Leeds United preview: Manager Marcelo Bielsa the star, not the players

Elland Road will see Premier League football after a 16-year gap

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James Milner was playing and Mike Dean was refereeing, but it is part of the distant past nonetheless. Leeds United’s last Premier League game, a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in 2004, was closer in time to Marco van Basten’s volley in the Euro ’88 final than today.

They have been the immediate illustration of how far the mighty have fallen, even if the ever-present sense of drama at Elland Road meant descriptions as a sleeping giant were incorrect. Yet that 16-year wait meant it required something special to end Leeds’ exile. It was not a regulation promotion, but then Marcelo Bielsa, with his band of high-profile admirers, is not a normal manager. An obsessive, even by the standards of his profession, has reached the Premier League at 65 and, much as Leeds invariably generate interest, he offers intrigue.

It is Bielsa against Jurgen Klopp in Leeds’ first match back in the big time, Bielsa versus Pep Guardiola in their second match at Elland Road, Bielsa against Mikel Arteta, who may have absorbed some of his ideas through Guardiola, in November. Bielsa may try not to personalise anything or claim any credit, and his answers can be dry, but an unassuming, shy figure takes centre stage. He, not the players, is the star.

Leeds’ history underlines the importance of the manager. Those at Elland Road need few reminders that the last two to take them into the top flight, Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson, went on to win the title. They came second and fourth respectively in their debut campaigns in the old Division 1. If football has changed sufficiently that a repeat is unrealistic, perhaps Leeds could emulate Sheffield United, who had a distinct and unique style of play, expert coaching and confidence, and who finished in the top half.

If predictions Leeds will flourish in part reflect the size of the club, they are also based on Bielsa’s lofty reputation and the brand of football they play. The Bielsa blueprint produced the most possession and the most chances last season. Bielsa may be of pensionable age but his ideas, about pressing, interchanging positions and relentless running, are at the vanguard of modern thinking and should translate to a higher level.

Equally, 'Bielsaball' carries an element of risk. Leeds’ high defensive line could be exposed, while they will have less of the ball against elite sides. They won the Championship by 10 points but their margin of superiority would have been greater had they been more clinical. They had 89 shots more than anyone else but were outscored by two teams. Patrick Bamford did not miss all those opportunities, but he was a reason for a low chance-conversion rate. Signing Spain’s first-choice striker, in Rodrigo, was a statement of intent and, at £27 million (Dh130m), he is a belated successor to Rio Ferdinand as Leeds’ record buy. Much rests on a player who only actually scored four times in La Liga last season.

Another auspicious arrival is Robin Koch, the Germany international centre-back, who was bought after Leeds ended their lengthy attempts to buy Ben White, the Championship’s outstanding defender during his loan spell last season. Bielsa faces a decision between the erratic Kiko Casilla and the hugely promising Illan Meslier in goal. Certainly Leeds’ defence, which often features converted midfielder Stuart Dallas at left-back, faces a different test.

But Dallas highlights how much of Bielsa’s work has been based around continuity and coaching. The majority of the starting 11 could come from the squad who finished in the lower half of the Championship in 2018. Their subsequent transformation has been remarkable but the sense is that Leeds are back where they belong. Now they have to become a fixture there.