2018, what a year that was for us Leeds fans! It all began on New Year’s Day 2018 with a nil-nil home draw with Nottingham Forest and that followed our usual defeat in the final game of the year, a dreadful 1 – 0 defeat at Birmingham City.
Those two games cost us five points, five points that, at the time, we reckoned could have had us challenging for automatic promotion never mind the top six. Following the draw with Forest, Leeds were still in the top six, with 43 points, six adrift of the team in 2nd, Derby. Wolves were top, Cardiff were 3rd, Bristol City 4th and Villa 5th. Sheffield United and Boro were 7th and 8th.
Wind the clock on twelve months and the top of the Championship has a similar look. OK, Norwich have come from a mid-table position into the top two but Leeds, Sheffield United, Boro and Derby are all there again while West Brom are the once side out of the three relegated Premier League sides to currently show aspirations of a quick return. Villa and Bristol City are still in with a shout as well of course.
Leeds are 8 points better off than we were at the same time last year and currently sit top of course, but the two defeats we have just suffered should just send a warning note to everyone that we could still throw it away if we follow up our fabulous first half of the season with a poor run-in like we did last term.
As we all left the City Ground on Tuesday, most of us were shrugging, saying things like, “Well, on another day we’d have won that” and “Considering we had ten men we actually played really well”. The bad news folks, is that we said that after the draw with Forest last New Year. I wrote at the time: “…it was a decent enough performance from Leeds and, on another day, we’d have knocked a couple of chances in and won the game comfortably.
But today we just didn’t get that bit of good fortune, and we can’t bloody shoot!” It is uncanny how similar that summary is to the events of Tuesday, although last year we did at least keep ten men on the pitch.
So, what’s going to make 2019 different to 2018 then? Well, we have Marcelo Bielsa in charge this time whereas twelve months ago it was Thomas Christiansen at the helm. No disrespect to TC but few would argue Bielsa is different gravy.
As to the playing staff, well, it’s not a lot different. Against Forest this time last year we played with Ayling, Jansson, Cooper and Berardi across the back… and I think if Coops and Berardi were fit now then Marcelo would have had a very similar line-up with perhaps Berra missing out for Barry Douglas. In front of the back four we had Phillips and O’Kane as TC usually played with 4-2-3-1 formation.
There’s no O’Kane now of course as he’s recuperating from a broken leg but Phillips is still there and we’d now use Adam Forshaw. Alioski and Hernandez were joined by Samu Sáiz in the middle three so that’s similar too with Mateusz Klich now as close to the Sáiz role as he can manage and Roofe was up front on his own, as he is now.
Wiedwald was still in goal by the way at the start of 2018 and we had similar concerns about him that we are now developing over the flying Peacock.
So what? What am I trying to say here? I’m actually not sure, but I think what I’m suggesting is that, other than being a bit fitter than we were last season (remember how even Heckingbottom commented that the team he inherited was one of the least fit he’d ever come across!), other than a minor formation change and the arrival of Barry Douglas, then we are pinning all our hopes of promotion this year on the management skills of Marcelo Bielsa, a chap who, actually, hasn’t ever won much at all!
That is not to say he is not a fine coach – that I don’t think is in doubt – but can he really ensure that, with exactly the same raw materials we had last year, he guides us to a top 2, or at the least top 6, finish this time when we patently failed to do it last season?
We are all hoping and, dare I say, expecting that he can, but I’d like to see a few new faces arrive to just ensure we give Bielsa the best possible chance.
We were all blown away with the way we started this season – we saw a real change in the quality of our football and the manner we dominated games – but, although the quality is still there, recent wins have all been narrow and often games have turned on a moment of good fortune.
The factors that cost us a top six finish last season are also still there; we are still “fragile” in defence, this week being the first time Bielsa has uttered that phrase but we’ve known this group of players has had that weakness since it came together. We concede too many headers in our own box that lead to opposition goals and we allow too many crosses, while at the other end, our finishing has never been of the highest quality on a regular basis.
So, those are more reasons why I’d like us to bring in a couple of new players in this transfer window; players that are better than what we have now who can make a real difference to us.
An experienced goalkeeper should be a must; even BPFs most ardent supporters agree that he would benefit no end from having an experienced keeper who knows the Championship working alongside him, even if Bailey’s performances don’t actually require that experienced keeper to play; Though that’s still up for debate. A centre back is a must in my book too – I know Coops is not far off full fitness again but can we afford to rely on Berardi or shifting Ayling if we need cover for the next four months? If Aapo Halme is that good why are we sacrificing Phillips from his best position?
Equally, I’d like to see us try to find another creative midfielder; Izzy Brown looked to be earmarked to cover Sáiz and Pablo but it seems we are once again weeks away from that comfort being available and in any case we’ve not even seen Izzy operate in this Bielsa team.
It would be a miracle if Pablo was able to play every game between now and May. I could live with just those three additions but if I was really pushed I’d also want another goal scoring striker, someone who could play alongside Roofe or Bamford in a 4-4-2 to give us that flexibility.
No one knows what the next four and a bit months will bring but surely this is the time to push the boat out, support Bielsa and provide a bit of insurance.
By David Watkins