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First Team

🆚 Hot off The Press: Leeds United

The Athletic's Phil Hay on tonight's trip to Elland Road

21 August 2019

Despite last season's play-off disappointment, there are no signs of a hangover for Leeds, who sit atop the table with three games already behind us. How would you summarise the opening weeks?

There hasn’t been any hangover and I think, probably, the biggest fear for everybody was that this time round it wasn’t going to click in the same way, or the players would hit the wall, or everybody would drop off a cliff because of the way that Bielsa pushes them and how hard they are worked week-to-week. But it’s interesting because they are playing in exactly the same way; there have been very few changes to the system or the style, though nobody expected that to happen under Bielsa. It wasn’t as if we were expecting him to wake up and decide to go 4-4-2 with Jordan Hugill up front. It was always going to be the same strategy and structure to the team, but there was a feeling down at Bristol City on the opening weekend that it felt really fresh and vibrant. That was in spite of the fact that it was so familiar and in spite of the fact that Bristol City and other clubs should know inside-out the way that Bielsa plays and the way they have to combat it. I think the players look every bit as fit as they did at the start of last season, if not more so.

It’s a short window to judge them in, so you’d prefer to be 10 games down the line to be sure, but I do think you’ve seen percentage improvements in Adam Forshaw, Jack Harrison, Stuart Dallas at right-back has fitted into that position more comfortably than he has done before. He’s playing well defensively but he’s also starting to snipe in the way that he did when he was a winger at Brentford and his reputation was building. Patrick Bamford is in the goals early on and yes, two of them were real sitters, but I still think he’s a confidence player who tends to score goals in bunches. I said in a piece this morning that those are the marginal gains they need to be making; they were very, very close last season and it wasn’t as if a huge amount had to change, it wasn’t as if they had to go a massive step further in order to finish in the top two, but they definitely needed to find an edge from somewhere. I think, in players like Harrison, Forshaw and so on, there is more to be found and I think away from home they can probably improve their record because they get so much space to play in. But it’s been a really encouraging start and I think they needed it because the concern was that, if they hadn’t started well, straight away the narrative would’ve been centred around whether Bielsa could do it second time around, could it be done again? At the moment, it does look promising.

Marcelo Bielsa has remained at the club for a second season when some thought he might jump ship after the defeat to Derby. Do you think his future at the club was ever in doubt?

There was a certain doubt about what he might do because you never entirely know his mind. He takes things very personally, certainly in public anyway, and he has blamed himself for what happened last season. More than anything, I think he’s blamed himself not because anything was wrong with the football or the results, even though it went wrong at the end, he felt that he’d let the city and the fanbase down who’d been very good and very supportive of him. In the end that was actually the reason for him staying. There was a moment on the day after they lost to Derby when the players had all gone back to Thorpe Arch to collect their belongings and head off for the summer; the atmosphere at the time made them feel that Bielsa was going, but once he spoke to the club over the weekend, there was never any doubt from that point that it would definitely be agreed. Contractually, Leeds had the right to extend his deal for 12 months, but the reality with a coach like that is that if he’d said to them that he’d had enough and was heading home, they knew from the start that he’s his own man and he’ll do as he pleases - when it’s all over for him here, he’ll go home and that will be that. With the exception of that questionable period right after the second leg of the play-off semi-final, I don’t think there was much doubt that he’d stay.

The news broke that Pontus Jansson had signed for Brentford in the summer and his name has seldom left people's lips, whether it's fans debating on Twitter, your own feature article or because of the performances he's turned in already. Honestly, what reception will he receive on his return to Elland Road?

It ought to be a decent one because when Jansson played well here – and he played well regularly – he looked like a top Championship centre-back and put in some really fine performances for the club. He was fairly instrumental in some of the better seasons when he was here: Garry Monk’s year and the year under Bielsa last year as well. It’s a peculiar move to go from Leeds to Brentford – without being disrespectful, if you take the league table last season, it’s a downwards step and very much a sideways move in a sense that he’s moved to another club in the same division. But I don’t think anybody felt that when Jansson went from Leeds, he’d be going to Brentford. The assumption was that he would go to the Premier League and he’d go for a hell of a lot more money than he did, particularly when you look at a deal like Adam Webster to Brighton, which is knocking on £20 million. I have to say that Brentford have been great, over the years, at maximising the value of players they sign and I can’t help feeling this is another one; if he has another really good season, he could be worth an awful lot more in a year’s time. It wasn’t sweetness and light with him here all the time; he was very popular with the supporters, but he’s a complex guy and can be quite difficult to manage on occasion.

The relationship with him and Bielsa was never perfect, either. I don’t think they understood each other and Bielsa wasn’t happy last summer or this summer with the time it took Jansson to return from his break during the summer. It’s different with Jansson because he’s always got international duty. He was at the World Cup during Bielsa’s first year and was away again with Sweden this summer. Bielsa wanted the players back early, Jansson didn’t want to. It’s been coming and the fact that it was done so early and it was Brentford and it was for a relatively low fee, tells you that, for all parties, it was in their best interests to find a club for him and to get a deal done for him as soon as possible. I think the reaction he receives will depend a lot on what his own attitude is like: What his body language is like, how he interacts with the crowd, what he does if Brentford score, what he does if Brentford win, what he does if Brentford lose. I think it would be a good idea on his part to show some good decorum and I think, if he does, the crowd will treat him well. And I certainly think they should because whatever has gone on in the background, he put some top performances in for the club and it’s wrong to disregard that.

They spent little money, but Leeds played the loan market expertly this summer - which player do you think will play the biggest part this season?

The answer should be Helder Costa, but in classic Bielsa style, he’s yet to start a game and with the way they are playing and the way results are going, it’ll be a while before he does as Bielsa just doesn’t change his team. He doesn’t pick his team on reputation or who’s earning the most money or who is the most expensive signing to which Costa is, undoubtedly that. The most impressive so far has been Ben White, the young centre-back from Brighton, who they’ve had their eyes on for about 18 months and brought in at the start of July. He’s very good on the ball, has a great touch, great vision and is a natural ball-playing centre-half, which definitely suits Bielsa. Just going back to Jansson, I always felt that the way Bielsa plays was a challenge for Jansson technically; I think White is little bit more gifted on the ball, though yet to prove that he’s as dominant a centre-back as Jansson always was. Jack Harrison has also come back on-loan from Man City for a second season. He had a very mixed reputation last year – his attitude’s great and his workrate is superb, but he didn’t create enough last season and there was a general frustration about the amount of opportunity that he had to attack the wings and the final product you actually got from him. But again, he looks a different animal this season. He looks a bit more confident, has a bit more swagger about him and he looks more dangerous. I think, at the moment, those two are looking like the players who are going to be key, but Costa has got to come good at some point and they’ve added Eddie Nketiah, too. He’s a big talent and it was a hard task to get him to Leeds before the transfer deadline and you would assume that, at some point, he’s going to play a big part.

How are Leeds likely to set up on Wednesday?

It’s highly likely to be the same team from the Wigan win at the weekend and it’s highly likely to be a 4-1-4-1 in the way that Bielsa does. So Bamford will be up top, Kalvin Phillips in the holding midfield role between a bank of four midfielders and a bank of four defenders. That’s barring any injuries, but I’m not aware of any so I think it’ll be unchanged. Bielsa will probably tell us on Tuesday because he normally just names his team anyway.

What's your score prediction?

I never, ever fancy Leeds away at Griffin Park, but at home I’d be altogether more confident. Assuming Brentford do what other teams do – and I’m not certain that they will – the trend at Elland Road is for teams to sit incredibly deep and to make Leeds play through nine or 10 players, which can be a real struggle. I wonder if they might be more expansive, because they certainly were when they came last season, and if they are it’ll be a good game. I fancy Leeds, though, and they seem to be on a bit of a roll so I’ll go for a 2-1 win.

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