Last season, Leeds United saw their promotion hopes fall apart at the last hurdle. Having faulted in their pursuit of automatic promotion, Marcelo Bielsa’s men had run out of steam by the time they were tasked with navigating the play-offs.
Despite a 9-point advantage over sixth-placed Derby, Leeds were on the receiving end of a 4-2 defeat at home which saw their season limp to a miserable conclusion. With Bielsa refusing to alter his tried and trusted methods, could we see the same thing happen again this year?
In February, having reached the Championship summit, Leeds Utd watched West Brom overtake them after an embarrassing defeat at home to league strugglers Wigan. Despite dominating possession, the game was defined by missed chances as striker Patrick Bamford contiues his unrelenting pursuit of several unwelcome records (like the most shots off target in a season).
As Pele once said, “The more difficult the victory, the greater happiness in winning”. But what would Leeds’ players – and their fans – give to make their route back into the Premier League an easy one. Indeed, the Brazilian’s inspirational words may fall on deaf ears around Elland Road as Bielsa’s insistence on running a relatively small squad into the ground threatens their promotion chances once again.
The problem for the Yorkshire club is also their asset –the manager. He’s got them playing in a way that prioritises a high press and winning back possession quickly. When Leeds have the ball, they tend to keep it. The possession stats tell us that. When they don’t have it, they make it very difficult for the opposition. Only Brentford this season have a better defensive record.
But time and time again, Leeds find themselves ruing the amount of goal-scoring opportunities they create only to come away with nothing.
In their recent loss to Wigan it was the same story. Bamford fluffed a guilt-edged chance to score with his head. He might feel aggrieved that two further efforts were cleared off the line but he should have scored well before Cedric Kipre ensured the three points went to the Latics with a stoppage time parry.
Having had a strong cushion between themselves and the play-off zone, Leeds are now within a loss of falling into a promotion dogfight. Perhaps most discouraging is the fact, in the three defeats they’ve suffered in their last four games, they failed to score. In the game they won, they were 2-0 down and staged an unlikely but admirable comeback.
Bielsa was rightly criticised for the single substitution he made as Leeds chased a goal in the Wigan game. But the manager remains reluctant to rotate his squad, perhaps an admission that the depth is not there.
With players like Ben White, Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich, Jack Harrison, and Kalvin Phillips boasting some of the Championship’s highest playing-time numbers, it would not be a surprise to see a tiring team head into the last month of the season without enough left in the tank. As Bielsa’s high intensity game plan relies on retaining that energy, you’d forgive some of his players welcoming a little rest. Yet, with tough games coming up against fellow promotion hunters, it’s unlikely they’re going to get it.