It has been a season of dizzy heights and humbling lows. We’ve lost family, friends and club legends, all while witnessing one of the greatest periods in Leeds United’s recent history. Despite the hardships though, the Whites have continued their memorable string of successes and several players have demonstrated just how far they have come under Marcelo Bielsa in what has been their first season in the Premier League for most of them.
With Gaetano Berardi and Pablo Hernandez giving an emotional farewell to the Elland Road faithful on Sunday, we are beginning to witness the breaking up of that team that got us back to the Premier League. This season will subsequently be remembered as fondly as any at Leeds, and will perhaps be known as the campaign when Bielsa’s original heroes handed the baton to new stars tasked with taking the club to even greater heights.
Part 1 of this season’s player ratings will tackle the goalkeepers and defenders, from the future France no. 1 Illan Meslier to the domineering Kalvin Phillips. Whether these players have been loyal servants to the club over several years, new signings bought to bolster our Premier League squad or academy products who rocketed onto the scene, there have been some brilliant performances across the board over the course of the 2020/21 campaign, and that will be reflected in the ratings below.
Stats courtesy of FBref & Fotmob (*unavailable for League Cup)
Appearances - 35
Clean sheets - 11
Goals conceded - 52
Saves - 140
Passes - 833
Moment to remember - Showing the Premier League what he’s made of by earning Leeds a clean sheet in their win at Sheffield United.
Moment to forget - Having a mare in the first half of the 4-2 loss against Arsenal at the Emirates.
Overcoming challenges is the running theme of Illan Meslier’s Leeds career so far. From shining in his debut against Arsenal in the 2019/20 FA Cup, to filling in for Kiko Casilla later in the Championship campaign, the young and inexperienced goalkeeper has stepped up and delivered. Subsequently, he was signed on a permanent deal and deservedly handed the number one jersey heading into the Whites’ first Premier League campaign for 16 years.
Throughout the campaign, Meslier has continued to overcome challenges. He faced over 170 shots on target as Leeds faced criticism for being too naive and leaving their defence vulnerable in their first few manic months back in the top flight. Ever since his man-of-the-match display against Sheffield United, he has earned Marcelo Bielsa’s sides multiple points. He also performed excellently in matches against Everton, Burnley, Southampton, Chelsea and Manchester United, to name a few.
Illan Meslier in the Premier League in 2020/21:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) May 23, 2021
11 clean sheets
The Leeds number one played more minutes than any other U22 PL player (3,150) and is the youngest ever PL goalkeeper to keep 11 clean sheets.
Fully Deserved. #LUFC https://t.co/8JXSdwWDtM
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Meslier’s debut season in the Premier League is his ability to dust himself off and bounce back after poor performances. The 4-2 loss against Arsenal, which saw the French stopper make an error leading to a goal, concede a penalty and only make a single save, was a particularly difficult moment. Yet - despite scoring an own goal in the next match versus Wolves - he made a notable improvement by making five saves, and was debatably the best player in the 3-0 win over Southampton that followed.
Meslier possesses the professionalism and maturity of a player 10 years his senior, allowing him to become the youngest goalkeeper in Premier League history to earn 10 or more clean sheets. There are a host of youngsters at Elland Road that have promising potential, but the 21-year-old perhaps boasts the highest ceiling of all, and could easily go on to become one of the greatest keepers in the world in the coming years. Season rating: 8.5
Appearances - 5
Clean sheets - 1
Goals conceded - 6
Saves - 16
Passes - 110
Moment to remember - Making a string of saves in the League Cup tie against Hull City.
Moment to forget - His less than satisfactory performance in the 3-0 drubbing at Crawley Town.
Fortunately, Kiko Casilla’s involvement on the final day of the season took nothing away from Gaetano Berardi and Pablo Hernandez’s farewell appearance. But the same cannot be said for the rest of his starts this season. A lot has changed since Andrea Radrizzani bought the remainder of Massimo Cellino’s shares in the club. Aspects of Leeds that once heralded shame and embarrassment, from the finances and ownership to management and players, have since been revitalised. Casilla is the one remaining source of controversy in a club that is otherwise excelling in the Bielsa era.
Regardless of whether he should still be at the club or not, the former Real Madrid backup has now made five appearances since his eight-match ban for being racist towards Charlton forward Jonathan Leko. His first game was against Hull in the League Cup, when Bielsa controversially handed him the captain’s armband. The veteran made a string of saves to keep a lacklustre Whites side in the game and scored in the penalty shootout before Leeds were knocked out. Back-to-back appearances followed in January: the first was in the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Crawley in the FA Cup and saw the keeper inexplicably beaten at his near post; the second was the 1-0 loss to Brighton, where the only major chance he faced was the goal.
There were no major errors from the 34-year-old in the final two matches of the season, but there will be many in the Leeds fanbase that hope they were his final matches for the club. He may well still be capable of performing for the Peacocks, but the discomfort surrounding his presence at Elland Road goes beyond football. Season rating: 6
Appearances - 37
Goals - 3
Assists - 3
Recoveries - 151*
Tackles - 35
Moment to remember - Scoring a screamer to put Leeds 2-0 up against West Brom at the Hawthorns.
Moment to forget - Opting to hug Danny Welbeck’s legs rather than defend like a normal human being in the 2-0 loss at Brighton & Hove Albion.
In some ways it has been a rollercoaster season for Leeds, and the same can certainly be said for Ezgjan Alioski. Ever since the loan outing of Barry Douglas and the resurgence of Stuart Dallas in midfield, the North Macedonian has been the sole left-back option in Leeds’ strongest eleven, and was subsequently singled out for being out of his depth in a team that was otherwise adapting well enough to the Premier League.
Then came the undesirable Galatasaray rumours, resulting from an increasingly uncertain contract situation. Bielsa wanted the 29-year-old to say, but fans were already turning on Alioski as a result, and calamitous performances against Fulham and Brighton did not help his case. However, noteworthy displays in Leeds’ impressive run against the ‘Big 6’ teams led to a strong finish to the season overall.
While the mad man’s energy, passion and versatility are adventitious for a Bielsa side, his defensive ability - or lack thereof - means that a first team left back should be a priority this summer. However, the makeshift full-back has shown in displays against bigger teams that he is capable of performing at the highest level, and could yet make a decent backup option so long as regular football is not a personal priority. Season rating: 6.5
Appearances - 26
Goals - 1
Recoveries - 309
Tackles - 45
Aerial duels won - 103
Moment to remember - Putting in a commanding defensive display in the 3-1 win at Leicester City.
Moment to forget - Seeing a controversial red for a challenge on Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus.
One of Leeds’ longest players, Liam Cooper has seen the club at its worst, and his presence in that era resulted in him being branded “League One Liam” by Whites fans. Despite improving under Bielsa, he still had plenty of doubters going into his first Premier League season since appearing a couple of times for Hull City over 10 years ago. In the early stages of the season his positioning let him down in a few cases, particularly in the 4-1 losses to Leicester and Crystal Palace.
Most interceptions in the 2020/21 Premier League season:— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) May 24, 2021
1️⃣ Jan Bednarek - 84
2️⃣ Josh Brownhill - 69
3️⃣ Ruben Neves- 65
4️⃣ Yves Bissouma - 64
5️⃣ A. Wan-Bissaka - 62
➖ Ben White - 62
➖ Tomas Soucek - 62
8️⃣ Wilfred Ndidi - 61
➖ Liam Cooper - 61
➖ Wesley Fofana - 61
His debatable start to life in the top flight was paired with the sudden awaking of Pascal Struijk, who has emerged to become a worthy rival for the left-centre-back position. A series of rejuvenated displays helped Cooper establish himself as Leeds’ best centre-back on a statistical basis though. Standout performances from the captain include the 3-1 win over the Foxes, where he recorded four tackles, nine recoveries, six interceptions and won eight duels, as well as the 2-0 win at Southampton, where he won eight duels and managed an impressive eight interceptions.
Whether he will retain his first team place next season or lose it permanently to Struijk is yet to be seen, but the 29-year-old has certainly done his part to remain firmly in Bielsa’s first team plans. Cooper may not be as exciting as his direct competitor for a starting place, or summer signing Diego Llorente, but this season he has shown himself to be a reliable player and has the stats to argue for it. Season rating: 7.5
Appearances - 28
Goals - 1
Recoveries - 235
Tackles - 30
Aerial duels won - 51
Moment to remember - Scoring his first goal for Leeds in a 4-2 defeat against Arsenal.
Moment to forget - Perhaps not a moment to forget, because there is a lesson to be learnt, but being substituted early on away at Aston Villa will have been a difficult moment for Struijk.
Several members of Bielsa’s Leeds squad have shown incredible levels of improvement since the Argentine first took the helm back in 2018, but none of them have experienced development in quite the same fashion as Pascal Struijk. Going into the 20/21 season, he was viewed as little more than a backup and young prospect, firmly fourth in the central-defensive pecking order. But an injury to Liam Cooper opened up an unexpected first team opportunity for the then-20-year-old, who grasped it with both hands.
At first though, things were a bit awkward for Struijk; Bielsa clearly saw him as a long term backup for Kalvin Phillips, and the Ajax youth product subsequently filled in for the Yorkshire Pirlo when required. Despite possessing the necessary defensive tools to perform adequately in holding midfield, Struijk’s mobility and range of passing was lacking. A future in midfield may have been possible, but it would have been a long and arduous path for Struijk, who faced far more challenges than Phillips did while attempting to learn such a unique trade.
Fortunately, Bielsa began to utilise Struijk at centre-back on a more permanent basis, and consistent spells in the starting eleven saw him improve with each and every match he played. Soon, links to Leicester and Napoli emerged, while Belgium and the Netherlands began to fight over the Belgian-born defender with his international future yet to be decided. Leeds’ tallest outfield player was not quite as effective in the air as the more experienced Cooper, but his height proved desirable in losses against Wolves and Arsenal, matches where Struijk accumulated the majority of his season’s xG value thanks to the threat he posed in the box.
The main tools he possesses that has seen him gain such traction in the Premier League are his comfort with the ball at his feet, his reading of the game and his ability to hold his own in one-on-one defending. He certainly rivals Meslier for the highest-ceiling among Leeds youngsters, and not many Leeds players have enjoyed such brilliant breakthrough campaign. Season rating: 8
Appearances - 15
Goals - 1
Recoveries - 117
Tackles - 39
Aerial duels won - 40
Moment to remember - Scoring a dramatic equaliser against Merseyside Reds in the wake of the Super League debacle.
Moment to forget - Coming off injured after just 10 minutes into Leeds’ win at Newcastle United, extending his spell on the sidelines.
For a while, some of us weren’t entirely sure that Diego Llorente was a real person. Surely enough, he finally showed his face at Stamford Bridge, over two months after he had signed. It was a premature return, however, forced by Robin Koch’s injury early in the first half - so another month-and-a-half followed. He returned for the trip to St. James’ Park, but lasted just 10 minutes before yet another knock kept him out for a further month. For £17 million, Leeds had supposedly signed a Spanish international, but for all we knew a couple of body doubles had taken turns playing 91 minutes of football.
Marcelo Bielsa was finally able to unleash Llorente in the 3-0 win over Southampton, and boy, what a defender to be able to unleash midway through a campaign. His defensive reliability was questioned in his first handful of matches, but as he racked up the first team appearances his comfort in possession and range of passing had already become clear to see. He made a whopping 17 recoveries in the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa, and scored his first goal for the club with an excellent header to equalise against Liverpool.
Having spent the summer fretting about not freeing Ben White from the grasps of direct rivals Brighton, Llorente’s long awaited spell in the first team was almost a relief - the 27-year-old’s style of play is as close to Ben White’s as we could hope for, and he most likely exceeds the former loanee’s ability. By the end of the season, Llorente had established himself as not just a technically excellent, but also a strong and reliable central defender, and looks set to take on White’s legacy and Pontus Jansson’s before him as our prize centre-back. The fact Leeds only lost three times since Llorente first completed 90 minutes speaks volumes. Season rating: 8
Appearances - 17
Clean sheets - 5
Recoveries - 159
Tackles - 29
Aerial duels won - 40
Moment to remember - Shining in holding midfield during Leeds’ 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur.
Moment to forget - Picking up an injury early on at Chelsea which would rule him out for the next three months.
With Llorente injured for the first half of the season, poor old Robin Koch was left on his own to fill the boots of promotion winner White. He endured a tricky start, conceding two penalties in his first two appearances, but the German international steadied the ship and proved to be worth the £11 million spent to bring him to Elland Road. Koch showcased his defensive prowess in the 1-0 win at Sheffield United, and bright performances followed against Wolves and Aston Villa.
Questionable displays did not completely elude Koch, who was accountable for a couple of the goals in Crystal Palace’s 4-1 win over Leeds at Selhurst Park. Ultimately though, the 24-year-old did well to provide as sturdy a base as possible for a Leeds side that was shipping in goals in the first half of the campaign. This became more impressive when, at the start of his three-month spell on the sidelines, it was revealed he had been playing with an injury.
Thank you to all my supporters and all Leeds fans out there. Coming to a new club in a new country was a big step for me. But all I can say: It was the right step. You welcomed me in a fantastic way and made my first season at Leeds United to a great one. pic.twitter.com/40YWhTgW26— Robin Koch (@RobinKoch25) May 23, 2021
By the time Koch was able to take to the Elland Road pitch again, fellow signing Llorente had nailed down his place in the first team, but he still proved useful for Bielsa by filling in for Kalvin Phillips. The likes of Pascal Struijk, Mateusz Klich and Stuart Dallas had all previously attempted to fill the void left by the Yorkshire Pirlo with varying degrees of success, but an outright backup was yet to be established. Although the Whites lost 2-0 at Brighton with Koch in holding midfield, Phillips’ absence was not the main issue Leeds faced against Graham Potter’s outfit. Indeed, Koch’s ability to shield the defence became apparent in the corresponding 3-1 win over Spurs.
His defensive battling and range of passing will have been clocked by Bielsa; a versatile midfield option able to fill in for Phillips when needed would still be a welcome addition in the summer, but Koch will have established himself as one of the first options to turn to regardless of Leeds’ upcoming transfer business. Llorente will likely be the favoured right-sided option heading into next season, but no one can put it beyond Koch to fight for a place in the first team. Season rating: 7.5
Appearances - 2
Clean sheets - 2
Recoveries - 6
Tackles - 2
Aerial duels won - 3
Moment to remember - Receiving a standing ovation from 10,000 supporters at Elland Road as he left the Elland Road pitch for the final time.
Moment to forget - Absolutely none of it. We’ll all fondly remember Berardi’s final moments as a Leeds United player.
Regular first team football has eluded Gaetano Berardi for much of the seven years he has been at Leeds United. He’s filled in at left-back, right-back and centre-back when needed, and although he wasn’t quite as spectacular as the likes of Jansson and White through the years, he always performed with great passion and pride, and a lot of credit should go to him for Leeds’ growth and eventual promotion over the last few years. With our long overdue Premier League status assured, every defender that comes through the door from now on should have more technical ability than Berardi. But they would do well to pull of a crunching tackle or pull off the ‘blood pouring down face’ look quite like the Swiss lion.
Leeds fans will not forget the sacrifice Berardi made for the club last season in a hurry; his signing of a short term extension put everything on the line for him with his future at the club looking uncertain at best, but he signed on regardless, and probably would do so again despite the 10-month layoff resulting from the injury he sustained in the penultimate game of the season. Thankfully, Berardi was able to return just in time to say farewell. He didn’t put a foot wrong in his couple of appearances against Southampton and West Brom, other than making the national pollen count abnormally high for this time of year. Season rating: 7
Appearances - 38
Recoveries - 279
Tackles - 108
Progressive yards in possession - 8,246
Passes - 2,109
Moment to remember - A strong display at centre-back at home to Burnley.
Moment to forget - Conceding a penalty in the 2-0 loss at West Ham United.
One of two players to start all 38 games for Leeds this season, Luke Ayling has perhaps taken the mantle of Mr. Consistent from Stuart Dallas. He is yet to enjoy a moment quite like the goal against Huddersfield last season, but there have been no notably awful performances from him either. Usually that might not count for much, but having such a dependable player has been hugely significant for Marcelo Bielsa. especially given a lot of Leeds’ build-up play occurs down the right side, and injury issues at centre-back have resulted in the Arsenal academy product filling in.
Despite being caught out positionally this season, it has generally been one of Ayling’s main strengths, and one he has used to counteract his below average ability in the air. Standing at 6ft 1in, you would expect the 29-year-old to be relatively adept in aerial duels; instead, the ex-Yeovil and Bristol City defender, who has plenty of experience playing centrally, has relied on his positional awareness to match the likes of Chris Wood in the air this campaign.
It was admittedly a struggle to think of an outright best moment of the season for the right-back, but for some reason a specific aerial challenge against Burnley’s Wood (above) comes to mind - Ayling was always the underdog against the ex-Whites scorer, but he stuck close enough to his former teammate to force his header over the bar. By itself, it’s a fairly tame moment in comparison to Harrison’s opener at Liverpool, or Dallas’ winner at Man City, but at the time I found it remarkably impressive, and it was those sorts of moments that helped Leeds hold off a second half assault from Sean Dyche’s men.
His caretaking spells at centre-back were hugely important for a Leeds side suffering multiple injuries in the position during the early stages of the season, and having racked up over 400 EFL appearances before finally reaching the top flight, Ayling has taken to it like a duck to water. After all, only Lionel Messi has ran more progressive yards than the air guitarist in Europe’s top five leagues. Season rating: 8
Appearances - 30
Goals - 1
Assists - 2
Key passes - 35
Recoveries - 325
Moment to remember - Scoring his first Premier League goal in front of supporters at Elland Road.
Moment to forget - Gifting West Brom a goal with an error later in the match, before risking his fitness for the European Championships by getting injured making a challenge.
Marcelo Bielsa’s impact at Leeds has been personified through many players, from the flop signing Mateusz Klich to the fringe winger Stuart Dallas. But look no further than Kalvin Phillips when seeking the closest example of the peak of El Loco’s management powers. At the age of 22, his career didn’t look like it was heading anywhere special when Bielsa arrived at Elland Road. Technically he was a box-to-box midfielder, but in truth no one knew his best role, and in the eyes of many fans he paled in comparison to fellow academy products such as Lewis Cook. But his new Argentine manager did not need long to decide what direction to take his career in.
The Yorkshire Pirlo has enjoyed arguably his best season yet in a Leeds shirt, given the gulf in opposition compared to the Championship. He showed how he gained his nickname especially against lower opposition, when he had more opportunities to execute excellent long range passes. It was the first equaliser against Liverpool, though, which resulted from a classic Phillips ping, and we have seen plenty more of them since then.
Defensively, Phillips shone against the Greedy Six, particularly in Leeds’ second match against arch rivals Manchester United. Not only did he create three big chances and complete six of his seven attempted long balls, he also won 11 duels and four tackles, as well as registering 12 recoveries and three clearances. Against Burnley, meanwhile, Phillips responded to criticisms of Leeds’ lack of aerial presence by completing no less than seven headed clearances.
Due to him playing for Leeds, there is always going to be England fans that don't rate Kalvin Phillips but in terms of long passing, there isn't many in the league who are better in my opinion. So vital to Leeds system. #LUFC pic.twitter.com/MrK3hvFe6m— FocusOnLeeds (@FocusOnLeeds) May 28, 2021
There are plenty of matches this season that showcase Phillips’ talent, but his importance to Bielsa’s side is best shown through the void he leaves when injured or suspended. One of Leeds’ greatest challenges this season was replacing Phillips in his absence, which proved to be fatal in spells during the first half of the campaign. Indeed, the likes of Leicester found plenty of enjoyment at Elland Road without the 25-year-old imposing himself in holding midfield.
The role Phillips inhabits at Elland Road was almost uniquely built for him, and it will subsequently prove difficult for Leeds to establish a true heir to his throne. Hopefully, one day, England fans will learn to acknowledge and appreciate his brilliance, rather than berate him for doing exactly what Gareth Southgate tasks him with. He may not be Leeds’ player of the season this time round, but he has further cemented his place as their most important player. Season rating: 8.5
Which player from Part 1 has been the best this season?
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From the players covered in this part, who do you think has been the best this season? Vote in the poll above (viewable in browser) and let us know on Twitter. Keep an eye out for Part 2, which will be published in due course.