Sixteen years of hurt, frustration and misery at Leeds United came to a resounding end in July, with Marcelo Bielsa’s leading Leeds United into the Premier League at the second attempt, following playoff heartbreak last year.
Bielsa – the gamble that paid off
Having managed two major CONMEBOL teams (Argentina and Chile), alongside European heavyweights like Lazio and Marseille in previous years, the sight of Bielsa occupying the home dugout at Elland Road for the first time in August 2018 was as surreal as it was ridiculous.
Simply put, managers of Bielsa’s calibre have absolutely no place in the second tier of English football. Regardless, the powers at Leeds United went all-out for the best candidate by a mile back in June 2018.
Initially, it all went to plan, with Leeds topping the table on New Year’s Day. However, form slumped in the second half of the campaign, leaving Leeds fourth. A 1-0 victory at Derby County in the first leg of the semi-final was seen by many as an automatic pass to the final, but Derby refused to surrender. Leeds were trounced 4-2 by the Rams at Elland Road, rendering the exhausting campaign pointless.
Despite this heartbreak, which was inevitably accompanied by Bielsa being linked to a raft of greater clubs, the Argentine tactician stayed put and stuck to his principles. In doing so, Leeds made another great start, and would yet again ring in the New Year atop the table. Impressively, the Whites lost just once between 19 October and 1 January, and enjoyed a perfect November.
But then it all started going wrong, and after an important 1-1 draw at West Bromwich on New Years’ Day, Leeds lost four of their next five. However, there would be no repeat of the previous campaign’s calamitous dive from automatic promotion, with Leeds winning 11 of their final 14 games and clinching the title with two games to spare.
Importance of promotion never underestimated
Either way, 2019/20 was always going to be Bielsa’s last Championship campaign at Leeds. It is extremely hard to envisage him staying yet another term at Elland Road, had the Whites failed yet again to take the initiative.
Overall, the numbers reflect a team that fully deserved promotion, with Leeds recording an overall win rate of 60.87% and a joint-best goal difference of +42. Over half (15) of their 28 victories saw them win by a margin of two or more goals, with seven of their last nine victories – including both recorded after the title was assured – boasting that characteristic.
In addition, Leeds conceded the fewest goals against in the league, with 35 in the wrong column (0.8 goals conceded on average) being a comfortable Championship low. Furthermore, they created the highest tally of ‘big chances’, averaging exactly 2.0 per league game, while also boasting the second-best passing accuracy in the Championship (behind Fulham) with 400.4 successful passes per game.
The long road to redemption
All of the key stats around last season illustrate why providers of exciting football prices consider Leeds less likely to drop in 2020/21 compared to other, more established Premier League sides. The squad’s self-evident desire to never again spend vast years in the wilderness is also a factor therein.
Ultimately, the Whites’ slog to regain top-flight status is something that will go down in legend, as a prime example of how perseverance and belief are twin powers beyond human comprehension. Yet, no recollection of the fantastic 2019/20 campaign carries much weight without comparison to its second-tier predecessors.
Back in 2004, Leeds were gearing up for their first season outside the top-flight since 1989/90. However, few expected them to make an instant return, such was the severity of the financial woes they were suffering. Losing Alan Smith to Manchester United was a hammer blow, and the writing was on the wall as early as August, with Leeds following up an encouraging 1-0 opening day win against Derby by losing 2-1 at Gillingham in front of just 10,739 spectators.
The requisite run of wins never came, but Leeds fared better in the next campaign, reaching the 2006 playoff final. Candidly, it was a nightmare for Leeds, with opponents Watford defying their status as betting outsiders to thrash the Yorkshiremen 3-0. The hangover from that devastating result continued into 2006/07, which – combined with a points deduction for entering administration – culminated in their relegation to the third tier for the first time ever.
Two successive failures in the League One playoffs were followed by a second-place finish in 2010, but the forthcoming eight years would see Leeds consistently finish below the playoff zone, averaging nothing better than solid mid-table finishes in most cases, all the way up to Bielsa’s appointment, and his tactical transformation of a genuine ‘sleeping giant’.
Rolling back the years
The sight of Liverpool and Leeds at the top of the first two tiers in the football pyramid is a curious one, as that configuration last came about exactly thirty years ago. Memorably, Leeds won the title just two years after their 1990 promotion, with the likes of Strachan, McAllister and Speed proving unplayable at times.
Ever the professional, Bielsa has undoubtedly studied the Leeds squad of the early 1990s behind closed doors, and in turn, he will make every effort to get the right personnel in place. In doing so with his traditional sense of pragmatism, he will give Leeds a solid foundation to a run in the Premier League lasting generations – at the very least.