Premier League 2020-21 preview No 9: Leeds United

Premier League 2020-21 preview No 9: Leeds United

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 10th (NB: this is not necessarily Louise Taylor’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 1st in the Championship

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 200-1

Like a lot of Yorkshiremen Steve McClaren once dreamt of managing Leeds. He never did – although there was a time when it came very close to happening – but the former Middlesbrough, FC Twente, Newcastle and England head coach fully understands the innate uncertainty of pre-season.

“You never quite know what’s going to happen,” McClaren reflected during those Newcastle days. “No manager does and if they say they do they’re lying. You hope your plan’s going to work and you know you’ve done all the right things in training but, until your team actually starts playing games, there’s always that element of doubt. No one’s ever really sure.”

Right now Leeds are shrouded in considerable uncertainty. There’s plenty of excitement, giddy optimism even, but it is impossible to predict what will happen when Marcelo Bielsa is perched back on his blue technical area bucket and his team cross the white line.

Will they emulate the audaciously upward trajectory Sheffield United took last season? Or might Norwich’s gallant struggles be a more realistic template? Yes, in Bielsa, Leeds possess one of the world’s foremost tactical brains but his squad do not mirror their manager’s brilliance.

Moreover their style – high-energy pressing, intricate positional interchanging, perfectly timed overloads, advanced discipline – is relentlessly demanding. Admittedly Mauricio Pochettino, like Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane a true Bielsaite, played a version of the same sort of style at Tottenham but he had better players.

Such caution is leavened by the success of Sheffield United’s swashbuckling overlapping centre-halves in a side of what had once been regarded as strictly League One players. Not to mention the doom-mongers who claimed Leeds and Bielsa would crash and burn in the Championship.

How they finished

Instead, led by the excellent captain and centre-half Liam Cooper – and, remember, he was initially dubbed “League One Liam” – they blew away the second tier. Leeds would probably have been promoted before lockdown had Patrick Bamford’s finishing been as good as his movement.

Given that chances are rarer in the Premier League, Leeds fans must pray that Rodrigo, the £27m marquee Spain striker signed from Valencia, does not mislay his shooting boots as often as Bamford.

The fee for Rodrigo, who can be highly effective in a deeper No 10 style role and has also operated as a winger, could rise to £36m and he is set to collect around £100,000 a week, so Bielsa needs the club’s most expensive signing since Rio Ferdinand’s £18m acquisition from West Ham 20 years ago to hit the ground running.

Further back, Leeds were disappointed when Ben White, last season’s star loanee at centre-half, signed a new contract with Brighton but Bielsa has endeavoured to mitigate the loss of White by signing the Germany international Robin Koch from Freiburg as Cooper’s new partner.

At least the England newbie Kalvin Phillips is around to screen the defence from his holding midfield role. Potentially one of the finest anchors in the top flight, Phillips could well emerge as key figure.

Arguably of equal importance is the question of when crowds will be able to return. Relationships between crowds and teams are rarely as mutually important as that involving Leeds and fans who revel in making Elland Road one of the most infamously intimidating in England. The cardboard cutouts of season-ticket holders deployed during lockdown were surprisingly life-like but no substitute for the genuine hostile, high-decibel article. Bielsa’s playing style demands plenty of adrenaline and his side have so often depended – heavily – on their supporters to help raise the tempo by supplying it.

In the past couple of seasons Leeds have also frequently turned to Pablo Hernández in moments of on-pitch need. But the Spanish creative wizard is 35 and must be used a little sparingly. Can El Loco squeeze one last season in the sun out of his talisman? Much potentially hinges on it.

Intriguing as Bielsa’s tactical duels with Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Chris Wilder et al will doubtless prove, and genuine as his emotional bond with Leeds appears, there remains the lingering fear of dormant fragility. The sense that, should something go wrong, a coach whose sojourns at Marseille, Lazio and Lille proved disappointingly brief could suddenly opt to take his bucket elsewhere.

But perhaps that latent fear is the price Leeds must pay for life with a coach whose exceptional, life-affirming, talents come clothed in the most enigmatic of cloaks.

Quick guide

Leeds’s history in 100 words

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Broadly rise and fall, triumph and disaster, rinse and repeat. Since their foundation in 1919 Leeds have won three top-tier league titles, one FA Cup, a League Cup and two European Fairs Cups. The glory days arrived with Don Revie’s installation in 1961 and their re-emergence as a major force came under Howard Wilkinson in the early 1990s, winning the 1992 title. In 2001, managed by David O’Leary, they reached the Champions League semi-finals but beckoning financial meltdown prefaced relegation in 2004. Cue 16 years in often economically challenged Premier League exile until Bielsa’s advent and a return to the promised land.

Photograph: PA Photos/PA Archive

The manager

On the touchline Bielsa habitually views games perched, largely emotionless, on his famous upturned blue bucket. The bucket has its own Twitter account, and replicas sell for £80, but the reason Bielsa sits on it is to manage chronic back pain.

On Zoom Although his English is very decent, the Argentinian conducts press conferences through an interpreter, frequently correcting any mistranslations. Something of a pedant, Bielsa is capable of answering a straightforward inquiry about an injury with a 1,500-word monolgue. Maintains inscrutable expression throughout.

Marcelo Bielsa’s bucket.

The key

Hernández has been arguably Leeds’s most influential player under Bielsa. The game changing Spaniard has proved the team’s creative attacking midfield catalyst, helping turn draws into wins. Hernández’s advancing years dictate that influence may come, increasingly, after stepping off the bench but Leeds need his vision and incision.

The owners

Andrea Radrizzani is a 45-year Milanese businessmen and media rights specialist. The public relations graduate founded the sports broadcasting group Eleven Sports. In 2018 his estimated wealth was £450m. He bought Leeds from Massimo Cellino in 2017.

Young blood

Sam Greenwood, an 18-year-old striker, joined from Arsenal for an initial £1.5m. A product of Sunderland’s academy watched repeatedly by Milan and Manchester United scouts, Greenwood is a free-scoring England youth international. Two-footed, he relishes running at defenders.

New blood

Leeds have broken their transfer record to take Rodrigo from Valencia for an initial £27m, comfortably eclipsing the £18m paid to West Ham for Rio Ferdinand in 2000. Rodrigo becomes the highest earner in the club’s history.

Rodrigo, celebrating here after scoring for Valencia against Chelsea last September, is Leeds’s record signing.

Kit story

Leeds have played in their white home kit since 1961 when Don Revie became manager and replaced the blue and yellow/gold strip with an all-white strip modelled on that of Real Madrid. The blue and yellow survives via assorted trims.

Notes from an empty stadium

Elland Road has always ranked among England’s most intimidating arenas. Leeds have endeavoured to replicate that hostility with cardboard cutouts modelled from photographs of season-ticket holders. Directors and stewards prove surprisingly vocal behind closed doors.

Cardboard cutouts at Elland Road.

Euros vision

Kalvin Phillips is a newcomer to Gareth Southgate’s England squad and the defensive midfielder has the ability to stay in it. Bielsa’s tenure has seen a promising homegrown midfielder with an eye for goal morph into one of the finest holding players around. The 24-year-old’s passing range sees him dubbed “the Yorkshire Pirlo” and his defensive screening abilities make him a quasi-sweeper.