At Last! Leeds Are Back!

Leeds United have been promoted to the Premier League…

Feature Image by Mark Murphy from Pixabay

With Huddersfield’s 2-1 win over West Brom on Friday, Leeds United have secured promotion to the Premier League.

I am going to emphasize this again, because I am not sure you all are realizing how big of a deal this is.

After a 16-year absence, Leeds are back in the Premier League.

I promise, this is a massive deal, and to understand why, you have to know how Leeds got to this position.

Leeds United are one of the institutions of English football. While they are not among the most successful teams in the country, with only three first division titles to their name, they were usually a fixture of the top flight. They were, and still remain, one of the most popular teams in the country, with a loyal and fervently passionate fanbase that follows them home and away. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Leeds were a force in the Premier League. They regularly finished in the top four or five places, being among the best teams but not quite ready to mount a title challenge. Throughout that time, they were assembling an effective team that blended promising young talent, including Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, and Robbie Keane, with experienced leadership, most notably talismanic Australian striker Mark Viduka and Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler. Despite an injury-ravaged 2000/01 season, they made it to the semifinals of the Champions League, losing out to eventual runners up Valencia. That seemed to be the moment when the gauntlet was thrown down. Leeds were putting it all together and would soon be able to challenge Manchester United and Arsenal’s dominance at the top of the table.

This would not happen, as the club soon ran into financial trouble. Club ownership had taken out several loans, banking on repaying them with the TV money the club would earn from Champions League qualification, but when the club failed to qualify for the Champions League for two consecutive years, they began to face a growing mountain of debt. The club began selling off players in order to begin paying off the debt, most notably selling then-club captain Rio Ferdinand to rivals Manchester United in 2002. They also sold club assets, including their stadium, Elland Road. Leeds rapidly descended down the table, and despite the best efforts of managers Terry Venables and Peter Reid, as well as the players, Leeds were relegated to the Championship at the end of the 2003/04 season. Life in the lower leagues would consist of play-off failures, mid-table nightmare seasons, and even more financial turmoil, with the club going into administration in 2007 and being relegated to League One, where they would remain for three whole seasons. Leeds United, Champions League semifinalists in 2001, were playing League One football in 2008. They eventually came back up, but life was anything but regular. Several ownership changes took place, ending with Italian entrepreneur Massimo Cellino purchasing the club. To spare you from the nitty-gritty details of Cellino’s reign, I will just summarize that he ran the club in a disastrous way, hired and fired way too many managers, was despised by the fans, and eventually sold the club to current owner Andrea Radrizzani due to pressure from within the club and from the EFL. Radrizzani brought some stability into the club and helped deal with the financial issues, including buying back Elland Road. After a largely below average first season, Radrizzani made the bold move of bringing in world-renowned manager Marcelo Bielsa, and Leeds’ fortunes instantly changed.

Bielsa, with very limited financial backing, transformed a mid-table Leeds team into promotion contenders immediately. It was truly a masterful coaching effort, improving nearly every player in the team and turning them into a real force, playing an aggressive but attractive style of football. In his first season, Bielsa’s team stayed in the top two for most of the season but declined near then end, eventually losing in the playoff semifinal to Derby County. This past season, he guided Leeds to a Championship title and their long-awaited promotion to the Premier League. Their 16-year wait is finally over.

Bielsa elevated Leeds to this level by coaching and molding his team into the perfect unit. Several Leeds players have grown drastically since the Argentine’s arrival, and no player represents this growth better than their dynamic, dreadlocked midfielder Kalvin Phillips. If you asked any Leeds fan two or three years ago about Phillips, they would have likely dismissed him as another midfielder that works hard but does not really bring anything to the table technically. Phillips, a Yorkshire-born boyhood Leeds fan, has been transformed by Bielsa into arguably the best midfielder in the Championship. His strong range of passing and composure on the ball has earned him the nickname “Yorkshire Pirlo” among Leeds fans, and he is able to combine those qualities with a more aggressive side, being tough in the tackle and fighting for seemingly every yard. He is the lynch-pin in Bielsa’s midfield, around which everything else operates. He attracted significant transfer interest last summer, but his loyalty to his beloved club drove him to stick around and bring them up, and he will likely stay once again to take part in Leeds’ first Premier League season since he was about eight years old. He has gone from being mostly an afterthought to a player at least within the frame of an England call-up, and depending on how his maiden Premier League season goes, he could find himself in the picture for the Euros next summer.

You could show similar growth in many other players. Patrick Bamford went from a rotation piece with other clubs to leading the line for Leeds, being a player specifically desired by Bielsa in his first transfer window as manager. Jack Harrison has gone from inconsistent Manchester City loanee to one of the unsung heroes of the team, bringing in a very respectable six goals and eight assists this season. He somehow dunked Pablo Hernández into the fountain of youth, as the 35-year-old Spaniard still impresses on a near-weekly basis, bringing in 12 goals and 12 assists last season and nine goals and seven assists this season. The work that Bielsa has done with this team is nothing short of extraordinary, and it will be interesting to see who all he can bring in with a Premier League budget to improve this team.

Which brings us to our final topic: what happens now? How are they going to do in the Premier League next season? Who do they need to bring in to improve the team?

Playing in the Premier League is a double-edged sword for this Leeds team. On one hand, they should be able to adapt to the schedule fairly well. Bielsa plays a very demanding style, and his “Bielsa Press” often requires his players to expend a lot of energy in matches. Leeds usually tailing off in form in the second half of the season was largely attributed to that, but now that they are playing the 38-game Premier League schedule instead of the 46-game Championship schedule, that burden may be removed. The overall issue, however, is that the step up in quality from the Championship to the Premier League is quite significant and, right now, this Leeds team is not good enough. They will likely get many comparisons to Wolves and Sheffield United, and discussion from many journalists will center around Leeds’ ability to replicate the success of those two teams, but right now, they are not good enough. It will be interesting to see what Bielsa can do with Premier League money in the transfer market, but it is clear that they need at least a center back, striker, fullback, and creative outlet to be brought in during the summer window.

Outside of Phillips, Leeds’ star man this season was young English center back Ben White. When talismanic center back Pontus Jansson left for Brentford, it was unclear how much the Leeds defense would be impacted. White came in before this season, and he seemed to solve every defensive issue. His athleticism made him a good partner to club captain Liam Cooper at the back, but his defensive IQ really shined despite his young age. His ability on the ball, specifically his effective passing range, allowed him to kick-start several Leeds attacks from the back. White was a star in the Championship, but his return to Leeds is not guaranteed. The Yorkshire club signed him on loan from Premier League side Brighton, so they must enter into another negotiation to sign him on a permanent deal. This will likely be much more difficult than the initial loan negotiation, as Brighton likely view him as having a role in their first team this season. He has also likely attracted interest from other Premier League clubs who may be able to make more attractive offers than Leeds can. It is incredibly important for Leeds to bring at least one center back into the club, whether that be Ben White or someone else. It appears that White enjoyed his time in Leeds and would be very open to a permanent return, but nothing is guaranteed, and it should be the top priority move for Bielsa and the Leeds hierarchy as soon as the season concludes.

Striker is also a priority position for transfer business. Bielsa largely relied on Patrick Bamford over the last two seasons, as he came the closest to the “target man number nine” model of striker that seems to be ever-present in successful Bielsa teams. Bamford is quite a far cry, however, from the Fernando Llorente/André-Pierre Gignac-level of striker that made up Bielsa’s successful Bilbao and Marseille teams. Bamford scored nine goals in the league last season and 16 this season, and while that step up is big, it is still not quite good enough. Bamford has also shown over several seasons with Premier League sides that he is not good enough to be a team’s starting striker in the English top flight. Bielsa still relied upon, perhaps over-relied upon, Bamford as his striker, largely ignoring loanee strikers Eddie Nketiah and Jean-Kévin Augustin, because of the traits that Bamford brings. It is clear, however, they need to find another striker that brings those qualities and is able to be a consistent goalscorer at a high level. They will likely be forced to sign Augustin on a permanent deal, as a clause in his loan agreement forces Leeds to sign him if they got promotion, but he is not the solution, either. Bielsa will likely need to spend money on another striker. With some rumors linking them with Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard, it seems like the club hierarchy recognizes the need. It is very difficult for a team to stay in the Premier League without a consistent goal-scoring striker, and Leeds will not survive without one.

Leeds could also use a boost in creativity, namely a replacement for Pablo Hernández. Hernández is still a very good player, but age and time will have to catch up to him eventually. He is 35 years old and is about to enter a league that is still quite physically demanding, arguably much more so than the Championship. Jack Harrison, also a loanee, and Mateusz Klich have done a solid enough job being creative outlets in the team, but it would be very helpful for their Premier League survival to sign a player in a similar mold to Hernández. Harrison looks likely to return to Elland Road on a permanent deal, but I would consider another signing in that role. A fullback might also be in consideration, as Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling are players that can be upgraded upon, despite their admirable performances in the last two seasons. It is also possible that they move for a goalkeeper. Kiko Casilla has been largely inconsistent and error-prone since his arrival at Elland Road, and after being found guilty of racially abusing Charlton forward Jonathan Leko this season, he should likely see his time at Leeds come to an end after this season. Youngster Illan Meslier has done a good job in Casilla’s place, but he is also on loan, having joined Leeds from Lorient this season. Leeds have been working on a permanent deal for the Frenchman, and I believe a deal will get done, but Lorient’s promotion to Ligue 1 might lead to the youngster returning to his parent club. Should a permanent deal for Meslier not be reached, Leeds should sign a new number one goalkeeper, as Casilla is not good enough quality-wise and, after the Leko situation, should not be allowed to play for Leeds ever again.

Leeds need reinforcement in the transfer window, but need to strike a balance that is very difficult for promoted teams to find. Bielsa and club director of football Victor Orta need to identify the positions they need to upgrade in, but they also need to not make too many signings and risk the team becoming unbalanced or being unable to gel. Fulham’s cash splash in the transfer window after being promoted in 2018 probably caused more harm than good, bringing in plenty of players who were not able to fully gel into the team, leading to their relegation. Leeds cannot fall into the same trap. It is a very difficult balance to find, having to avoid overspending and underspending, but it is important to ensure survival. I believe this should not be a massive issue, as Bielsa has a very clear idea of the type of player he is looking for and the Leeds hierarchy have shown their ability to accomplish much by spending little, but it is something to keep in mind.

The discussion around Leeds will be around whether they can match the level of Wolves and Sheffield United and if their goal should be finishing in the top half, but right now, Leeds should be doing everything they can just to secure survival. Staying in the Premier League should be the number one priority, and if they get into the top half of the table, that is just an added bonus. With the financial troubles that Leeds have gone through the last decade, maintaining this flow of Premier League TV money would be a massive deal in correcting much of the mismanagement that has plagued the Yorkshire side since their relegation.

But I’m excited to see what happens. One of England’s biggest clubs is back where they belong, and I welcome everything that Leeds will bring to the Premier League next season. Should we be in a situation where fans are allowed in the stadiums again, I am very excited to see the atmosphere at Elland Road, and I am very excited to see the return of their rivalry with Manchester United. I am excited to see Bielsa in the Premier League, hear his wild press conferences, and see him sitting on that blue bucket on the touch line. I do not know what is going to happen, but I know it is going to be eventful.

Welcome back, Leeds United. You were missed.

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