We know that last year was *meant* to be Leeds United’s year but could this actually be the season in which one of English football’s biggest sleeping giants finally get back to the big time? On the evidence of their opening game of the season, the answer will be ‘yes’, according to a lot of people, not just Leeds fans. In their centenary year, it would be extra special if the club could end their 16-year absence from the Premier League.
On the back of a heartbreaking collapse at the end of last year, there was a fear that Marcelo Bielsa’s men would be suffering from a hangover this season. That wasn’t helped by the loss of a number of key players in the summer, including centre back Pontus Jansson and top scorer Kemar Roofe. That negativity all but disappeared in the space of 90 minutes at Ashton Gate.
Against Bristol City, Leeds looked to be playing on a different level to their opponents, cruising to a 3-1 win that saw them end the opening weekend top of the Championship table. There might be a long way to go but the victory lay down a marker to the rest of the league that the team that looked promotion certainties for so much of last season may well be even stronger this year.
That hasn’t been overlooked by the bookies, who have Leeds as the title favourites this season, as short as 3/1 with the latest Championship betting odds. For the first 79 minutes against Bristol, Leeds looked brilliant, showing the benefits of a second preseason under Bielsa. Fluid in attack and solid in defence, aside from the occasional moment of relative madness from Spanish keeper Kiko Casillas, in terms of their starting line-up, few in this league can compete.
The issue for Bielsa will come if he has to deal with the same level of injuries he did last year. An already thin squad that relied on yet more quality graduates from their famed academy was pushed to their limits last season, playing a big factor in their end of season meltdown. While other managers would jump at the chance to sign more players, Bielsa is believed to have made it clear he isn’t interested in signing anything other than players capable of stepping straight into the first team.
That squad is even smaller this year, with Bielsa favouring a small squad of players who know they will be involved rather than a larger group containing fringe players that could disrupt the harmony. While this has been the one real criticism the Argentinean coach has received from the Leeds fans, it isn’t something he looks like changing anytime soon.
The likes of Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford and the evergreen Pablo Hernandez will all be crucial to the club’s hopes, as will the one big arrival of the summer in Helder Costa. The winger joined on an initial loan deal from Wolves that will be made permanent next summer, and Costa has shown before he can be one of the best players in this league. Above all, he knows what it takes to be promoted to the Premier League.
As ever with Leeds, that’s the one and only focus.