Leeds United are back in the Premier League, and not before time. One of the true giants of English football, the club that’s seen it all are back among the elite.
Under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds have been reborn and after a 16 seasons absence they finally achieved their goal of returning to England’s top flight. For an incredibly loyal fanbase, who’ve stuck by their team through relegation from the Premier League, relegation from the Championship and season after season of disappointment in the second tier, it’s well deserved.
It’s hard to believe that Leeds fell so far. In 2001 they were Champions League semi-finalists, and by 2007 they were bottom of the Championship and heading to League One. They’d gone from having an exciting young team that was drawing envious glances from all over Europe, to crippling debt and a squad of cast-offs and kids.
The trouble had really began when David O’Leary walked out. It set the tone for what was to follow, as reports of the sheer scale of financial hardship Leeds were facing came to light. Leeds came as close to going out of business as any big club in England ever has.
It took a long time for Leeds to get themselves right, far too long. A series of undesirable owners and managers without shoulders strong enough to carry the burden of weight that comes with managing a club of Leeds United’s stature kept Leeds swimming against the tide.
That changed when Andrea Radrizzani took full ownership of the club. He brought ambition back to the club. He wasn’t going to settle for life in the Championship. The revolving doors of managers had to end. He knew he had to swing for the fences. After a couple of stop gaps, he finally got his man. The man. Marcelo Bielsa.
It’s worth noting that David O’Leary was the 24th manager in Leeds United’s history, including caretakers and Brian Clough’s ill-fated 44 day spell in charge. Bielsa walked through the door as the 24th manager of the club since O’Leary.
Bielsa isn’t generally known for bringing stability to clubs. This is a man who walked out on Lazio without managing a single game, had spells at Espanyol and Lille that saw him take charge of less than 20 games. He’s known for his fiery temper as much as his managerial genius. But a genius is what he is. A one-off mentalist who dances to the beat of his own drum. But he didn’t care how big Leeds were, that wasn’t going to bother him. He wasn’t fazed. Why would he be?
He was exactly what Leeds needed, a big name manager with a big point to prove. And prove it he did. His first season saw Leeds improve from 13th to 3rd, and although it ended in playoff disappointment it produced more positives and more excitement than the previous eight seasons in the Championship combined.
Some doubted that Bielsa would stick about for a second year given his prior history but he did, and he produced possibly the best season of his managerial career. A coaching tour de force saw his Leeds team romp the Championship, finishing 10 points clear of second place West Bromwich Albion.
Bielsa had done what he was brought to do, and he’d done so much more. He’d give the fan base their love of the game back. They’d always loved their club, but the game had been so cruel to them for the better part of two decades. They went from away days to Barcelona and Milan, to watching their team lose to Colchester. The joy of taking on Europe’s finest at Elland Road to depressing draws with Southend.
Now they had something to enjoy again. Now they had a manager, and a team, that people envied.
Bielsa seems to love life in Yorkshire. The “Take us Home – Leeds United” documentary on Amazon provides an indepth look at the inner workings of Leeds and shows a club all pulling in the same direction, with Bielsa at the forefront. A man who prefers the simple things in life, he gets to life in a quiet, picturesque village where people let him go about his life. It’s everything he always wanted it seems. Around late November of next season Bielsa will take charge of his 113th match of his Leeds tenure. That will make it his longest stay at any one club. It says a lot about the stability behind the scenes and the serenity Bielsa has found at the club.
He won’t be sitting back and basking in the glory of promotion though. Bielsa will want to make a mark in the Premier League. Relegation battles aren’t his idea of fun, he’ll want Leeds to be ambitious. He’ll know that his squad needs reinforcements and Director of Football Victor Orta will be the man tasked with getting deals over the line.
The first priority for Leeds seems to be getting a ballplaying central defender. The clear top target is Brighton’s Ben White, who was a massive success during a loan spell at Elland Road last season. He was arguably the stand out player in his position in the Championship last season. Leeds have so far had two bids rejected by Brighton, who are adamant they have no intention of selling. It remains to be seen if that is the case, but it might be prudent for Leeds to start looking for suitable alternatives.
His team-mate Ruben Dias gets a lot more of his plaudits but Ferro fits the bill perfectly for Leeds. Everybit the defender Dias is, Ferro is a fantastic ballplaying centre-back. He’s a better defender than White at this point in their careers and every bit as good on the ball.
At just 23 he’s still nowhere near the finished article but Leeds would be getting themselves an accomplished defender in Ferro. A player who’s strong in the tackle and shows high level anticipation and reading of the game.
A versatile player who’s comfortable at centre-back or in a holding midfield role, Todibo is potentially available at a bargain price this summer. Signed by Barcelona after breaking into the Toulouse first team, Todibo became a victim of the win-now mentality employed by the Catalans. Young players, especially defenders, are simply not given a chance there at the minute.
He was loaned to Schalke for the second half of this past season and, in the midst of a disastrous run for the German club, was quietly impressive. Schalke intended to buy him at the conclusion of his loan but their financial situation has changed drastically in the pandemic and they were unable to afford him.
He’s a strong, dominant player who’s commanding in the air and solid on the ground but where he really stands out is on the ball. He’s a good passer, not quite White’s level but close. But he’s great at carrying the ball. He’s one of the very best centrebacks in Europe when it comes to breaking the oppositions first line off the dribble. Todibo could be the perfect addition for Leeds.
For such a young player, Ajer already has a wealth of experience under his belt. He has made 221 senior appearances in his career, including 29 in European competition and 14 for the Norwegian senior team. He’s still a bit raw defensively but he’s a towering presence in the air and very good with the ball at his feet.
Having spent a couple of seasons under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers, Ajer is used to playing a high tempo attacking style of football and should be able to cope with the demands Bielsa puts on his players.
Ajer is also comfortable playing at the base of midfield, which would be beneficial should the excellent Kalvin Phillips miss any games next season.
An area where you can never have too many good players is central midfield. Especially when you have a manager who demands so much of his midfield players. The style of play Bielsa employs calls for players who can offer quality on the ball as well as a massive capacity for hard work. Bielsa makes his players suffer in training so that they can make opponents suffer in games.
Lewis Cook spent 10 years at Leeds before joining Bournemouth in 2016 when the Elland Road club were forced to sell yet another of their immensely talented academy products to keep the lights on. Cook has had an up and down time at Bournemouth but is an immensely talented player.
He was on the verge of an England call up before an ACL injury derailed him and it’s fair to wonder if a fully fit Lewis Cook could have helped Bournemouth survive in the Premier League last season.
With Bournemouth under pressure to sell some players, Leeds could take advantage of it and snatch Cook for a bargain price. At 23 he’s still years from his prime and having him and Phillips in midfield together would give Leeds two potential England internationals.
Sanson wasn’t at Marseille at the same time as Bielsa but in watching the Frenchman play, you get the feeling that Bielsa would have loved to have him. One of the hardest working midfielders in Europe, Sanson has an enormous engine and works non-stop for his team-mate. He’s also a very clever passer of the ball, and is versatile enough to play in a box to box role, or a sitting defensive midfield role.
He’s been linked to Spurs, though with Hojbjerg going there it’s likely they won’t pursue him now, and he profiles as a player perfectly suited to life in the Premier League.
Club: Schalke 04
Age: Turns 22 this month
Schalke are a mess on and off the field. They’ve just completed a massively disappointing Bundesliga season and now face having to sell anything that is not nailed down because of their debt.
McKennie was meant to be the future for Schalke. The American posterboy they could market and build around, but that has changed. A transfer to Hertha Berlin has fallen through but Schalke are desperate to sell him just to get money into the club.
Leeds could take advantage and grab a player who’s as versatile as any in Europe and perfectly suited to Bielsa’s style of play. McKennie could be a signing that benefits Leeds on and off the pitch, with his dynamic style of play coupled with his power running from box to box, and the obvious commercial appeal he would bring.
Goals are the most lucrative currency in football and, while Leeds had no problems scoring last season, it remains to be seen if they can translate Championship goals into Premier League goals. In order to score goals, you need players who can create chances at a high level. Leeds don’t have any players in their squad who have proven themselves capable of creating at the highest level outside of 35 year old Pablo Hernandez so it is an area they should look to improve on.
Club: Queens Park Rangers
Eze is on the wanted list of a host of Premier League clubs after a hugely impressive break-out campaign for QPR last season. Capable of play as an attacking midfielder or on either flank, Eze would add goals and creativity to any team.
His unpredicatable style, dribbling ability and willingness to shoot from distance could be ideal for Leeds, and the tactical genius of Bielsa could help unlock new parts of Eze’s game and turn him into a complete player.
Eze’s mentality is one of his strongest attributes and could fit in perfectly with a Leeds team that have displaced great mental toughness over the past two seasons.
Club: Norwich City
Buendia has been linked with Leeds, and it makes sense for a bunch of reasons. His preferred position off the right is arguably the midfield role most in need of upgrading, he’s a creative output machine, and he’s a huge admirer of Bielsa.
Buendia’s creative numbers, in a terrible Norwich team this past season, are quite staggering. He ranked third in the Premier League in players who played over 1000 minutes for expected assists. He’s an exceptional dribbler who can unlock defenses with both his dribbling and passing, and that is something Leeds will need next season.
His defensive output is also impressive. Per FBref.com he ranked 3rd amongst all midfielders with over 1000 minutes played for tackles in his own defensive third, fifth for total pressures and 4th for counterpressing recoveries.
The concern around him was his lack of goal output but that should improve, especially under a manager like Bielsa.
Norwich won’t sell cheap, but Leeds and Buendia seems like a perfect fit for all parties.
Brooks is another potential bargain to be found at what might become a fire sale by Bournemouth, and he’s another player well suited to Bielsa’s style of play.
A left footed playmaker, capable of playing multiple positions, Brooks came through the academy at Sheffield United before making the switch to Bournemouth. After an impressive first campaign in the Premier League, his missed the majority of this past season with an ankle injury.
Brooks, like Cook, would likely welcome a move back North and has the potential to blossom into a top class player. It’s not beyond the realms of reality that with a couple of seasons under Bielsa he could be viewed in the same bracket as the likes of James Maddison and Jack Grealish. He’s every bit as talented as them.
Creating chances is of course only part of the battle to score goals, getting someone to take advantage of them is the difference between success and failure.
Patrick Bamford has proven himself a capable Championship goalscorer but he has looked out of his depth in the Premier League for Crystal Palace, Norwich, Burnley and Middlesbrough. He’s a well rounded player who offers good hold-up and link play, clever movement and good aerial ability but his finishing, even at Championship level, has always been a bit questionable. Leeds, as a newly promoted team, can’t afford to rely on a striker who doesn’t convert a high percentage of his chances.
Edouard is simply far too good to spend another season in Scotland and while he’s said all the right things about staying with Celtic, you’d have to imagine he feels ready for a step up in competition.
A fantastic all-rounder who has developed in a lethal goalscorer during his time with the Glasgow giants, Edouard would offer everything Bamford does and more. Edouard scores all kinds of goals and makes it look very easy. He’s the type of striker well suited to the Premier League and destined to be prolific in any team that provides him with decent service.
He wouldn’t come cheap but, given his age and profile, he will prove a shrewd investment for whatever team pulls the trigger and brings him in.
Entering the final year of his contract, Michy is very much available this summer and the excellent Leeds reporter Phil Hay has confirmed Leeds do have interest in the Belgian striker.
Bielsa is familiar with Michy having worked with him at Marseille, and while the Belgian has not been a success at Chelsea there can be no doubting his ability in front of goal. His recent loan spells at both Borussia Dortmund and Crystal Palace, as well as previous performance at Marseille and Standard Liege show him as a natural goalscorer.
Given his contract situation, Leeds could potentially get a bargain in Michy.
Brewster would be strictly a loan option as Liverpool have no interest in selling him, but that doesn’t mean Leeds shouldn’t consider him. A natural finisher with great movement and supreme confidence in his own ability, Brewster showed his quality during his loan spell at Swansea last season.
At just 20 years of age, Brewster is a player of immense potential who’s scored goals at every level and believes he’s ready for the Premier League. He’ll find minutes on the pitch hard to come by at the Premier League Champions, and a loan to a club like Leeds could be ideal for his development.
It’s a move that could benefit Leeds as well as it would enable them to focus their resources in other areas, and it’s possibly Liverpool might even agree to an optional second year of the loan if the first year goes well.
Bielsa and Jurgen Klopp are cut from the same cloth so Brewster is well used to high intensity football, which could enable him to transition to Bielsa-ball easier than many other options.
Premier League Veteran
Leeds have a squad with a number of experienced players in it, but very few who have Premier League experience and none who have experience at the top end. That is something that Bielsa might look to address this summer. Getting in a tone setter. Someone who has been there, and done it. Someone who can lead when things get difficult. A reliable player who can be called upon when needed but isn’t going to be an every game starter.
Leeds born, Leeds bred, James Milner will run and run and run until he’s dead.
The model professional, adored by all who have played with him and managed him, Milner is heavily credited by Jurgen Klopp for helping set the standard at Liverpool. Unfortunately for Milner, he may well find himself the odd man out for the Champions next season, especially if Thiago Alcantara arrives.
Milner could prove valuable to Leeds on and off the pitch, inspiring the younger players to work that little bit harder, setting the tone in training and offering versatility on the pitch.
Milner never wanted to leave Leeds, he was forced out by the financial troubles the club faced 16 years ago. This could be the perfect time for him to return. Liverpool would likely allow him to leave on a free transfer as a mark of respect for what he’s done there, and you’d imagine he’d take a comparably modest wage for a return home.
It’s incredible that Delph is still only 30, he seems to have been around forever. Having graduated from the Leeds academy, and captaining the reserve team, he made his first foray into the first team at the end of the 06/07 season. It wasn’t until the 08/09 season that Delph established himself, but when he finally did he went on to make a big impression.
He’s had a similar career path to Milner, playing for Aston Villa and Manchester City before moving to Merseyside. He’s also picked up a couple of Premier League winners medals at City, just like Milner did. And he’s played well at left back despite being a natural midfielder, just like Milner.
He moved to Everton last summer for £10million but with Everton under a different manager now there’s a chance he won’t get regular game time there. If he’s going to be a squad player, he might be happier to do that at Leeds than for the Goodison Park club.
Like Milner, he’d bring veteran leadership and a winning mentality to Leeds. That could be crucial for a newly promoted side.
This article is not to suggest that Leeds buy someone in each position outlined, merely to suggest where they could strengthen and improve for the upcoming season. Leeds will likely be cautious in their approach and shouldn’t try to replicate what Aston Villa or Fulham have done in recent seasons and buy an entirely new team. But they also shouldn’t do what Norwich did last summer and try to cheapskate their way through the year.
There’s a middle ground and Leeds need to find it. Investment is needed but they shouldn’t overspend. The signings of Joe Gelhardt, Charlie Allen and Cody Drameh are low cost moves aimed at the long term. Turning Illan Meslier’s loan into a permanent move, and getting Jack Harrison on another loan – this time with an option to buy, are clever moves that safeguard the medium term outlook. But they also need to buy for the here and now, I believe that 3 or 4 of the players on this list would do that.