One of the quirks of Marcelo Bielsa’s influence, or one of the biggest endorsements of it, was that people who grew up hating Leeds United found themselves wanting what Leeds United had. Life at Leeds was romantic. Life at Leeds was cultural and real, a dreamy mix money cannot buy unless you spend your money on Bielsa. Looking in from the outside, what else to do but admire it?
Leeds, as it happens, are the last fanbase who remotely care about anyone adopting them as their second club but with Bielsa in vogue, the Don Revie tropes that usually followed the club around were replaced by envious glances from those who would have readily taken what Leeds fell upon. His effect was the opposite of the half-and-half scarf, seductive football without manufactured hype. Football as it was intended.
You find yourself thinking about Leeds’ vision back then, at the high water mark of the middle of 2021 before the wind blew cold and the club reverted to type. There were tangible aspects to the grand plan at Elland Road — permanency as a Premier League side, European qualification in time, stadium redevelopment — but the beauty of their position was the ability to let it ride and go wherever it went because for three years, Bielsa was always in the ascendency. Leeds, in the modern era, have never felt so untouchable or more at ease, so happy in their own skin.
But not now. That carefree mood has gone, reality is biting and Premier League life becoming what the average team understand it to be: a game of survival and treading water in a division that does not tolerate romance forever. Leeds are so far from where they were at the end of the 2020-21 season that they no longer feel like one and the same thing. Their mojo has evaporated, and as Elland Road emptied after Sunday’s defeat to Fulham, that felt like the biggest issue. Yes, there were questions about Jesse Marsch. But more significant was how did a club with everything going for them lose their way and their irrepressible confidence?
Some would say that this is the Premier League as football finance built it, a division in which clubs devoid of obscene wealth — obscene by the game’s standards, if very few others — are only capable of flourishing for so long and condemned to go through cycles. The league indulges you and then re-introduces you to competitive ceilings and Leeds, or their crowd, cannot work out how much they like it.
There is much about the ethos of the Premier League that is contrary to the experience they lived through with Bielsa. This is a world where the Premier League anthem wrecks your pre-match song before high-cost players do the same to your team, a world where you have no game for six weeks and then find your Boxing Day fix moved to a midweek night. All the time, you are expected to lose sleep about the importance of staying in it.
But Leeds’ decline as a team is not simply generic. The cycle is their own and it boils down to decisions taken, mistakes made and a gradual drift from the clear vision they had to a position where pieces of the puzzle are all over the place. The club estimated that seasons one and two in the Premier League were when relegation was most likely to bite them. Statistically, that was true. But season three is here and looks more perilous again.
Where do Leeds see themselves in three years? Where do they see themselves in 12 months? How do they regain the clarity that was present after promotion, when Europe was planned in three to five seasons, artistic impressions of a new training ground were commissioned and Elland Road was headed for redevelopment?
There were several factors that made Leeds the team they were when Bielsa aligned the stars. One of them was high individual performance. Collectively, the squad was immense but that was, in no small way, because Bielsa could count on individuals consistently delivering at an extremely high level. Recruitment since promotion has not yielded enough footballers of that type, those a coach does not really have to worry about.
Leeds have been guilty of leaving gaps in their squad list — a central midfielder last season, a left-back and an oven-ready centre-forward this — but as big a problem has been the passing of the baton. Who in this team is Pablo Hernandez? Who is as omnipresent as Mateusz Klich used to be? Who has improved on Stuart Dallas at left-back? Who is as easy to pick in the centre of defence as Ben White?
Leeds and Bielsa were loyal to their promotion squad but standing by it risked pushing it too far, which Leeds probably have. The failure to refresh, or refresh enough, meant that in the summer just gone, the transfer window called for a substantial refit, an overhaul that painted over the old design. The club were not so much transitioning to Marsch as veering towards him. They made good signings but those were made for him and they were joining an existing framework of players that was already brittle. Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha moved on. Leeds were coming off the back of an excruciating relegation fight. So much was predicated on five or six new names entering the league, flying instantly and creating a team that picked itself again.
The club have the third-youngest squad in the Premier League and where they have been consistent in good times and bad is in recruiting for their academy. They have spent money at that level and they have, at face value, recruited well. But a season like this — 18th in the table and on a streak of eight games without a win — is not conducive to pushing academy prospects through.
In time, Leeds see several of their under-21s providing the skeleton for their first team but the Premier League gives no clemency to anyone who has a strong development squad beneath an under-performing senior side. How Leeds might look three or four years down the line feels less pertinent than how they look now.
Bielsa’s role in Leeds’ diminishing prowess has been debated and discussed, and parts of it are still bones of contention. All that can be said is that last year did not get going at all and replacing him was bound to be fraught, especially if replacing him occurred mid-season and in the form of a sacking. Marsch might ask in retrospect if the timing and manner of his appointment, as the immediate successor to Bielsa, left him on a hiding to nothing. There were moments when it seemed that way. But latterly, there has been more to suggest that Marsch was simply the wrong choice; that as a tactician, he falls short.
For all the analysis Victor Orta did of him and all the confidence he had in him, the Premier League has not bowed to Marsch’s football yet. It puts Leeds in that awful position where they would love to stick with him and see their original decision vindicated but know what will happen if their form does not improve quickly.
As it stands, they have the air of a club who are caught between plains. They have left Bielsa behind and are trying to find fulfilment in a life without him. They are still in the hands of Andrea Radrizzani but have been on the cusp of a buy-out by 49ers Enterprises for what seems like an age, with no firm indication of when that will happen or what it will look like. Paraag Marathe, the group’s president, was interviewed recently by the BBC but Marathe has a knack for saying a lot without saying too much.
That officials from 49ers Enterprises are very much on the scene is not in dispute and their option to buy Leeds is in place as before. But what do they make of the state of play and what do they hope to inherit? When will plans to develop Elland Road become spades in the ground and what, ultimately, do they intend to change or do differently? Do they all wish they could reverse to the middle months of 2021?
The beauty of the season that preceded that summer was the freedom to sit back, enjoy the football and follow the punch-up at the bottom of the table from a safe distance. Perhaps, in hindsight, it made the Premier League look too easy. But that was the moment, the point when tails were up, doors were open and Leeds had what other people wanted, the time to go one way or the other. Now, here they are, faced with a predicament that was never meant to be and that no one would envy.
(Top photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty ImagesGetty Images)
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Leeds United FC Season History – Premier League
- Author: premierleague.com
- Published: 08/23/2022
- Review: 4.71 (592 vote)
- Summary: View Leeds United FC statistics from previous seasons, including league position and top goalscorer, on the official website of the Premier League.
- Detail: https://www.premierleague.com/clubs/9/Leeds-United/season-history
League | Leeds United
- Author: leedsunited.com
- Published: 10/03/2022
- Review: 4.52 (425 vote)
- Summary: PREMIER LEAGUE table ; 1, Arsenal, 14 ; 2, Manchester City, 14 ; 3, Newcastle United, 15 ; 4, Tottenham Hotspur, 15 …
- Detail: https://www.leedsunited.com/match-centre/league