So. Here we are. Week one, game one: Manchester United away. It’s been 12 weeks since Leeds’ win against West Brom propelled them to a top-half finish in their first season back. 12 weeks in which there’s been a Euro 2020 final for England, a packed programme of pre-season friendlies and even an Olympics. None of it’s quite as fun though, is it?
It’s all just an interlude really. A 12-week ad-break that you just sit and stare at, void of any real emotional attachment. You’re not gonna turn it off, yet you wouldn’t really care if someone else did.
It was a fling. Something to pass the time until your true love finally returned. Well, it’s back, so you can pop your retro England shirt to the back of your wardrobe, throw your Team GB flag in the bin and forget about all of it. Leeds are back.
What a way to start the new season!— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) August 13, 2021
Manchester United host Leeds United in front of a packed Old Trafford
You DO NOT want to miss it!
Saturday, 11.30am | BT Sport 1 HD and Ultimate#NewHope pic.twitter.com/8G0F7IYhao
Even the most optimistic of fans - of reasonable mind, anyway - wouldn’t have predicted last season to run so smoothly. Leeds were mathematically safe from relegation by mid-April, but by the start of February, they had surpassed Fulham’s final points tally of 28. They were unbeaten at home against the big-six. They took four points off Manchester City (three of which were at the Etihad with 10-men). They lost one of their last 11 games, won their final four and tipped Everton and Aston Villa to 9th.
Patrick Bamford hit 17 goals, Raphinha burst onto the scene, and Jack Harrison’s 16 goal involvements was the second most for an English midfielder. Meanwhile, Kalvin Phillips continued his development into one of the best deep-lying midfielders in the league, Stuart Dallas continued his development into the best midfielder, full-back and wing-back in the league and Illan Meslier looks on his way to world-class levels.
Last season was an unequivocal success. It laid the foundations for years of prosperity in the Premier League. It set the bar ludicrously high.
It raises the question; what does success look like for Leeds United this season? Is it survival? Does it have to be an improvement on last season? Or is it more about the process than the results?
The squad, ultimately, is the same as last season. Ezgjan Alioski has been replaced by Junior Firpo, Jack Harrison is now, finally, a Leeds player, and both Rodrigo and Raphinha have been able to enjoy - ‘enjoy’ being used loosely here - a full pre-season under Marcelo Bielsa.
This is a squad that was pushed to the absolute peak of its ability last season. A squad, collectively, at the zenith of its powers. A core of players all enjoying the greatest campaign of their careers in tandem. It’s fair to ask whether Bamford can hit 17 goals again, if Dallas can continue to produce such consistency, and can Harrison and Raphinha garner so much success from their respective wings?
It’s also fair to question whether the surprise factor is still there. Every team in the league, barring Watford, has now played Bielsa’s Leeds. They all know what they’re up against, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can stop it.
And why can’t the core of the side reach the performance levels of last season again? There’s now a season of Premier League football under their belts, another pre-season campaign perfecting the patterns and intricacies so crucial to Bielsa’s football - not to mention a full-length break for those not involved in the Euros.
In terms of personnel, yes, this is almost exactly the same squad that travelled to Anfield for the opening game of last season, but this is not the same group of players that lost that game, nor is it the same group of players that lost 6-2 at Old Trafford, 4-1 at Leicester and Crystal Palace and 3-1 at Chelsea.
The squad, as it was during last season’s run-in, is stronger, savvier and smarter. The chaos has calmed without dissipating entirely and Leeds are an all-around different beast.
So, success. What defines success for Leeds this season? What will be looked back upon come summer 2022 as a positive second season in the Premier League?
The optimists will say Europe - note, with the introduction of the UEFA Conference League, that now means any of the top seven places - and whilst not entirely out of the question, it doesn’t seem feasible that Leeds can rise two or three places when last season was already such an overachievement (yes, I am aware that I predicted Leeds to finish 5th in the PL 1 - 20 predictions. No I don’t regret it).
More likely is that, in terms of final position, there may be a small drop. This is no bad thing. It is, essentially, another season of stability and consolidation, another season of Premier League revenue and another season of experience for both players and the manager.
To me, a successful season isn’t definitively measured by league position, points or anything objective. Do I want us to stay up? obviously. Do I want us to improve our position? absolutely. But it’s not the be-all and end-all.
Success, for me, is about another season full of moments. It’s about Bamford’s goals, Raphinha’s nutmegs, Harrison’s first-touch, Dallas’ energy, Phillips’ tackles. It’s about 5-0 battering’s, last-minute winners, throwing men forward in the 95th minute. It’s about filling that stadium with 38,000 fans and blowing the roof off it. That’s what a successful season looks like for me.
And if that’s success, then Leeds’ ceiling has no limit.