So, despite all the promise and the fabulous football we played at times this season, we ended up with a third place finish and dumped out of the Play-Offs by Frank Lampard’s Derby.
A shambolic second leg saw us go 2 goals up in the tie, only to go out 3 – 4 on aggregate having given Derby goals thanks to a defensive cock-up, a penalty and a one man advantage for the final crucial part of the game. How did it all come to this?
Well, for me, we go right back to last season, a season when we again played some decent football before Christmas, got ourselves comfortably into the Play-Off places with 39 points and then gradually saw it all unravel in the second half of the season adding only 21 more, to end the season in a disappointing 13th place.
We all concluded that Heckingbottom wasn’t the man to take us forward but also that we needed “four or five positions strengthened” as Marcelo would eventually tell us. That’s four or five new players better than we already had.
We secured Marcelo Bielsa in time for pre-season and he very quickly whittled down his available squad to 15 or so players he considered were good enough for the Championship campaign and, over time we saw an impressive improvement in the existing players we retained and certainly in their fitness although the failings we all know they have were always likely to resurface.
But what of the players we brought in to supposedly strengthen that squad? In came Lewis Baker, Jamal Blackman, Barry Douglas, Jack Harrison, Patrick Bamford and Izzy Brown.
In hindsight that was a motley crew that has not actually given us much at all! Lewis Baker started two games and then eventually was recalled by Chelsea and farmed out to Reading in the hope of finding him some game time; he clearly didn’t register on Bielsa’s quality scale.
Jamal Blackman was unlucky; just when it looked like he’d win the number 1 shirt he broke a leg and also went back to his parent club. Barry Douglas? Well, he featured regularly until injury struck him down but the general consensus was that he was not the same Barry Douglas who flew down the wing for Wolves the previous season.
Jack Harrison? He amassed 34 starts this season and played in every one of the 25 games played since Christmas.
Once again though, I doubt he has come up to the exacting specifications laid down by Marcelo and with Marcelo proclaiming that Daniel James would have been the boost we needed to make automatic promotion, I guess that tells us all we need to know about Jack.
Patrick Bamford is a conundrum; in between injuries he weighed in with 9 goals in 18 starts and a few sub appearances but I’d say he missed twice as many as he scored and good chances at that.
Against Reading the Royals fans pleaded with us to “Give it to Bamford” so poor was his shooting that night. Against Derby at Elland Road last week he was dreadful too and mentally didn’t seem to have the right head on as he continued to barge and foul his way through the game despite being on a yellow card. Izzy Brown? I’ll say no more.
We added Kiko Casilla in January of course and, for a time, he looked to have settled in to the Championship and we hardly thought about the goalkeeping position until that moment at Ipswich…
since then we’ve thought about little else!
All in all we have to admit that the acquisitions we made this season were not good enough; that meant that in essence Marcelo was battling through this season with pretty much the same squad, with the same limitations that showed it wasn’t quite up to the task last season and, despite an obvious improvement in the style of play and the fitness, those same old issues with those players were still in there, likely to show themselves any moment.
Liam Cooper had a good season, but every now and again we know he’ll have “a moment” and sadly we saw it in our most crucial game of the season.
Gaetano, bless him, is always likely to do something rash and we saw that too. Alioski was an almost ever present until his injury but boy does he stray offside a lot and does he waste some crosses.
Pontus is mostly reliable but he turns like an oil tanker and can get caught out.
We also lost a couple of our what I considered were amongst our better players too: Ronnie Vieira was certain to have played a big part for Marcelo had he remained and Samu Sáiz too was a big miss in my estimation.
To have got this squad to the level they’ve achieved is a miracle and Bielsa should be very proud of that, but ultimately our recruitment failed him, and, if we look at the vast number of players we have recruited in the last couple of seasons, most have not broken into the regular first XI and have since been moved on – more than 20 players were shipped out following the end of last season for example.
We are almost back where we started 12 months ago in terms of the squad, almost but not quite. Bielsa has made a huge difference and that’s why we were competing with the top six and not the mid-table also rans this season.
We have a defined style of play, tremendous organisation on the pitch and a core of decent Championship players. But we now need to add to the group with real quality for once.
If we can retain Marcelo, retain the best of our current players, add in the 4 or 5 that we didn’t manage to find this time last year, then we’ll have a chance.
By David Watkins