It’s been a popular phrase in football for a long time: Second season syndrome. But, in reality, Leeds aren’t in as much danger as most of the sports media are making out.
InjuriesEmbed from Getty Images
Leeds have missed their top scorer from the last two seasons Patrick Bamford for close two months now. They have missed both starting fullbacks in Junior Firpo and Luke Ayling, and last season’s signing at centre back in Robin Koch. For the last game, they have also missed Jamie Shackleton, Luke Ayling’s backup.
A lot of Leeds’ style of play relies on overlapping and underlapping runs from the fullbacks, something which Ezgjan Alioski and Luke Ayling were providing last season, and Junior Firpo started to catch onto a bit more before his injury. In the absence of Ayling and Firpo, Bielsa has played midfielder Jamie Shackleton at right back, and Stuart Dallas at left back. They are both more inclined to look for simple passes, and use the midfield areas of the pitch a bit more, meaning the overloads Leeds fans have grown used to seeing have been all but non-existent for the past few fixtures.
This seemed to return though in the 1-1 draw against Leicester at Elland Road, with Struijk and Harrison combining well on the left side, and Dallas and Raphinha seeming more in-tune on the right. Leeds were able to overload Leicester’s fullbacks and exploit their high starting position with some nice one-twos, and a high press.
On top of this, England’s player of the year Kalvin Phillips was missing for a few key fixtures, and he is now returning back to fitness too.
The new central midfielderEmbed from Getty Images
A lack of summer business, especially in terms of actioning the lack of midfield depth, was met with a lot of flack from fans. Andrea Radrizzani, for all he has done for the club, really does need social media lessons. He responded to a question asking where Leeds’ new midfielder was by replying “Adam Forshaw”. A player who had been out injured for two full seasons at this point, and not played in the top flight for four years.
His tweet angered many Leeds United fans. However, his performance against Leicester may prove the whites’ owner was actually right. Forshaw was awarded his first Leeds league start for two years & 68 days. He put up a brilliant performance against Leicester City. The last player to have as long a gap between league starts for the club (without leaving the club in between) was Michael Bridges between September 2000 and December 2002 (two years & 75 days). He really did seem to fill the void in midfield. A void that was always going to appear when the midfield has consisted of Klich and Rodrigo for large parts of the season so far. Leeds have conceded a lot of goals from deep runs of centre backs and defensive midfielders, but Forshaw had this space covered, meaning Kalvin Phillips could focus on keeping the more advanced attacking threats at arm’s length. He was clever on the ball, kept a high pass completion, and at one stage even managed to bypass the pressure of four Leicester players. Leeds managed a well-earned point in this fixture, with the best performance I’ve seen from them this season.
Problems up frontEmbed from Getty Images
Another issue Leeds have had, following the absence of Bamford, is the lack of an out and out number 9. Rodrigo is much more inclined to drop deeper and act as a False 9. This meant Leeds lost a lot of the press they usually have on show. However, against Norwich and Leicester, Bielsa tried summer signing Daniel James there. He isn’t the best finisher, but neither was Bamford in 2019/20. Bielsa stuck with Bamford that season due to his energy, work rate and pressing. It’s clear that Bielsa has put James there for this very reason. He never stopped running, he was chasing down every ball and really did make life difficult for the Leicester defence. He also acted as a brilliant out-ball, as Leicester tried to maintain a high line. Soyuncu and Evans really had to be stretched backwards at times, as James’ electric pace was really causing problems for them.
James’ move up front has also allowed Rodrigo to take on a deeper role, and in the games he’s played here he’s scored twice in the last three games.
However, Leeds fans are hoping that Patrick Bamford will be back after the international break, as James moving back out to the left will give Jack Harrison time to shake off the rib injury he is managing. Yes, another injury in the attacking department.
Defensive issues?Embed from Getty Images
These are largely a myth, spread due to Leeds’ often open style of play. Only three teams have faced fewer shots in open play across the last five Premier League games than Leeds United (including Chelsea and Manchester City). Only Crystal Palace have faced shots in open play with a lower xG tally than Leeds. The problems do lie in attack, with a lack of efficiency.
The return to fitness of Diego Llorente has also been hugely important for Leeds. They haven’t conceded more than once with Diego Llorente on the pitch in any of his last 17 Premier League appearances. Leeds have only conceded 18 goals in total with him on the pitch in his 22 league games. The mixture of no-nonsense tackling and a brilliant range of passing make him hugely important for Leeds’ system. It also means his partner, Struijk or Cooper, can play on their natural left side.
So how much trouble are Leeds in?Embed from Getty Images
In reality, not that much. Leeds are only a point behind Brentford, who Sky Sports have loved saying are having a “brilliant season”, they are also ahead of Aston Villa who spent a whopping £89 million, and were tipped to push on this year. Raphinha has really hit form this season, already having scored as many as he did in the entirety of last season. And Leeds, after the Tottenham game, have a run against Brighton, Crystal Palace and an out-of-form Brentford. If Leeds manage 7 points from the next four games, they are probably out of the conversation in terms of relegation. Add the return of vice-captain Luke Ayling and their star striker Patrick Bamford into the mix? Suddenly, Leeds will be fine.