It has been 16 years since Premier League football has been seen at Elland Road but after winning the championship, Leed United are back in the top flight. Led back by the unorthodox tactics, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds basically went wire to wire en route to promotion. Fans will feel that they came up a year late after a third place finish in the 2018/19 season but better late than never when it comes to promotion. But what are the hallmarks of this team? Can they expect to stay up in the Premier League? Come along for the ride to find out.
Leeds mostly used two formations during the season a 4-1-4-1 and a 3-3-3-1 formation the team is also capable of shifting between formations in game. Both are high pressing formations that demand a lot from his players but nothing less can be expected from one of the most innovative managers in world football. Counter pressing when the ball is lost and regrouping into a direct attack are the hallmarks of this style that can frustrate any team. It seems like the 3-3-3-1 formation was used when Bielsa saw his side as the favorites as the average position in the table of teams that the 3-3-3-1 formation was used versus was 17th out of 24 teams.
A look at the setups for Leeds United's most used formations. I'm expecting that only the 4-1-4-1 makes the jump to the Premier League with them, however. pic.twitter.com/8UhhJRHdTe
— Chuck Booth ✊🏽 (@ChuckBoothSport) August 4, 2020
One thing to note is that due to the demands of this style, both physically and mentally, one player can cause it to fail. That led to 18 halftime subs by Bielsa during the season (mostly for attacking players). Only seven of those halftime subs were made when managers were allowed five substitutions post restart, so that’s something to watch when selecting Leeds players into your fantasy teams.
Playing as the defensive midfielder and on-field marshal, Kalvin Phillips has the most important role in making things tick. Dropping deep between the center backs to pick up the ball, Phillips starts the transitions before attacking midfielders Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich decide where it will go from there. It was a style that led to Leeds scoring 77 goals (tied for second in the Championship) while allowing 35 for the best defensive record in the Championship. Friendly reminder that Championship goals don’t always translate as Norwich City scored 93 in the Championship while Sheffield United had the best defense in the Championship in 2018-19 allowing 41 goals.
What’s especially concerning is that out of the top five players in minutes played for Leeds, two were on loans and their future is up in the air while one has had a tough time translating his game to the Premier League. These players are Ben White (on loan from Brighton), Jack Harrison (on loan from Manchester City) and Patrick Bamford (played for Middlesbrough, Norwich, Burnley and Crystal Palace).
Leeds have already begun work on locking up their on-loan players with Illan Meslier set to sign a contract after pipping Kiko Casilla for the starting job between the sticks near the end of the season. Jack Harrison will likely follow shortly behind as Manchester City doesn’t have a need for the winger who was involved in 14 goals in the Championship in his second year on loan with Leeds. While keeping Harrison will be a huge boon to the attack staying afloat, the future of Ben White is a concern.
White played in every game for Leeds last year while on loan from Brighton and he was ever-present in defense. Leeds are willing to pay 20m for white but that may not be enough with other Premier League sides interested along with the chance that Brighton keeps him. Center backs with his talent are few and far between so it would make sense for Brighton to retain his services even with the signing of Joël Veltman confirmed.
The looming question is, “are the sum of Leeds United’s parts good enough for the Premier League?” Marcelo Bielsa tends to be bigger than his teams so it's important to run through if the players at his disposal can get the job done because on paper, his tactics can.
Priority number one has to be replacing (or buying someone to start over) Patrick Bamford. Historically, strikers with 20+ goals in the championship play 22 percent fewer minutes in the Premier League while also seeing a decline in shots taken and finishing rate (adjusted for minutes). While Bamford doesn’t fit this perfectly as he scored 16 goals, that would put him around nine for the season. And as a betting man, I would take the under on that. For a promoted team, question one is, “Where will the goals come from?” and for Leeds, the hope is not Bamford which is why Edison Cavani has been the latest forward linked with a switch to Leeds.
Defensively, Leeds has Premier League quality options if Ben White stays but keeper may be a question mark. While Meslier was okay down the stretch after winning the starting job, he’s not an above average shot stopper who will win Leeds points on his own. This can lead to a drastic defensive decline if White leaves. Outside back wise, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas are Premier League quality defenders but not guys who I’d covet in fantasy right now due to a clean sheet concern. Winning five aerials per game, Liam Cooper is a rock but he can’t do it alone.
In midfield, Leeds will go as far as two people. Phillips and Pablo Hernandez. I’ve covered what Phillips means to the transition game but Hernandez is an odd one. No team wants their focal point to be an injury prone 35-year-old but Bielsa doesn’t do average teams. En route to being involved in 18 goals for Leeds, Hernandez made about half of his passes in the final third. One of the most progressive passers in the Championship, he also took 2.7 shots per game which will likely continue. But, Hernandez only started 27 games last season. While that opened the door for Tyler Roberts to step in, Roberts hasn’t shown that he can do it in the Premier League while Mateusz Klich isn’t half the creator that Hernandez is.
Jack Harrison is a good prospect, but the Premier League will be quite a step for him as well. Hélder Costa is an enigma. While he started 33 games for Leeds, there wasn’t anything that he’s done particularly well. While he’s a good depth piece, experience from his last rodeo with Wolverhampton would say that his position is one that can be upgraded on.
Speaking of upgrades, it has been reported that Leeds has a transfer budget of about 30m going into the new season. If that’s true, they’ll find times tough heading into the new season looking for bargains. Needing a keeper, center back, winger and striker Bielsa will need to exploit the relegated teams, bargain bin shopping and Premier League loans.
A few names who make sense from the relegated sides are Callum Wilson, Troy Deeney (who I don’t believe will leave Watford), Ismaila Sarr, Christian Kabasele, David Brooks and Aaron Ramsdale. Premier League loan wise, Alexis Mac Allister, Juan Foyth, and possibly a step up for Rhian Brewster.
Honestly, Leeds has quite a lot of work to do if they want to stay up this season. They do have a set system which is good for integration but the weaknesses in their starting XI and depth options leaves a lot of room for questions. The good news is Aston Villa stayed up buying an almost entirely new XI but Bielsa likely won't have half of the money at his disposal that Dean Smith did. At the moment my prediction would be a 18th place finish with Leeds just going down but adding a proven striker should be enough to bring them over the line. Shooting high on transfer targets could set Leeds up for a mid-table finish.