Leeds still looking for spark to meet expectations this season

13 Sep 2021 01:14 pm, by YorkshireSquare

As is often the case with seemingly overachieving teams in the Premier League, Leeds United feared being raided over the summer transfer window. Breakout star Raphinha was all-but expected to depart given his dazzling displays after a £17 million switch to Elland Road, and keeping him in the next few seasons will be tough. Yet, not a single player was purchased from the club, with the biggest loss being 29-year-old Ezgjan Alioski, who opted to move as a free agent to Al-Ahli Jeddah.

Leeds managed to build the team without taking a backwards step or a major hit to the squad. The club even managed to get Marcelo Bielsa to sign a new one-year deal on 12 August, just in time for the start of the 2021/22 campaign. However, some are already saying that United have lost their surprise factor, leading the club to draw twice, lose once, and concede eight goals through the opening set of fixtures.

Now, it’s still very early days, but to at least near expectations, Bielsa needs to rally the team and its new faces to push on for another strong campaign.

Expected to at least level last season’s achievements

Given the emphatic start and eventual strong finish to the 2020/21 season, expectations were, expectedly, higher for a Leeds side returning with much of the same, if not an improved squad. So far, the results haven’t been the worst, but points have been dropped where they could have been taken by an in-form side. Losing 5-1 to Manchester United wasn’t a flattering start, but the 2-2 tie with Everton and 1-1 draw at Turf Moor could have swung the other way.

Prior to the start of the season, The Guardian’s consensus call for Leeds was a ninth-place finish, keeping level with last season. This thinking has remained despite the slow start among other experts, too. Despite last season starting to a better 4-3 loss, 4-3 win, and 1-0 win, online betting site Betway favour a top-ten finish for Leeds, and even put them as dark-horse contenders for a top-six finish at 6/1. However, the probabilities calculations from a simulated season see Leeds finish 12th with 47 points – 12 points down from last season.

Expecting a similar finish to last season despite the new additions seems to be rational given how much of a surprise package Leeds proved to be. Bielsa’s tactics immediately proved to be too much to handle for many teams, as shown in the stats collected by Twenty3, but there’s a sense that his attacking flow can be held by denying possession and clipping the wings. Still, it’s clear that the pundits see enough talent in this squad to rekindle the success of 2020/21.

Permanent signings need to propel United

While Kristoffer Klaesson may well have a role to play down the line, the £1.8 million Norwegian shot-stopper is very much the back-up to 21-year-old Illan Meslier at the start of this season. So, that leaves three fully-fledged transfers. Perhaps the player with the most expectations to kick on is Jack Harrison. Now a permanent signing after a few loan spells, costing around £11 million, Harrison knows the system and tallied 16 direct goal contributions last season, and so will be expected to continue developing as he is only 24.

Next, filling the boots of a first-team regular, Junior Firpo is expected to take to the place vacated by Alioski. Leeds’ former left-back played 38 games last season, scoring three goals and three assists due to his attack-minded play that suits Bielsa’s system. Firpo is of a similar mould to the North Macedonian, with his energy, attacking drive, and versatility down the flank getting him signed by Barcelona in 2019. Not much was seen from the Dominican through the opening fixtures, but he was expected to need time due to the lack of first-team action last season.

Naturally, the most notable signing was the £25 million winger pulled in from Manchester United. Daniel James was always noted as a very hard-working player with pace for days; however, his lack of end product and some lapses in decision-making were sometimes brought into question. It’s the Welshman’s physical attributes that lend him so well to Leeds, though. James will be able to pull apart the clamps put on Leeds’ wings, giving Bielsa back a string to his bow.

Being a late signing, James may be given time to adjust to the new system, but as his game is relatively simple, he could challenge for a place from the get-go. Still, a role as an impact substitute seems to be a sound starting point for the new addition. The hope would be that he can earn the trust of Bielsa before the hot run of fixtures on the horizon. From 17 September, Leeds have league games against Newcastle United, West Ham United, Watford, Southampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Norwich City – all winnable matches.

The slow start isn’t something to worry about for Leeds: the team has improved, and Bielsa has a couple more weapons at his disposal. As far as the season’s outlook goes, it’d be best to judge after the trip to Carrow Road on 31 October.

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LeeBrook wrote on 13 Sep 2021 03:53 pm

I fear this season will be a long relegation battle and, should we survive, next season, without the likes of Phillips and Raphinha will be even tougher.
We need to try and lure Dyche from Burnley, he knows, as much as anyone, about survival.