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Will the sleeping giant of English football awaken? A preview of the 2018-19 season for Leeds

After a strange summer, can Leeds gain promotion this year?

Leeds United v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Will this be the season that Leeds United make their triumphant return to the Premier League? Or will Leeds spend yet another season outside of the top flight, in continued exile from what the fans consider their rightful place in the hierarchy of English football.

Leeds United are often called the “sleeping giant” of England by both their fans and rival fans as well, although it’s usually used as a pejorative by rivals as a way to mock Leeds fans. Leeds won the final year of the old First Division in the 1991-92 season, right before the top 22 teams broke away and formed the Premier League and the club enjoy some glory years around the year 2000. Leeds made the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001, losing to Valencia, but the stress of a deep European run made them miss out on Champions League berths two years in a row, meaning that the club was forced to sell key players, such as Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane, in 2002 and ultimately were relegated in 2004.

To add insult to injury, Leeds were relegated to League One in the 2006-07 season, and after financial implosions, double administration penalties, and dodgy owners, the team was promoted back to the Championship in the 2009-10 season. Leeds have come close to the playoffs twice since being back in the Championship, but they’ve been unable to mount a serious promotion charge. The club still honours the memories of their greatest ever player, Billy Bremner, and their greatest ever manager, Don Revie, outside of Elland Road. No one in the crowd can forget the side that won multiple First Division titles in the early 1970s, and were also beaten in controversial fashion in the final of the 1975 European Cup by Bayern Munich, as the history still echoes around the old ground.

Current chairman Andrea Radrizzani bought out previous owner Massimo Cellino in May of 2017, and after a roller coaster season of underachievement, hired legendary manager Marcelo Bielsa earlier this summer. The former Newell’s Old Boys, Argentina, Chile, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, and Lille OSC manager is a lightning rod figure, a larger-than-life appointment for a club struggling to live up to its past glory.

After an improbable run in the 2016-17 season that saw Leeds occupy the playoff spots for much of the season, only to crash out in improbable, heartbreaking fashion in the final two months, there was a feeling of reloading going into last season, that it would only take a few tweaks to get it right.

However, instead of reloading, the team was forced to replace the manager, Garry Monk, after he bolted for a bigger transfer budget and presumably higher wages at recently relegated Middlesbrough, and a number of key players from the 2016-17 season. The league’s top scorer, Chris Wood, left for Burnley, as did left-back Charlie Taylor. Kyle Bartley, who along with Pontus Jansson, formed the core of a brilliant Championship defence, was recalled to Swansea City after his loan expired.

The club brought in a number of players to provide depth, but most of them proved to be out of their depth at the Championship level. Papering over serious cracks with dodgy loans and mediocre signings, combined with the new manager Thomas Christiansen’s inability to adjust his tactics to the physicality of the Championship, meant that after Leeds were on top of the league in August and early September, the club came crashing back to earth in rather inglorious fashion. Leeds lost badly against teams like Cardiff City, Sheffield Wednesday, and Millwall. A slight uptick in form during December, and a magical victory over Burnley in the League Cup, kept the wolves at bay for awhile, but after an embarrassing loss away to Newport County in the FA Cup, to a team that Leeds had beaten soundly in the League Cup earlier in the season, Christiansen was on borrowed time.

Leeds had shown life in coming back to lead Millwall 3-2 in the second half of a January match, after going down 2-0 at half-time while playing with 10 men after captain Liam Cooper had gotten sent off for a truly stupid tackle early in the first half, but the team blew the lead in the final few minutes of the game as Millwall battled back to win 4-3.

Whatever heart and fire that was in the team was left on the pitch that day, and Christiansen seemed to completely lose the dressing room after that match. He was finally sacked after Leeds went on a run where the team endured multiple games in a row with red cards from senior players, mostly from off-the-ball incidents, finally ended with a resolute thumping at the hands of Cardiff City in late January.

Paul Heckingbottom was brought in early February as the new manager. Heckingbottom was supposed to bring quality young players through and get the team back into the top six, where it had been as late as December, but the team failed to win away from home after Boxing Day and Heckingbottom’s record of four wins, four draws, and eight losses would have seen the team in relegation form had a sizable point total not been established under Christiansen.

Even Heckingbottom’s supposed strength, bringing youth team players up and working them into the first team, only materialized when he was forced to introduce young players such as left-back Tom Pearce, central defender Paudie O’Connor and goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell into the first team by injuries to players in the first team.

Had goalkeeper Andy Lonergan not been injured, Peacock-Farrell almost certainly would not have gotten a chance to play after Felix Wiedwald, the keeper who was brought in the previous summer and had already been dropped once due to poor play, was once again sent to the bench after a horror show between the sticks. Peacock-Farrell went on to win Leeds young player of the year, such was the performance of the 21 year-old who went on to make his senior debut for Northern Ireland in summer friendlies.

In short, everything went from good to broken in a few short weeks, and after a post-season tour of Myanmar, which left a black eye on the reputation of Leeds both at home and abroad, Heckingbottom was sacked, and Bielsa has been brought in to (hopefully) change the fortunes of the club.

Instead of taking a scatter-gun approach to transfers like last summer, where the club brought in over a dozen new first team players, the recruitment was much more focused this transfer window. For example, rather than take a punt on a washed-up former German national team striker, as they did taking Pierre-Michel Lasogga on loan Hamburger SV, the team went out and spent £7 million on Patrick Bamford, the highest transfer fee paid by the club since Robbie Fowler in 2001.

Bielsa spoke to his old friend Pep Guardiola and Leeds were able to land Jack Harrison on loan from Manchester City. The former New York City FC player has taken an unusual route to the Championship, having player college “soccer” in the United States before joining MLS. His performances were good enough that the England U21 international was signed by Manchester City before being sent on loan to Boro at the end of last season, where he played a bit part. His future is bright, and while he’s not Phil Foden, he’s still an up-and-coming attacker from City.

The club also has taken in a couple of loans of experienced players from Chelsea: Goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, who impressed last year on loan at Sheffield United, and Lewis Baker, who had been loaned to Middlesbrough last season after an impressive stint in the Eredivisie with Vitesse.

Additionally, the club also made a permanent deal for Wolverhampton’s well-traveled left back Barry Douglas, who was by far the best left fullback and/or wingback in the Championship last season. The 28 year-old Scotland international scored five goals and registered 14 assists last season, helping to get Wolves back into the Premier League.

Unfortunately, the club has not brought in another central defender, which was a point of weakness last season. Despite Bielsa’s desire to have ball-playing defenders in a back three necessitating that at least one central midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, has been converted to centre back, the position still seems woefully short of the sort of quality that will be needed in the Championship. Millwall and Cardiff exposed last season’s team inability to deal with set-pieces and crosses into a target man, and the club has not addressed this short coming at all, despite having one of the best headers of the ball in division in Jansson, who is coming off of time at the World Cup with Sweden.

The club has also sold one of its rising stars, 20 year-old Ronaldo Vieira, to Sampdoria in Serie A for €7 million. It was a surprising development, as Vieira had been considered one of the top prospects in the Championship. He had played for England at the Toulon Tournament, a U20 tournament held in France, in back-to-back summers, each time as part of a title winning team. This summer he was one of only four players not from a Premier League team, along with fellow Leeds teammate Tom Pearce.

He was tried out a few times as a central defender under the new formation, but unlike Phillips, he seemed to struggle in the new role, and he had seemed to fall down in the pecking order at central midfield. Both Adam Forshaw, who came in last January, and Mateusz Klich, who never seemed to be given a chance last season under Christiansen before being sent on loan to FC Utrecht last January, had been preferred to Vieira as the lone defensive midfielder role in preseason, and perhaps both the player and the team felt the time was right for Vieira to move on.

The team will lineup in Bielsa’s revolutionary 3-3-1-3 formation that emphasizes ball movement and pressing by all members of the team on the pitch. The “high priest of the high press” has his teams run all 90 minutes, with the forwards, wing-backs, and midfielders constantly putting pressure on the opposing team’s defenders, leading to turnovers in the offensive zone and creating instant scoring opportunities. His Bilbao team’s destruction of a more talented Manchester United team in the Europa League in 2012 remains an example of what a Bielsa coached team can accomplish with the total commitment of the players.

Kemar Roofe, last year’s top scorer for Leeds, will get a chance to play at both striker and on the wing, although he’s a more natural finisher than he is winger, so he will likely get fewer games on the wing. Young Wales striker Tyler Roberts will also look to get some time in at both striker and wing after being brought in from West Bromwich Albion last January.

Stuart Dallas was last year’s utility man, playing on both wings and both fullback spots under both Christiansen and Heckingbottom. His best positions is as a winger, and he should get some minutes this season. Laurens DeBock was brought in to be the answer at left back but he looked totally out of his depth and has been used as a central defender under Bielsa.

Pontus Jansson has just gotten back after getting time off at the World Cup and fellow central defender Conor Shaughnessy has just returned to training after going down with injury last January, so it doesn’t look like they will start, and depending on the bench options for Leeds, Shaughnessy may need more fitness before he appears.

Fans are going into this season cautiously optimistic about Leeds’ chances of promotion. Most fans are very, very excited about the prospect of having someone with the pedigree of Bielsa manage the club, but Leeds have been letting them down for about 15 years now.

That all being said, most fans want to believe that Leeds will make it good this season, with a top six finish almost certainly being expected by a majority of fans. And they’re not wrong to expect it.

Some savvy loan signings have provided depth in key positions, and while it seems that their might be a lack of depth at centre back and midfield, with Forshaw set to miss time and Ronaldo Vieira being sold this past week, there is still some time left in the window to get some business done and the loan market will stay open in August.

However, even without any more additions this team looks set to make an impact on the division. Victor Orta, the Leeds director of football, has done a much better job of finding players that will be able to stand up to a Championship season and has increased the quality of the players brought in.

A few savvy loan moves for a pair of Chelsea players in Blackman and Baker, as well as an exciting prospect in Manchester City’s Harrison, plus the permanent additions of Bamford and Douglas means that the club should be able to score goals and Klich should be like a new signing after not getting any chance under Christiansen.

This team has all the tools at its disposal for a top six finish and with a manager who is literally a living legend, this looks like it will be brilliant. Leeds has a chance for automatic promotion and it would be great to see this team back in the top flight.