Technically, Leeds United are in limbo again. Marcelo Bielsa only signed his contract for the 2020-21 season on September 11, the day before their campaign started with a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool. Now Bielsa joins Lionel Messi among the ranks of the out-of-contract Argentinians who no one thinks is going anywhere.
And yet this is a curiously reassuring form of instability. Bielsa will re-sign. A manager with a history of abrupt departures and brief spells elsewhere is already Leeds’ longest-serving manager since Simon Grayson; complete this season and he will have spent longer in charge at Elland Road than anyone since David O’Leary. The Irishman is a comparison in another respect: Bielsa’s ninth-place finish was Leeds’ best in the top flight since O’Leary steered them to fifth in 2002.
O’Leary famously took Leeds to Uefa Cup and Champions League semi-finals and if pre-season friendlies are scarcely similar, Leeds’ summer fixture list has at least revived memories of more cosmopolitan days: they lost 3-2 to Real Betis on Saturday and face Ajax and Villarreal this week.
O’Leary’s faith in youth formed too much of his rhetoric. It is something Bielsa shares. He is the oldest manager in a Premier League now shorn of Roy Hodgson but has signed Wigan midfielder Sean McGurk and Birmingham winger Amari Miller, both 18, this summer. Saturday brought the arrival of the 20-year-old Norwegian, Kristoffer Klaesson, who will understudy Illan Meslier, 21, in goal. That Kiko Casilla is loaned out should consign a footballing and moral mistake to the past.
Bielsa may be the pensioner with a long-term vision but Leeds’ immediate future looks healthy. He is aware of the theory his players, exhausted by his all-action style of play, burn out before the end of seasons. Leeds finished last year with four straight wins, 23 points from a possible 30 and only conceding eight goals in 11 games; they learnt from earlier thrashings.
Bielsa nonetheless bought a left-back. The £13 million ($18m) purchase of Barcelona’s Junior Firpo provides a direct replacement for, and an upgrade on, the departed Ezgjan Alioski. Bielsa has spent his reign preferring multifunctional players there but Firpo is a belated specialist.
The complication is that Leeds’ outstanding individual last season was often deployed at left-back: Stuart Dallas’ eight goals made him arguably the campaign’s surprise revelation. The ultimate odd-job man may be redeployed in midfield. That Jack Harrison also got eight goals made Leeds’ left flank remarkably productive. After three seasons of exponential improvement while on loan, Harrison has finally been bought from Manchester City.
And one of the questions of Leeds’ campaign surrounds their great overachievers, each proof of Bielsa’s alchemy as a coach. Patrick Bamford exceeded all realistic expectations to score 17 times. Kalvin Phillips became an ever-present as England reached only the second major final in their history. Liam Cooper captained a team to ninth in the top flight, while Luke Ayling ended a year of relentless running with the second most tackles in the Premier League.
Was each an outlier, a peak that must lead to a downturn? After all, a Yorkshire club promoted a year earlier finished ninth, then took two points from 17 games and plummeted to relegation. Leeds are not likely to do a Sheffield United, and not merely because Phillips, in particular, scarcely looks a one-season wonder. Raphinha proved a brilliant buy last season, one of the league’s most talented wingers.
The untapped potential comes in part from other pedigree recruits, in Rodrigo, Robin Koch and Diego Llorente, who had injury-hit debut years. Thus far, Bielsa has turned potential into hugely entertaining performances and encouraging results.