Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 October 2020

Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds making hard work of ending their 16-year exile from the Premier League

The Championship favourites have seen their commanding lead whittled away and have only scored one goal in 2020

Leeds United's Helder Costa with manager Marcelo Bielsa. Reuters
Leeds United's Helder Costa with manager Marcelo Bielsa. Reuters

Some 18 clubs have won at least one Championship game in 2020. Leeds and West Bromwich Albion are not among them. A promotion race that appeared over when each enjoyed double-digit leads over the rest has been revived.

Welcome to the Championship, a division where unpredictability can reign.

Welcome to Leeds, where a 16-year exile from the Premier League feels interminable, where it ought to have ended last year and where it should this year.

Leeds suffered four defeats in the first 33 days of 2019. Now they have a solitary win – a ludicrous 5-4 triumph at Birmingham – since 10 December. They had the division’s most frugal defence, but have conceded 13 times in seven games. A three-goal lead against Cardiff became a draw.

The team with the Championship’s most shots have a solitary goal in 2020, and even that was donated by West Brom defender Semi Ajayi. And in the meantime, Leeds outplayed Arsenal for much of an FA Cup tie that suggested they could adorn the top flight. If, that is, they eventually get there.

On Sunday, Pep Guardiola described Marcelo Bielsa as “one of the best managers in the world, if not the best.” The Argentinian’s fan club are seduced by the nature of his football, in the capacity to overwhelm opponents at pace. The pragmatists can look at his relatively slight list of honours and wonder if his reputation outstrips his actual achievements.

Certainly Leeds have shown Bielsa-esque strengths and familiar failings. They have the highest share of possession in the division, while only Brentford have conceded fewer shots. Bielsa’s seeming disdain for set pieces is reflected in the fact that Leeds have scored the fewest goals from them, while only six teams have let in more.

They may be the outstanding side in open play, at least until they reach the penalty box, but the increasingly divisive striker Patrick Bamford highlights the problem. Penalties apart – and he is a reason why Leeds can be erratic from 12 yards – he has eight goals. He is underperforming his expected goals by seven. Leeds’ chance conversion rate is in single figures.

And yet Bielsa only granted the finisher Eddie Nketiah two league starts in a loan spell Arsenal terminated. He only gave winger Jack Clarke 19 minutes in a temporary stint Tottenham curtailed. Bielsa’s style of play can be exhausting – one player privately admitted they were exhausted last January – but he prefers to operate with small squads and often fields unchanged teams. His sides have a tendency to fade away in the final stages of seasons, but he shows a reluctance to learn lessons from the past. Leeds ran out of players, as well as losing their nerve, in last season’s play-off defeat to Derby.

They looked stretched now. Their finest central midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, is suspended for a disgraceful challenge in defeat to QPR and they lack a natural holding player. At least the Manchester City winger Ian Poveda has arrived and, after failing to get Southampton’s Che Adams, RB Leipzig’s France Under-21 forward Jean-Kevin Augustin was borrowed on Monday to compete with Bamford.

His debut could come on Tuesday in a historic grudge match with recent spice.

Leeds believe Millwall’s Tom Bradshaw dived to win a 14th-minute penalty in their October defeat, bringing a red card for Gaetano Berardi that was subsequently overturned. They feel three of this season’s six losses were caused by officials’ errors, but Leeds are no strangers to hard-luck tales. Perhaps they were unfortunate that Sheffield United came on strong to leapfrog them last season.

Now their stumbles should offer encouragement to the Championship’s chasing pack.

History is a constant where Leeds are concerned, but history can repeat itself in particularly painful fashion.

Updated: January 27, 2020 04:53 PM

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