Leeds banking on Marcelo Bielsa Way becoming the road to Premier League success
Back in the top flight after 16 years, but the club still face plenty of challenges with or without the genius manager
It was the 736th game of exile. Or, if you include the play-offs, the 746th.
Leeds United’s 16-year stay in the lower leagues ended on Wednesday against Charlton. They won 4-0, clinching their record points total on the day a street was officially renamed Marcelo Bielsa Way.
Technically it could have been Bielsa’s last game, but a shy man seems touched by the outpouring of emotion. He was at the heart of the celebrations, looking endearingly awkward in a “Champions 20” shirt.
Bielsa, who seems to have treated management with an academic’s detachment and an obsessive’s relentlessness, was humanised by the weekend images of him hugging Kalvin Phillips and Pablo Hernandez. He is no stranger to sudden departures but he is expected to extend his contract.
“I think he is fallen in love with the club,” said CEO Angus Kinnear.
Completing the transformation of a fallen giant may feel a crusade. It is also complicated: many feel Leeds belong in the Premier League but staying there is not simple.
The precedents from last season are both encouraging and worrying. Norwich, Championship champions who barely strengthened, were relegated ignominiously. But Sheffield United, who retained a clear and unique tactical system, outperformed richer clubs with expert coaching.
And then there is Aston Villa, whose promotion was powered by loanees and who thus started at a disadvantage when it came to compiling a top-flight squad.
Leeds’ elevation owed much to Bielsa’s ability to improve players – look at Mateusz Klich, Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas, Liam Cooper and Phillips – but they also mortgaged their future.
They borrowed winger Helder Costa, and were obliged to buy him for £16 million (Dh74.8m) this month. They had the French forward Jean-Kevin Augustin, who Bielsa only gave 49 minutes of football in an injury-hit spell but who, unless Leeds can somehow cancel a contract, they must pay Leipzig £18m to buy.
Jack Harrison, the Manchester City winger who has been another advertisement for Bielsa’s coaching, will have a third year on loan.
Leeds have an option to buy Illan Meslier, the young goalkeeper with Ederson-esque distribution. They should: Kiko Casilla’s goalkeeping is erratic and, after serving an eight-game ban for racially abusing Charlton’s Jonathan Leko, his character tainted. Bielsa was wrong to pick him at Derby on Sunday and there are questions marks over whether he should play for the club again.
So if that could amount to a £40m dent in the budget, Leeds also face a hole in the defence.
Ben White, who was borrowed from Brighton and who looks bound for bigger things, has been arguably the Championship’s outstanding centre-back this season. A classy passer is apparently of interest to Liverpool and definitely exciting his parent club.
“We see Ben White as part of our plan,” said Brighton manager Graham Potter. “We will see him in pre-season and he will be part of our group.”
So Leeds need a centre-back. They also require a centre-forward.
Owner Andrea Radrizzani’s dreams of Edinson Cavani may be far-fetched. While promotion perhaps justified Bielsa’s stubborn faith in the less prolific Patrick Bamford, Leeds’ chance conversion rate is a lowly 12.5 per cent and he was the major culprit.
Such shots are likely to be rarer next season. Much of Leeds’ greater revenue next year could be cancelled out by constructing a side of similar quality, preferably with a better finisher, while their best creator, Hernandez, is 35.
They may have little leeway. Bielsa, who prefers working with a small squad, rarely rotates, is uninterested in many signings and the opposite of a chequebook manager, is unlikely to complain about that, if he stays.
He said after Leeds' win at Derby that he would sit down to discuss his own future with club owner Radrizzani this week.
"Of course, we need time to let this period pass because now all the emotions are high," he said. "We need to be, all of us, calm to think more clearly."
Perhaps it adds to the intrigue that he stays and a world-class coach has in effect a Championship team in the Premier League.
Published: July 23, 2020 01:48 PM