With 11 games of the season already behind us, Leeds have been the team to beat and sit top of the Championship . You must have been thoroughly impressed with what the club has achieved in the first two months of the season?
Very much so and more so than last season when they were in a similar position. They started to drop off by this point and it wasn’t quite as concerted a start but the football has been better. I think the performances – in the main – have been better, they look more dangerous going forward and they look tight and as organised at the back.
I think the most impressive part is the way that Marcelo Bielsa has managed to get everything to click and his ideas to stick pretty much overnight in the space of six or seven weeks of pre-season; every player seems to understand what they are doing, every player seems to understand how he wants them to play. They’ve had plenty of ups but a few downs: they were poor against Birmingham, maybe slightly fortunate to get away with a point down at Millwall, where they tend to always lose.
When they’ve played well they have looked the best team in the division, certainly from what I’ve seen of other sides and to be honest, they are pretty much getting what was promised when they went for Bielsa. The £2-3 million salary for him is the most they’ve ever spent on a head coach and they weren’t just spending that for results, they were spending it because they wanted the style of football he is famous for and without a doubt, they are getting it.
Marcelo Bielsa joined the club in the summer with a glittering CV that includes spells in charge of the likes of Argentina, Chile and Lazio. What was the fans’ initial reaction to his appointment?
I’d say unanimously popular but that doesn’t really do it justice - I think most people were fairly astounded that he was even interested, let alone that he agreed to join. In his previous job with Lille he’d been earning £6-7 million a year, which is way above what Leeds would generally pay and way above what anybody earns in the Championship and it was also the case that Leeds were asking him to come to the league below the elite division in England and, on the basis of Bielsa’s reputation, the way in which Europe’s elite coaches spoke highly of him, you couldn’t see anything other than a Premier League job for him, if indeed he wanted to come to England at all. He speaks a little more English than he lets on but he isn’t fluent and he needs a translator at press conferences so it’s a totally new culture and new environment for him.
When it was first mooted – certainly from the outside – you were a bit incredulous, really, and it felt like quite a long shot that had a low probability of coming off. But actually, when you speak to people at the club and find out what went on in the discussions with him, it pretty much seemed that from the moment he phoned them back, he was set on taking the job, providing everything was right, and there were very few points on which they disagreed in negotiations.
They took ages but even in that scenario, the club said that was because Bielsa was less bothered about his contract than he was about speaking to them on matters of squad size and facilities - it was almost something he couldn’t be bothered with. It was quite a slow process but after Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom last season, I don’t think many supporters would’ve been happier to see him come in and I’d have to say, I don’t think any of us were expecting Leeds to shoot at such a high level after Heckingbottom was sacked.
Do you feel that this season there is the right balance of components to finally lift Leeds back into the Premier League for the first time since relegation in 2004?
I say this to everyone – I’d rather be 20-23 games into the season before I draw a definite conclusion on that, but it’s hard to see how, playing like this, they won’t be in the mix. It is going to take a big downturn to go backwards at the rate they need to go to be out of the picture the way they were in early March of last season but when you are 10/11 games in, there is still plenty of scope for that to happen.
They certainly look like a really balanced team and one of the things that Bielsa has managed to do is to give them a bit of variety and individualism, certainly in midfield. In the last couple of seasons they’ve had very generic central midfielders who all play in deep holding roles and contribute a limited amount going forward, but this season he has re-modelled Kalvin Phillips into an out-and-out defensive midfielder, a proper holding centre-mid. That has allowed Samu Saiz and Mateusz Klich, in particular, to offer much more in the way of attacking threat and to be more dominant on the pitch as opposed to playing behind the number 10 who is carrying all the weight.
The two questions everybody has at the moment are: is the squad deep enough? Because at the moment they’ve got some fairly major injuries – not in terms of severity, though Patrick Bamford is out until after Christmas – but Kemar Roofe is missing, Pablo Hernandez is missing, Gaetano Berardi is missing and when it gets down to that point, there isn’t a huge amount of depth, certainly in terms of experienced players for Bielsa to call on. That is a risk, but it has to be said that it is a risk he wanted to take. He doesn’t like a squad of much more than 22-23 players because he just feels that you can have too many kicking their heels with no real chance of playing.
If you look at his preferred lineup to begin with, there was only one new signing there, which was Barry Douglas at left-back, which tells you that he was happy with what he was inheriting in the summer and he’s kept on a lot of players who were here last season and a lot of players who other managers would probably have got rid of very, very quickly. The game against Brentford showed the very worst of Leeds under Christiansen last season and I still think at this point you have to have some healthy scepticism about whether these players can definitely do it for 46 games, given how average some of them looked last season.
But on the basis of the games so far, it does look extremely encouraging and there’s no doubt at all that the players are fitter – they’ve all lost considerable amounts of weight, which, in the main, is about half-a-stone each. I just get the feeling that he is going to be able to elevate them a level up from last season. Whether this is all going to finish I still couldn’t say for certain, but when they play well they look like a team who’ll beat anybody.
Kemar Roofe looked in excellent form in the first few games, but missed the whole of September with a calf injury – who has taken the mantle as the most impressive player so far?
The misfortune for Bielsa is that, between Roofe and Hernandez, he’s lost the two players who were by far his most effective in August – Roofe was player of the month but I think Hernandez would’ve been in with a shout as well. They were both excellent and influential right the way through and without them it’s a definite problem.
The big story this season has been Mateusz Klich. You won’t have seen him play last season on the basis that he was virtually uninvolved. He came over from Holland in 2017, barely played under Christiansen and was loaned back to Utrecht in Holland before Heckingbottom came in and I think if you’d have been a betting person, you’d have said in the summer it was highly likely Leeds would be moving him on.
As I mentioned earlier, other managers would’ve looked at Klich and thought there was nothing much they could do with him, but Bielsa has turned him into a different type of midfielder, certainly a different role to one he seemed to play well at previous clubs: a bit more prominent, a bit more attacking and less defensive responsibility than he was having in the few games he played under Christiansen. He has four goals, which puts him as joint-top scorer, including a cracker against Sheffield Wednesday last week, but if you look through his goals in general, they are all decent in the way they’ve been created – his instinctive play seems to be very good.
He’s been the surprise for us all and has been the player who has done what people probably weren’t expecting him to do. There were points last season where you’d have been hard pressed to have even said he was a Championship player, let alone a top-end midfielder.
What style of football has Bielsa implemented at Elland Road and can you give us any early team news?
It’s identical home and away; he doesn’t differentiate at all. I think in every single game so far – including the League Cup – Leeds have had a higher possession rate than the opposition, which is what makes Saturday’s game so interesting. Without having seen everybody in this division, I don’t think there’ll be too close a match in style with the way the two sides play.
Generally speaking he’ll go 4-1-4-1, with Phillips as the holding midfielder and most likely Tyler Roberts as his lone forward. It’s possession-based football with quick passing and the key for him is the high press, which is what everything relies on. When they do that well, it is extremely difficult to play out against that, very difficult to get any time on the ball. He looks for goals – he has to be about the least defensive head coach I’ve ever seen here and it’s not that there’s no respect for the opposition because I think there’s plenty, but I think in his head, he has this view that if it clicks and if players do what he’s asking them to do as well as they can then they’ll win games, regardless of who they are playing.
What’s your score prediction for Saturday’s game?
I’ll go with a home win. Down at Griffin Park I’d be more inclined to sway towards Brentford because they are always dangerous down there and Leeds always seem to struggle there. There has to be goals in it so I would maybe tip Leeds to win 3-1 or 3-2, something like that, but I think it’ll be an impressive game and I have a sneaky suspicion that at the end of it, neither side will come out with much credibility lost.
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