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No need to panic! - Champions League challengers to relegation fodder: A reflection of the season so far

In true Leeds fashion, we’ve already had plenty of ups and downs this season. In truer fashion, the pessimism and panic of the past has reared its ugly mug. With the second international break ahead of us, and a weekend without Premier League football, now seems the perfect time to gain a little perspective, as we look ahead to the busy winter period.

Crystal Palace v Leeds United - Premier League
Disappointed but not panicked: Marcelo Bielsa deep in thought during another unsuccessful trip to the capital.
Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

International breaks are dreadful. I hate them. I’m sorry. A lacklustre - and frankly boring - England side force in two or three games against two or three countries I either don’t care about, or know nothing about. They spend 90 or so minutes playing conservative, risk-free, diluted football, before either nicking a couple of goals or not nicking a couple of goals, then everyone shakes hands (or bumps arms) and tries to forget that the game ever happened.

It might be tolerable, or maybe even enjoyable, for those who are used to spending their weekends watching Newcastle United or Brighton & Hove Albion or Fulham. However, after becoming so accustomed to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, international football is more reminiscent of a kick-about in the open fields of a care home; a necessary period of light to moderate exercise, before we all call it a day, put the kettle on and make a brew.

It has, however, come at a very convenient time for Leeds. It’s an opportunity for the squad to regroup after two very disappointing defeats at the hands of Leicester City and Crystal Palace. The break also gives those injured - or infected in the case of Rodrigo - more time to get back to full fitness without missing anymore crucial fixtures.

Just as crucially, it gives us as fans time to gain some perspective on the season so far. The ups and the downs of our first season back in the big time. You’d have been forgiven for getting a little excited as we pushed for an early spot in the top four, or for becoming slightly worried more recently, as defensive frailties and leaked goals have pushed us back down the table. But during the break, it’s important to take a minute to look at the ‘big picture’ with a level head, and give an honest assessment of the team.

Am I glad we’ve got a two week break? Yes. I just wish it didn’t mean having to watch England.

England v Denmark - UEFA Nations League
Admiring Kalvin Phillips made watching England just about bearable - and now he’s injured.
Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

The season so far

The first eight games for Leeds have been typified by two major characteristics: goals (for and against) and energy. The Whites’ never fading energy and relentless pressing intensity has been the source of much praise, and deservedly so. The goals, however, have been an issue. Whilst providing box office entertainment week-in week-out for the neutral, pundits have rightly pointed out that the rate - and simplicity - with which we concede goals is cause for some serious concern.

Bielsa’s side have, predictably, come up from the Championship with bags of energy and a fierce press to match. The Whites are either top, or next best in the league for total distance covered per game, team sprints per game, successful tackles, successful presses, blocks and passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) as shown below:

This essentially means we’re covering more ground than anyone, sprinting more often than anyone, making more pressures, blocks and tackles than anyone, and pressing the opposition most effectively; which is great, obviously.

That does not simply translate to outright brilliant performances. It does equal goals: lots of them - both for and against. The hallmark of a top side isn’t goals for and against, it’s just goals for. The Whites have the 6th highest expected goals per 90 minutes (xG/90) in the league at 1.56. However, they also have the highest expected goals against per 90 minutes (xGA/90) in the league at 1.80; leading to them conceding more goals than anyone in the league this season (17 in just 8 games).

This is all well and good when we’re beating Fulham 4-3, or Aston Villa 3-0. But once anomalous attacking efficiency finally levels out to what we are used to, those high scoring wins quickly turn into heavy defeats. They say goals win games, but defence wins titles; now we’re not going to be winning any titles any time soon but if we want to survive this season, we need to steady the ship at the back.

The Premier League has, however, forced us to be more clinical in front of goal. Bielsa’s two seasons in the Championship were characterised by creating masses of chances, often missing them, and then conceding slack goals against the run of play. Regular indulgers of xG stats and xG fairness ratings would often see Leeds presenting hugely unfair results, dominating games and creating openings, before succumbing to outlandish goals from nowhere.

This season has seen a marked difference in The Whites’ - in particular Patrick Bamford’s - finishing. The 27-year old is into his 3rd season at Elland Road, and by far his most prolific, with 7 goals in his first 8 games, including that sublime hat-trick at Villa Park. As we reach this checkpoint in the season, Bamford is averaging a goal every 96 minutes. In Leeds’ promotion season he averaged a goal every 215 minutes, and the season before that every 151 minutes.

Another stick previously used to poke the Leeds frontman was his underperformance of xG during Leeds’ previous two seasons. This season is actually the first time he has outperformed his xG so far, bagging 0.94 goals per 90, compared to an xG/90 of 0.66. Clinical.

Bamford’s improvement in finishing, or maybe just a sharp hit of confidence, has got him - and Leeds - off to a really positive start in terms of goals scored, averaging 1.75 goals per 90 minutes against a team xG/90 of 1.56: an efficiency both Bamford and Bielsa will be hoping to carry through the season.

The Problems

Now, there were always going to be problems. We’re in the big league now, and this is what we’ve dreamed of for the last 16 years, this comes with an ego check or two. We’re not the big boys anymore, we’re not the team everyone looks for when the fixture list comes out, and we’re not the team that spends every gameweek blowing teams away and taking three points back from all corners of the country. We are smaller fry now, at least in terms of quality.

The injury problems at Leeds are near enough unavoidable: Kalvin Phillips’ shoulder injury was caused by the shit-housery of Wolves striker Raul Jimenez, Diego Llorente’s groin injury was picked up during the first international break back in October (yet another reason to hate the break), and Rodrigo more recently tested positive for Covid-19 - a new but increasingly common selection headache.

Whilst unavoidable in isolation, injuries to some key players do highlight the issues with Bielsa’s philosophy of a tight-knit, small squad, as we are more recently having to tinker with key positions in the starting XI in order to plug the holes - most notably Mateusz Klich’s change to a deeper role for Leicester and part of Palace.

Whilst this squad size is clearly optimal for Bielsa, and who are we to question the man? There are undeniably pros and cons of either approach to squad size, and the aforementioned injuries have weakened the side significantly.

Defensively, there are issues. You don’t concede the most goals in the league just by bad luck - although goals like Palace’s third do make you question the football gods. And whilst his performances have given us plenty to admire, Robin Koch is still inexperienced within Bielsa’s team, and at times has looked exactly that.

The Germany international suffered a baptism of fire in the opener at Anfield, as part of a defence that leaked 4 goals, including a penalty given away by himself. But the scoreline was forgiven, and in the following games against Fulham, Sheffield United and Man City, Koch’s quality on the ball, and ability to nick possession in-front of the striker showed a lot of promise.

And whilst the £13 million summer signing has consistently shown plenty of positives throughout the first 8 games, and clearly possesses the skillset necessary for a Bielsa centre-back, there have been several defensive errors - and in this league, as Bielsa put it: “errors equal goals”.

The handball at Liverpool was harsh; the ball bounced off Koch’s knee at pace, and at such close proximity. As was the story of the first few weeks, the referee judged it to be a penalty. The Fulham penalty, however, reeked of inexperience - sliding in from a distance as Fulham full-back Joe Bryan ran seemingly into a dead-end, before clocking Koch’s depserate slide and initiating the contact - an experienced full-back playing a naive centre-back.

The sour cherry on top the disgusting cake came against Leicester, just seconds after Patrick Bamford missed a great early chance. The Foxes raced up the pitch, and a criminally under-hit back-pass from Koch handed no other than Jamie Vardy the chance to run through on goal, before cutting it back to Harvey Barnes to tap into an empty net.

Let’s get things straight: this is not a witch hunt. The young centre-back is adapting to a league, and to a team, the likes of which he has never come close to experiencing during his time in the Bundesliga. There has also been plenty of really strong performances from the former Freiburg man, who has somewhat settled into the Leeds back line. Unfortunately, this is just a storm that needs to be weathered. The introduction of another experienced international in Diego Llorente should also help the young German.

The Solutions

The most apparent solution to most of Leeds’ problems, is the return of key players. The most important being that of Kalvin Phillips. The England international’s nack for screening the defensive unit is only proving increasingly important to the success of the team. In the first 5 games - in which Phillips started all 5 - Leeds conceded an average of 1.8 goals per game, whereas in the 3 games without Phillips, goals conceded has risen to almost 2.7 per game - including two separate 4-1 defeats.

The most worrying observation is the susceptibility to the counter-attack, a problem increasingly under the microscope as Leeds conceded 4 against the run of play down at Selhurst Park. The most probable solution to such an issue is simply the reintroduction of Phillips once he is fit again. The midfield general lives for a tackle, and prides himself on his ability to break up counter-attacks before they gather momentum. With such aggressive pressing so far up the pitch, it’s vital for someone to marshal the space in the middle of the park. No one does it better than the Yorkshire Pirlo.

Further strengthening in the form of two Spain internationals - Diego Llorente and Rodrigo Moreno - will bolster Bielsa’s squad significantly at both ends of the pitch. Leeds’ record signing: £27 million Rodrigo, has been nothing short of outstanding since his wobbly debut appearance against Liverpool, linking midfield to attack and showing his European prowess on a consistent basis - not least in an outstanding technical performance in Leeds’ 3-0 win at Villa, where Hat-trick hero Bamford was the centre of attention:

We are yet to see anything of fellow summer signing Llorente, who signed from Real Sociedad in the summer, but an experienced Spanish international, who has had his fair share of game time in La Liga, and come up against some of the best attacking threats in the world, is sure to help steady the ship at Elland Road - providing experience and wisdom for the young Robin Koch.

Available for selection - and showing quite some promise - is Brazilian winger Raphinha: Signed from Rennes for around £17 million, and on both Bielsa and Orta’s separate radars for quite some time now, the 23-year old has shown glimmers of star quality during his limited time on the pitch thus far.

Sharp, skillful, and a brilliant eye for a pass. The young winger has only played a total of 62 minutes for Bielsa so far, but looks to have the potential to be worth every penny as he tries to force himself into the starting XI, ahead of £15 million Helder Costa - and with 5 goals and 3 assists for Rennes last season, starts are sure to equal chances, especially with some of the passing we’ve seen so far...

So, with a new-found sense of optimism, and the return of key players imminent (hopefully), the upcoming fixtures post international break are likely to bring a lot more positives than the two that preceded. It will be far from easy, with games against Arsenal, Everton and then Chelsea, it will again be imperative to analyse with a level head. We are still finding our feet at this level, after a long and miserable spell in the lower divisions.

The signs, however, are promising and experience gained throughout the season will only improve Leeds week-by-week. To survive as a newcomer in this league is something to be proud of, and to do it in such a style of Bielsa’s Leeds is something to be commended. It is ultimately the target for Radrizzani and co. - the start of a bigger project, of more optimistic targets, of a more steady ascent up the ranks of the Premier League.

During these times of reflection and assessment, it’s always important to gain a little perspective. It’s always important not to panic.