Every Monday, NewsFromSport’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the week that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
Just like last season, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United are imploding.
Following this weekend’s 2-0 loss at Nottingham Forest, they’re enduring a run of two wins in 10 Championship matches and have failed to score in four of their past five league games. An 11-point cushion in the automatic promotion places has been dashed in 56 days.
Jack Harrison skittering under Forest’s upfield punt said everything about Leeds’ feverish desperation on Saturday. The diminutive attacker couldn’t tame the bouncing ball as his team’s most withdrawn outfielder, and was duly punished when he was pickpocketed by Joe Lolley seconds before Tyler Walker’s 94th-minute finish. Game over.
The usual excuse for a Bielsa team faltering in the second half of a campaign is fatigue. The eccentric Argentine is notoriously demanding. Training is hard. There’s no Plan B. If Plan A doesn’t work, simply do it better. He stubbornly sticks to his scheme, and often turns to the same players to execute it. Saturday substitute Jean-Kevin Augustin, who was loaned from RB Leipzig in January, was the 24th player Bielsa has used in the Championship this season. Only Millwall have fielded fewer players.
That is an overly simplistic diagnosis, though. Deficiencies at both ends of the park are derailing Leeds’ effort to end 16 seasons without Premier League football. In fact, with such visible shortcomings, it’s a surprise they’re competing for promotion in a second consecutive term.
Twelve-goal Patrick Bamford is a prominent scapegoat, and it’s deserved. Bielsa defends the striker as a key tactical pawn, but his profligacy costs Leeds points. Bamford’s rate of a goal every nine shots is significantly worse than that recorded by the main striker at each of Leeds’ competitors. Despite his slow start to life at West Bromwich Albion, it takes Charlie Austin just over five shots to score; Forest veteran Lewis Grabban’s rate is at 4.25; and the Championship joint-top scorers, Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic and Brentford’s Ollie Watkins, have rates of 5.2 and 4.1, respectively.
Augustin is meant to make up for Bamford’s sloppiness, but Bielsa’s reluctance to change his frontman is a cause for concern. Eddie Nketiah made some impressive cameos off the bench before his loan from Arsenal was cut short in January due to a lack of minutes. There was also pressure to utilize teenager Ryan Edmondson, a burgeoning marksman for the Under-23s, for the first time this season before he underwent knee surgery last week.
And Bamford isn’t the only player guilty of wastefulness. Just last weekend, Leeds outshot Wigan Athletic 20-5 at Elland Road. Only five of those efforts hit the target in an eventual 1-0 defeat. In fact, Leeds have outshot the Latics 54-13 in their past two West Yorkshire meetings, to an aggregate scoreline of 3-1 in Wigan’s favor.
It’s not all on the attack, though. Leeds have the Championship’s second-best defense but there are vulnerabilities there, particularly when attempting to thwart balls from wide areas and set-pieces.
The left-back position is an ongoing issue, as demonstrated by Ezgjan Alioski’s display at Forest. The Macedonian winger’s timing was fortunate rather than well-executed when he went to ground for two rash penalty-box challenges in the space of five second-half seconds. Then, he somehow avoided a second yellow card when he prevented a Forest breakaway by tugging back Lolley. Bielsa quickly subbed him afterward.
The reason Leeds are pinning their hopes on Alioski at left-back is because of of Barry Douglas. His £3-million transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2018 looked a shrewd piece of business, and he should’ve been a clear upgrade on Gaetano Berardi, Vurnon Anita, and Laurens De Bock. Many Wolves fans were perplexed at why Nuno Espirito Santo allowed him to leave after promotion. But, his fitness issues and sluggishness soon became apparent at Leeds, and his defensive flaws were no longer concealed by Wolves’ three center-backs.
Stuart Dallas has also been played at left-back and Harrison sometimes has too much asked of him defensively, but Alioski is ultimately the best of a bad bunch.
Bielsa’s popularity in Leeds is not up for debate. He ticks so many boxes. His football is exciting. He takes his job very seriously and works harder than most managers, with his bulky dossiers combing through the most minute of details about his opponents. Fans love to see youngsters break into the first team, and Bielsa’s given 14 players aged under 21 their senior debuts over the past 18 months. And he imbeds himself in the local community, living in a modest one-bedroom flat in Wetherby – the town where Leeds train – frequenting the nearby Morrisons supermarket, and analyzing games on his laptop in Costa Coffee.
Bielsa, handing out candies to young supporters before games and perching on his blue-bucket throne during matches, personifies the city of Leeds’ humility and warmth. They’re both outsiders. Leeds feels ignored by the rest of the country, but often prefers it that way. Bielsa could’ve won more than three league championships in Argentina and gold with his homeland at the 2004 Olympics over his career, but he’d rather play football his way.
With such entertaining football and a unique identity, Premier League supporters should hope the club shakes its torrid form and ends its status as an outsider of England’s elite. Bielsa’s Leeds would be an asset to the top 20.
Wilder for Manager of the Year?
Jurgen Klopp will be favored to scoop up the 2020 LMA Manager of the Year award, but Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder must be a strong candidate to win it for the second straight year.
The Blades are two points adrift of Champions League qualification despite being a near-unanimous preseason pick to immediately fall back into the Championship. Yorkshire has been starved of continental football over the past two decades – Hull City are the only club from the county to reach Europe since 2003 – and few would’ve thought Sheffield United would be the team to potentially end that drought.
Just three years ago, they’d just overcome a miserable League One run, collecting one point from matches against Walsall, Gillingham, and Fleetwood Town. Now, after Sunday’s 2-1 win over Bournemouth, they’re harboring legitimate Champions League dreams. And everything is down to Wilder: his recruitment of hungry, cost-effective players, his innovative tactics, and his in-game management have all been exceptional. The latter, in particular, came to the fore Sunday when John Lundstram notched the Blades’ sixth goal from a substitute in this Premier League season, more than any other team.
As feats go, Wilder taking Sheffield United to Europe is more impressive than Klopp finishing first with Liverpool.
Crystal Palace leaned on their oldest-ever starting XI in the Premier League for Saturday’s 3-1 loss at Everton (30 years and 101 days). It was only the 18th time in the competition’s history that a starting lineup had an average age over 30, and not one of those XIs recorded a win.
The Eagles performed above expectations over the opening half of the campaign, but it now seems Roy Hodgson’s side is reverting to type. The pairing of James McCarthy and James McArthur – Wigan Athletic’s midfield duo seven years ago – is creaky, the underwhelming Jordan Ayew is Palace’s top league scorer with six goals, and things would be much, much worse if not for the goalkeeping of Vicente Guaita.
The Croydon club is winless in seven top-flight outings. Palace’s six-point cushion above the relegation zone doesn’t look particularly comfortable and, even if survival is secured, it’s difficult to envision a bright future without wholesale changes in the summer.