So, there we have it, the first 13 per cent of the 2018/2019 Championship season is done and dusted and Leeds sit proudly on top of the pile with 14 points from 18, still unbeaten having played five decent sides and Rotherham! It all looks very positive as we contemplate the first 11 weeks of the reign of Bielsa the Brave.
But cast a thought back to this time last year, well, to the evening of September 9th last year to be precise as this season the games are slightly behind last year’s schedule.
On September 9th last year a Leeds United XI featuring Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Pontus Jansson, Pablo Hernandez, Samu Sáiz, Kalvin Phillips and Kemar Roofe and with Mateusz Klich and Stuart Dallas coming on from the bench, thrashed Burton Albion 5-0 in a devastating display of fast attacking football not seen for many a moon at Elland Road. Thomas Christiansen was hailed the new Messiah.
Leeds had beaten Bolton, Forest and Sunderland away from home and had fought out two goalless draws against Preston and fancied (and soon to be promoted) Fulham at Elland Road.
We’d adopted a fast paced, high pressing style of football. We had 14 points; we’d scored 12 league goals and had conceded just 2 – none at all while Pontus Jansson had been on the pitch! We were not top of the table at this point though, that accolade went to Neil Warnock’s Cardiff City who’d won five and drawn one and led the way with 16 points and would eventually be promoted.
Fast forward to Friday night, 31st August 2018, and Leeds do sit top but with an almost identical record of 14 points, Scored 14, conceded 4, ahead of Boro with the same record but a goal difference of only 7 compared with our ten.
So, we are pretty much where we were this time last season then? Well, yes, and no. There are some significant differences.
To start with the players making up the rest of that side that thrashed Burton were Felix Wiedwald (remember him?) in goal, Vurnon Anita, Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Eunan O’Kane – the tin man as I christened him because, well, he doesn’t have a brain!
This season, against Boro, we’d replaced that mixed bag of players with Bailey Peacock-Farrell (BPF), who is looking more accomplished by the game, Barry Douglas who is a proven success at left-back in the Championship and who no one can quite understand why Wolves let him go, Jack Harrison, and Gianni Alioski, who in that game against Burton had to make way for Lasogga. In general, when Pablo Hernandez is fit he’d be there instead of Harrison of course.
There’s currently no doubt that BPF is improving with each passing game but fundamentally the confidence he gives the defence (and the fans) is light years removed from those days of watching with clenched buttocks as Felix Wiedwald went about his duties between the sticks. At left back last season, by the end of those first 6 games, we’d tried three different players in there – Borthwick-Jackson, Anita and Berardi – with Anita getting the nod eventually while Berra was out injured.
That positon would swap back and forth throughout the season with Berra, playing on his wrong side, deemed the best of a bad bunch of options until Laurens De Bock appeared late in the season. I dare anyone to suggest that the installation of ‘Barry, Barry Douglas, who flies down the wing for me’, isn’t a vast improvement there. Add in the cementing of Mateusz Klich (or Adam Forshaw when fit again) in midfield who is like a new man since Bielsa got hold of him and we clearly have a much more balanced group of 1st XI players.
We have a coach who came with a world renowned reputation too of course, and Marcelo Bielsa, bucket and all, has proved to many, including me, that a top coach is quite capable of extracting more from his players than your average coach can.
Bielsa began with the fitness of the players, and it is now Leeds folklore that the players worked 25 hours a day down t’pit, slept at bottom of garden at Thorp Arch and picked up paper bags when the coaches were tired.
We have seen the difference it makes in the final quarter of a game when we are still full of running while the opposition is out on its feet. He then set about ensuring that every player was in a role suited to his own abilities, or, if those abilities were lacking, he trained them until they were proficient in their new roles.
Kalvin Phillips is perhaps the starkest example where an attacking midfielder has been nurtured into a defensive one who can cover at centre back if the need arises. Finally Bielsa brought with him his own style of play which, once he had the players fit enough to carry it out, has proved to be vastly superior to that of most other sides thus far.
So, what’s to worry about? Well, to my mind the only current worry is that we are so dependent on our best 12 or 13 players. We know that Marcelo chose his best XI almost from the start – we saw them play three games almost unchanged in pre-season while the rest of the squad battled in their own games to try to catch the great man’s eye.
Mateusz Klich did so and when we lost Adam Forshaw it was to Klich that Bielsa turned and he hasn’t looked back. That 1st XI has also been virtually unchanged in all the league games so far – we lost Coops to injury before the Swansea game and had to rearrange by bringing in Shackleton and moving Ayling into centre back and then used Pontus at Norwich, but once Pontus was fit it was Coops who was preferred for the Boro game. The only other change was that enforced use of Jack Harrison in place of the injured Pablo on Friday.
But the squad is wafer thin – as shown by the line-up for the Preston cup game when before it was announced we all struggled to guess a side with eleven non 1st XI players in it and we simply couldn’t do it from the names on the back of the match programme, we didn’t have enough defenders listed for two teams for a start!
If Bielsa was to keep to his 4-1-4-1 formation we also struggled to come up with a substitute to play in place of Kalvin Phillips… so it was no surprise that Phillips played in that game or that Pontus had to play as well.
We struggled in the same way against Boro, we do not have another Pablo Hernandez and so we had to play Jack Harrison.
Harrison actually had a good game, but he is a totally different player to Pablo, he’s more of an Alioski replacement, and so the style and formation we played was subtly different. It will be the same if Samu gets injured. We can, at a stretch, use Pablo there, but Pablo’s little old legs and feet cannot move at the speed of Samu’s and so again our side would have a different and less potent feel to it.
The recruitment of Izzy Brown is obviously aimed at filling one of those potential gaps and once fit I’d be confident that losing either Samu or Pablo would not be such a major issue as Izzy is made from a similar mould. But if we lose two out of three we are stuck again. The return of Adam Forshaw makes things look a bit stronger too – there is every reason to believe we’d be as strong with Adam in the side if we were to lose either Klich or Phillips.
Fundamentally, as I say, we have a really good, well-oiled machine with about 12 or 13 interchangeable cogs but beyond those, our reserve cogs of Baker, Bamford, Roberts, Pearce, Shackleton, Shaughnessy, Dallas, Edmundson, Diaz, even Blackman, are currently not straight replacements in either quality, confidence or skills.
I understand the argument that they might thrive if, on an individual basis, they had the rest of the best XI playing around them if they are called upon, but I’m not convinced.
Any other worries? Well, probably not for now, but we do have to see how our best players cope with a long season playing with the ferocious intensity we now expect; there are lots of folk ready to tell us that “Bielsa’s teams always fade after Christmas”.
Well, actually, we’ve seen that in most seasons recently under a variety of other coaches so I’m intrigued to see if it happens this time.
For now, let’s just have a little break, watch some international or lower league football or even get away from it all on a little holiday and then let’s see if we can truly see a difference from last season.
On September 16th last season we hit a brick wall when we faced Millwall, suffered our first reverse and the bruises lasted for the rest of the season. We start again this season on September 15th… at the New Den against Millwall…
Can we avoid another derailment this time? I can’t wait to find out!
By David Watkins