Last weekend will live long in the memories of Leeds United fans, as the club was promoted to the Premier League on Friday night, and then confirmed as Championship Champions on Saturday, all without kicking the ball. When they did take to the pitch on Sunday, the team who ended their Premier League dreams a year ago were humbled 3-1 after giving Leeds the customary Guard of Honour bestowed on newly crowned champions. The party in Leeds continued and no doubt left plenty of soreheads on Monday morning.
Now, the challenge for Marcelo Bielsa’s side is to make sure their return to the Premier League after a 16-year absence turns into a long-term stay. Leeds need only look at last year’s promoted trio to see the varying fortunes and potential pitfalls of newly promoted sides. So the question becomes how can Leeds survive and thrive in the Premier League?
Learning From Rivals
Norwich, impressive champions a year ago, are now returning to the EFL with a whimper while playoff victors Aston Villa look likely to join them. Norwich tried to ride through the Premier League without reinvesting in their squad, but found their tendency to leak goals more punishable at the highest level. Villa meanwhile invested a mammoth £140 million in a scatter-gun spending spree that mimicked Fulham’s disastrous investment the previous season.
The trick to surviving a first season up is to keep the core and spirit of a winning team while improving the quality of the squad. Norwich did the former, but barely attempted the latter. Villa and Fulham both did the opposite, putting out a new side that bore little resemblance to the ones that put the hard yards into promotion the previous year.
Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United have provided the textbook example of how to adapt to a higher division. The Blades invested in the Premier League experienced Lys Mousset and one of the Championship’s top marksmen in Swansea’s Ollie McBurnie. They also brought back a Bramall Lane old-boy in former England defender Phil Jagielka. Not everyone Chris Wilder bought worked out, most notably Callum Robinson, however, nobody would argue with the results.
Bielsa’s team have been worthy champions in the EFL this season. They have already accumulated a club-record 90 points with a brand of dynamic pressing football that had them pegged as favorites from the start of the season. Having finished third last season, this is now a seasoned side and one built on Bielsa’s unique brand of coaching rather than expensive signings. The bulk of the squad predate the arrival of the manager and had previously finished the 2017-18 season in a lowly 13th place. However, Bielsa improved beyond recognition players such as Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich that now make up the spine of this team.
There have been signings and they mostly fall into two categories: Firstly, proven Championship players in the likes of Patrick Bamford, Barry Douglas and Helder Costa. Then Leeds have gone (often on loan) for promising youngsters in the likes of Jack Harrison, Ilan Meslier and Ben White. Owner Andrea Radrizzani has given every suggestion there will be money available to invest this summer, but Bielsa and Director of Football Victor Orta will have to invest wisely if Leeds are to prosper.
Keeping the Gang Together
The first order of business at Leeds has to be extending the deals of their loan stars. The club have already fulfilled their obligation to buy Costa, who arrived on an initial one-year deal from Wolves, paying £16 million to make the deal permanent. The club also look set to extend Harrison’s loan from Manchester City, with the requirement to make the deal permanent kicked down the line until May 2021. Meslier, 19, is also set to stay on a long-term deal with a fee of £3.5 million heading to FC Lorient.
The situation with White is more complex, as parent club Brighton are reluctant to sell a player tipped by many to be an England international. Leeds do not hold a buyout option, but are understandably keen to keep the defender. Leeds will have to bid for White and see where it goes, but Brighton, who already have a solid defence, may be tempted if Leeds are prepared to go high enough to land White. If they can’t get White, Leeds have been linked with other central defenders. Leeds’ central defensive needs were increased this weekend after the club’s longest serving player, Gaetano Berard, tore his ACL. Promising Argentine defenders Lucas Martinez Quarta of River Plate and Tottenham’s Juan Foyth have been linked with a move to Leeds.
Of those already at Leeds, only controversial goalkeeper Kiko Casilla has been rumoured to be on his way out, with a return to Spain mooted. If Casilla does go, Leeds will need an experienced keeper to compete with the promising Meslier with Joe Hart occasionally linked with the club. However, Bielsa has previously rejected other goalkeepers who weren’t talented enough at playing out from the back; never a strength of Hart’s.
Beyond maintaining the current group, Leeds need to look at adding to their squad. Leeds have a relatively small squad, and Bielsa is not comfortable working with a bloated first team pool, meaning a few quality signings would be ideal.
The most obvious area of weakness is up front: Bamford took plenty of criticism last season, but responded with 16 goals and he retains the complete confidence of Bielsa. However, Eddie Nketiah’s loan spell was cut short by Arsenal and a move for Jean-Kevin Augustin didn’t work and could end up in court this summer. It leaves Bamford the only senior striker at the club and clearly Leeds need to make another forward their biggest summer target, with Celtic’s Odsonee Edouard the man most often mentioned.
Elsewhere, Leeds look short on depth in central midfield. Phillips and Klich have been pivotal players for Bielsa, but experienced cover is in short supply. It is hoped that Adam Forshaw will be back to fitness, but he last played in September of 2019 after a serious knee injury. With youngsters Jamie Shackleton and Pascal Struijk the only other options, signing a midfielder with Premier League experience would be a sensible move.
The club are also dependent on the creativity of 35-year old Pablo Hernandez. The Spanish magician bares comparison to Leeds legend Gordon Strachan and will be a key player next season, but finding a similar talent should be on Leeds’ radar. Players of Hernandez’s caliber aren’t easy to find, but Leeds may look for a younger player to groom, with Reading’s John Swift a possibility. Plenty have suggested impending free agent Adam Lallana, although there will be a lengthy queue for the Liverpool man.
Marching on to the Premier League
Leeds’ last two promotions to the top flight offer encouragement to fans that they can make an impact next season. In 1991, Howard Wilkinson’s newly promoted champions finished fourth in the First Division. Even further back in 1965, we witnessed Revie’s team remarkably finish as runners-up in both league and FA Cup. It is almost unthinkable that Leeds could scale those heights next term, with Radrizzani underlining that Champions League football is a long-term ambition, not an immediate goal.
However, the excitement surrounding Leeds’ return is because they won’t settle for year-after-year in the bottom half of the table. If the money is available, quality players will want to go to Leeds, mostly due to the presence of Bielsa.
Pep Guardiola has already spoken of his excitement at facing his old mentor in the dug out of the famous old ground he once graced as a Barcelona player. Much has changed in the Premier League since 2004, but once fans can return, Elland Road will again be a noisy, raucous place to be.