CAN LEEDS AVOID SECOND SEASON SYNDROME?: LEEDS UNITED 21/22 SEASON PREVIEW
Fresh off the back of a great season in the Premier League, Leeds United should be feeling confident ahead of their opener at Old Trafford this weekend.
Marcelo Bielsa has hardly had a day off since the closing game of last season, with the Argentine spending his summer in the UK, working his team harder than ever.
Leeds’ pre-season hasn’t all been rosy, the results have been broadly inconsistent with performances wavering. A draw with Blackburn and losses to Ajax and Real Betis have struck some fear in the Elland Road faithful - a more spirited display against SuperCup finalists Villareal, though, has inspired some more faith amongst fans and journalists alike.
Pre-season is always a tricky one, especially when it comes to the complexities of Marcelo Bielsa. A theory is that Bielsa has given his players specific instructions for these matches, placing more emphasis on whether each squad member hits their targets, rather than worrying about results. Either way, Leeds United seem to be peaking at the right time, making them an intriguing prospect for the upcoming season.
According to sources within the club, the players are breaking fitness records as they gear up for competitive games - Bielsa is a hardened taskmaster, I don’t envy his players who are running lap after lap of Thorpe Arch before Murderball and more laps - but a team without this level of fitness don’t have the fuel in the tank to compete for 90 minutes, week in week out, as Leeds do so regularly.
Leeds have had a fairly quiet transfer window too, with £13 million spent on Barcelona’s Junior Firpo being the only marquee signing of the window. Firpo looks like a talented asset, pacey and intelligent - a perfect match for a Bielsa team. His defensive movement looks strong and his moustache is the first at Elland Road since the 90’s. Firpo is quite a steal, having come from the turbulent Nou Camp I can imagine Bielsa’s training is somewhat different to Koeman’s.
The gleaming jewel in Leeds United’s crown is their very own home-grown hero, Kalvin Phillips. The Yorkshire Pirlo had a standout Euros, he held together England’s midfield, providing stoic defensive work and expressing his wide range of passing. He is sure to be a key component of Leeds’ success, if he can keep fit. Without Phillips, Leeds can often look vulnerable defensively, especially when teams can pick up the ball and run at the centre backs. Robin Koch has filled in for KP over pre-season and coped well, but he lacks the attacking passing range that Phillips has.
On to Saturday then, one of the more bitter rivalries in English football, Leeds will take on Manchester United at Old Trafford. Manchester United look strong, some big money has been splashed and silverware is surely at the top of Solskjaer's to do list for the season. With great spending comes great pressure however - a new contract for Solskjaer and upwards of £100m spent means the pressure to deliver is higher than ever.
Can Leeds triumph over the old enemy? I think so. The way that Leeds play is exciting to behold and terrifying to endure. If Leeds can put out a full strength team, keen for revenge after last season’s 6-2 defeat, then Solskjaer's boys might be in trouble.