14 games remaining:
Leeds United and their mercurial manager Marcelo Bielsa head into the final third of the season separated from the top spot in the Championship only by goal difference. By next Tuesday night Leeds could and probably should be top of the table as they head into two games against Bolton and QPR. As I write this piece, it will be 18 years to the day since Leeds United destroyed Anderlecht 4-1 in Belgium to qualify for the quarter-final of the Champions League. Those heady days of regular games with England’s and Europe’s elite clubs seem like a lifetime ago. Marcelo Bielsa’s short reign in charge has rekindled the joy and hope of the O’Leary era. Leeds look poised for their best league performance since Kevin Blackwell’s side lost the 2006 Championship Play-Off to Watford. There are 42 points left for Leeds to play for until the end of the season. The common consensus seems to be that nine wins will see Leeds achieve automatic promotion. Whatever happens in the next two months will have a huge impact not just on the season but possibly on the future of the club.
The joy of “Bielsaball”
The start of the season saw Leeds blow away teams with their fitness, pace, attacking style and relentless pressing. The adoption of “Bielsaball” propelled a squad which finished a lowly 11th place last season, into automatic promotion contenders. In my opinion, Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips have improved the most under the tutelage of the Argentine genius. The new playing and training style has come with a large number of injuries. The last count was a total of 45. This statistic makes the impact of Bielsa on Leeds all that more impressive. The loss of top scorer Kemar Roofe for the next few months will be a blow but the return to fitness of Summer signing Patrick Bamford will lessen the potential negative impact. Stuart Dallas, Gaetano Berardi and Barry Douglas are all set to return from injuries in the next few games to bolster the squad. I am looking forward to the potential positive impact that Izzy Brown could have on the remainder of the season. His form and goal scoring record playing numerous games for the under 23’s has been very impressive.
The early season victories at Derby and Norwich were mighty impressive while the hard-fought one-nil win away at Bramall Lane was my favourite win so far this season. I travelled to Elland Road with my father( a lifelong Leeds fanatic) to see Leeds pulverise Derby in January. Leeds have controlled possession in most games this season. The team has amassed the highest number of passes in the league – totalling 16,649 in total. I remain extremely confident that Leeds will continue to average over 60% possession in the remainder of the 14 games this campaign. The ownership of the ball will provide the ammunition for Leeds to kick on. The biggest question in my mind remains – can the squad score the necessary goals to propel them to the Premier League?
How the stats look so far this season?
The breakdown of the stats behind the story of the campaign so far shows how far the team has positively progressed under the leadership of Bielsa. The squad deserve massive credit for adopting the Bielsa style without any reservations. The modern professional footballers have so much power that they exert more control than the majority of managers. The prime example being the downfall of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. The entire Leeds squad have embraced the Bielsa philosophy of constant pressing and high-octane attacking play. The results so far have been remarkable. Leeds lead the league in the following:
- Highest Average Possession – 59.7%
- Attempted Most Shots – 514
- Most Chances Created – 407
- Most Passes – 16,649
- Most Tackles Per Game – 19
- Most Goals Scored from Corners – 13
The above stats have provided the catalyst for Leeds to produce their best Championship season for 13 years. However, one statistic has stopped Leeds from being ten points clear at the top of the table. Leeds have converted only 13% of their 407 chances created so far this season. The lack of a clinical edge has been the one criticism I would have of this team and management. Marcelo Bielsa has continually lamented the fact that Leeds are extremely profligate in front of goal. Leeds promotion competitors are converting 20% of their chances. It is easy to imagine that if Leeds had converted anyway near 20% of their chances created, they would be in pole position to re-join English football’s elite.
(FYI – all the above stats come from @lufcdata. All Leeds fans should be following him on Twitter; He provides excellent insight into the stats behind the performances)
What happens next?
Leeds face three huge games in the next six days. First up is the visit of Bolton to Elland Road on Saturday. Norwich won four-nil at Bolton last week. That result was terrible for Leeds on many fronts in my view. The pressure on Leeds to wipe the floor with Phil Parkinson’s side has increased tenfold. Leeds battled to a one-nil win at Bolton in December, and it could easily be the same type of game on Saturday. On Tuesday evening, Leeds head to London to face QPR in what is their game in hand. West Brom sneaked an injury time 3-2 won at Loftus Road last week, so it is imperative that Leeds also claim the away win. Next Friday night Leeds host West Brom at Elland Road. The Baggies inflicted the first heavy defeat of the season when they hammered Leeds 4-1 at the Hawthorns. West Brom has invested heavily in the January transfer window. They are intent on heading back to the Premier League at the first attempt. I will be at the game next Friday night, and I remain hopeful of another Derby type performance.
Leeds are at their best when they play the game at pace. The Bielsa style suffocates their opponents with a constant barrage of controlled possession and fast attacking play. Leeds have kept ten clean sheets in total this season. The last clean sheet came against Derby in January. The team needs to recapture the defensive solidity shown in November and December to propel them to automatic promotion. If the team gets the nine wins, I think they need, they will also need four or five more clean sheets. It indeed promises to be an exciting 9 weeks full of highs and lows. I for one – can’t bloody wait!