, at least), but the target was never higher than 17th. Director of football Victor Orta said he’d throw himself into the River Aire if Leeds were relegated without fans seeing Premier League football at Elland Road.
So, apart from bettering a league-high 15 goals conceded from set-pieces, what targets do you set when you’ve just overachieved so enormously? European qualification? Well, why not?
The joy and fear of 2020/21 came from watching players who won the Championship, many of them – such as the irrepressible Stuart Dallas (pictured below) – inherited rather than signed by Bielsa, stepping up to a higher level. Leeds spent around £95 million, but injuries, COVID and poor form meant only Raphinha, the dazzling winger, made a big impact.
Two international defenders arrived, in Robin Koch and Diego Llorente, but it was unheralded 21-year-old Pascal Struijk who shone. Rodrigo, the club’s record signing, was only just hitting form at the season’s end. We’ve yet to see how much the squad was improved by last summer’s business.
United’s renaissance, as everyone now realises, is down to Bielsa getting from players what they didn’t know they had. For three years, people have discussed burnout, but each season the players improve and go harder for longer. It’s tough playing for Leeds – other clubs win as much without the Murderball – but none of the players look as if they’ve had enough of the journey yet. Quite the opposite.
In fact, the Whites have come so far that even Dave Hockaday’s dreams have started to make sense.
The five-point plan
1 Go easy on Illan
Illan Meslier only turned 21 in March. He played 35 games last season. The goalkeeper is an extraordinary talent, guided by his temperament: unflustered, he shrugs off mistakes, vowing – with a growling voice belying his baby face – never to repeat them. Eleven clean sheets is a fine return from one so young, especially as only two Premier League keepers faced more shots on target. He’s good, but more protection would be nice. Signing Junior Firpo from Barcelona should certainly help.
2 Be like pat
Some 17 goals and seven assists – yes, Pat Bamford can do it in the Premier League. And, yes, he should have an England cap. But United’s creativity means that others around him should be reaching double figures for goals as well.
Patrick Bamford 🔥🔥🔥📺 Watch live on on Sky Sports PL📱 Follow #LEESOU here: https://t.co/dCMVJTS141📲 Download the @SkySports app! pic.twitter.com/b2flrmnLRyFebruary 23, 2021
3 Gain a new home advantage
One of the most partisan club grounds in England was, like everywhere, quiet last season. Raphinha didn’t get the welcome he deserved, and nor did Chelsea. Returning fans should make up for the loss of last term’s leveller: the pitch. It became so bad, a spare was bought off Spurs mid-season. Summer has brought the first full rebuild since 1996 and Leeds now have something proper to play on, although so do everybody else.
4 Use the youth
Bielsa’s belief in keeping his squad small means the best young players stay at Leeds rather than going out on loan, but El Loco’s fitness work means regulars are rarely absent long enough to give talented starlets a run. He used the fewest number of players last season, too. The Under-23s romped to a league title in 202021 – it’s time some were rewarded with senior action.
5 Don't believe the hype
Yes, European qualification is on the agenda, but survival in 2021/22 would keep the club’s long-term ambitions on track. Can Leeds handle the disappointment if another Premier League top-half finish is beyond them? It wouldn’t necessarily mean second season syndrome or burnout, however.
FFT verdict: 8th
Bielsa has made more surgical improvements to his squad. El Loco will prove this is no fluke.
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