An exceptionally promising season ultimately ended in heartbreak for Leeds Utd as they slumped to a surprise defeat to Derby in the Championship playoffs. Marcelo Bielsa’s exciting young side looked to be cruising back to the Premier League for majority of the season, but they eventually ran out of steam. They ended up missing out on an automatic playoff place and then lost to a Derby team they had beaten home and away in the regular season. It was a bitter pill for fans to swallow, but this team should be well placed for another assault on next year’s Championship.
Many supporters will spend the summer wondering just how Leeds managed to miss out on promotion. The sense of excitement was palpable last summer after the club pulled off a magnificent coup in capturing Bielsa’s signature. After all, luminaries such as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino rate him as the world’s best coach and he would not have joined the club unless he was convinced by its ambition. The team came flying out of the blocks and soared straight to the top of the table on the back of some truly exhilarating football.
All the Bielsa hallmarks of pace, power and a relentless work rate were evident in abundance, and Leeds became odds-on favourites to win the title. Former players, expert pundits at marathonbet.co.uk and rival managers were all bowled over by their early season brilliance. They were still in the driving seat as recently as mid-March, when they bulldozered their way back to the top of the Championship with a trademark display of Bielsaball to vanquish Reading. However, they took just one point from their final four games and saw Sheff Utd claim the final automatic spot.
That left Leeds United low on confidence heading into the playoffs, but they picked up a fine 1-0 win at Pride Park to seize control over the tie. No team had ever failed to make the playoff finals after winning away in the first leg and Leeds were expected to coast into a £185 million clash with Aston Villa at Wembley. It was all going to plan when Stuart Dallas put them 2-0 up on aggregate, but then Derby battled back to secure a 4-2 win on a painful night at Elland Road. It was another unwanted record for Leeds, who also became the first team to be top of the Championship at the midway point of the season and fail to secure promotion to the top flight since 2007.
Demands of the Championship Season Costly to Leeds
What went wrong? And how can Leeds learn from the experience, come back stronger next season and finally return to the Premier League? The easiest way to account for Leeds’ late season implosion is to put it down to fatigue. Bielsa demands outrageously high levels of intensity from his players and he put them through their paces in a series of gruelling pre-season training sessions. It paid dividends at the start of the campaign, as they looked fitter, sharper and hungrier than their rivals and it led them to the top of the table.
However, the Championship season is a brutal slog, as 46 games come in thick and fast. There is a lot of travelling to factor in, and you have to deal with some bruising encounters along the way, making it one of the world’s most competitive divisions. Leeds lost six of their last 11 games of the season and that would suggest they simply ran out of steam after playing for so long at full tilt. They looked lively once again as they beat Derby in the first leg of their playoff clash, but they were overrun at Elland Road and fell apart after Gaetano Berardi’s red card.
Yet Bielsa deserves immense credit for taking a relatively average group of players that finished mid-table last season and making them so competitive this time around, despite spending very little in the transfer market. The club’s net outlay was less than £5 million, while teams like Nottingham Forest spent north of £20 million and finished well below them. Were it not for the hard pressing, high energy, possession football Bielsa installed, Leeds fans may well have endured another season of mid-table obscurity.
A Blunted Attack
A far bigger issue was the lack of a formidable goalscorer leading the line. Teemu Pukki was the top scorer in the division and that saw him fire Norwich to the title, while Sheff Utd could rely on the dangerous Billy Sharp and his 23-goal haul. Leeds’ top scorer, Kemar Roofe, could only manage 15 goals and goals dried up in The New Year due to injury. He did not score a single goal from January 11 until his strike against Derby in the playoffs, and that cost Leeds dearly, while summer signing Patrick Bamford could only manage 9 goals.
Bielsa lamented the fact that Leeds created a lot more chances than Norwich and Sheff Utd, but could not finish them off. He can also point to a string of damaging injuries that really derailed Leeds’ campaign, so there are several mitigating factors. There are also plenty of positives to take from the campaign. Bielsa is a great believer in youth and he took a chance on several academy graduates. No fewer than 10 made their debuts under the Argentinean coach this season, and Tyler Roberts, Jack Clarke and Bailey Peacock-Farrell established themselves as first-team regulars.
Leeds have a fine tradition of giving youth a chance and 99.9% of their games have featured at least one academy graduate over the years. There are many more exciting prospects coming through the ranks at the club and they can follow in the footsteps of Jack Clarke and co next season. Jamie Shackleton, Robbie Gotts, Mallick Wilks, Mateusz Bogusz and Jordan Stephens are among the leading candidates to nail down a place in the first team next season. Young players with fresh legs are ideally placed to adopt Bielsa’s intense philosophy and maintain a high level of performance over the course of a Championship campaign.
Leeds Must Dust Themselves Down and Go Again
Ultimately, they can learn a few key things from this season’s disappointment. Firstly, Bielsa may not be perfect, but he is an excellent manager and the club should do everything in its power to keep hold of him. He was non-committal about his future after the defeat to Derby, and Marseille are said to be interested in luring him away, but Leeds should fight tooth and nail to retain his services. They also need a bigger squad to maintain a promotion tilt throughout the long Championship season, and they need to invest in a proven goalscorer. Investing cash in the squad may be the best way to persuade Bielsa to commit his future to the club.
Brighton suffered the heartbreak of losing in the playoffs a few seasons ago. They licked their wounds, made a couple of key signings and then secured automatic promotion, and they are now about to enter their third year as a Premier League club. Glenn Murray has been the star of the show for the Seagulls and it shows just how vital it is to sign a top striker. Aston Villa pulled off a masterstroke in signing Tammy Abraham on loan, and Leeds could look to the Premier League’s big six for a similarly effective loan signing. The likes of Rhian Brewster and Eddie Nketiah look promising.
They could alternatively follow in the footsteps of West Brom, who persuaded Dwight Gayle to drop a division and were rewarded with 24 goals. Or they could go for a veteran like Murray. Jermain Defoe might be a leftfield option. Matej Vydra, the division’s top scorer in 2017/18, may be looking for a way out of Burnley, or the club could look abroad for inspiration.
Either way, Andrea Radrizzani must invest this summer, while striving to keep the nucleus of the team together for another concerted push next season. Having come so close, now is not the time to give up.
Lessons Learnt from Disappointing Season End Will Make Leeds Stronger For 2019/20