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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Leeds United

The Athletic's Phil Hay previews tomorrow's clash

4 December 2021

Leeds are 17th in the Premier League table at the time of speaking, with 13 points from their first 14 games. What have you made of the first three months of their second successive season in the top flight?

It has been unlike Marcelo Bielsa’s three previous years and a bit of a surprise. There was a bit of criticism of the summer transfer window, and I think a lot of people – me included - felt that they had missed a trick by not signing a central midfielder. But they finished last season really strongly and came ninth in the table - and it did look set up for another steady year this season. It has been a combination of factors that have worked against them; certainly individual form has been a problem and has been down across the team, I feel, particularly in the early weeks of the season. They have also, as it seems to be the case quite often under Bielsa, had a huge run of injuries. Some of those have been to key players and someone for quite extended periods of time; they should have Patrick Bamford and Luke Ayling back this week, but they have both been out for two months and are big players in this team. Others across the side have been being affected as well and it has led to a situation where what was a really settled and established system at Leeds has has been disrupted quite heavily and I think, all of that - and certainly some tactical errors that Bielsa has made times as well – has contributed to performances that have not been at the level that he is used to. This is fairly unusual territory because, for three years under him, without being absolutely flawless, it has been borderline. This has asked a lot more of them and, naturally, it affects confidence. I still feel that they have got enough to sort this out and bring it under control, but there is just that feeling of us being quite a long way into the season now. 

At the time of speaking, they have only scored more than one goal in a game on two occasions, but of the five defeats they have suffered, only two – 5-1 vs Man Utd and 3-0 vs Liverpool – have been settled by more than a one goal margin. Would you say there are reasons to be cheerful, as it were, despite their league position?

They are running at just under a goal per game as we speak and, again, that is not what we have been used to under Bielsa. Even though they were a team who conceded goals in the Premier League last season, they were also a team who looked like scoring goals regularly; there was the balance of conceding and scoring, but they were doing enough up front to make sure that they were never in trouble. If you look through the stats this season and analyse the performances and where the chances are coming from, there has been a definite downturn up front and that is reflected by the number of goals that they have scored. Bielsa was saying, prior to the Brighton game, that he felt that they had been worth a few more points and while I don't think they were, necessarily, worth a point down at Brighton, I think he is right - there have been games where they could have had more and there have been games where they should have had more. I don't think it would have changed the table drastically and I don't think you'd be talking about them being eighth or ninth rather than 17th, but there would be the scope for them to be further up the table. The bigger scope for optimism would be that, if you've got Bamford and Ayling coming back and other players stay fit and available and you start to revert to something like that familiar Bielsa line-up that we are used to then I do think it will click and I do think it will come good again. It is going to be a struggle this season; I don't think there's any doubt about the fact it is going to be hard work. But I do feel, deep down, that there will definitely be three teams worse than them. 

Further to that, Raphinha (above) has five goals to his name so far, but how much are they missing the presence of Patrick Bamford, who has only featured twice since August?

He is a goalscorer and even though he is not wildly prolific, he is the player that the goals tend to come from most regularly in the squad - and this is a squad that does not have a massive haul of players who score over 10 goals per season. They tend to be very spread out and it was Bamford who was top scorer by a distance again last year. It is not even just the goals, though. It is his positioning in the box and his play off the ball; he is very good at sparking the high press, he is really good at holding possession up or providing a bit of an outlet in isolation. He runs the channels well, he drags defenders around and, more than anything, he understands better than anybody else what a centre forward has to do in in this Bielsa system. You could not have said that his form was electric at the start of the season, but I think he is a player that you can rely on to come good, and a player you can rely on to contribute before long, even if he is going through a little bit of a patch where it does not seem to be working. We have also seen, from the chopping and changing that has gone on in the main role, there really is nobody else in the squad at Leeds who is as suited to that as Bamford.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on on Sunday afternoon?

Raphinha – and I say that to everybody. He is such a gifted player and he looks like a properly elite footballer of Champions League standard. He has been a revelation in England and also with Brazil. He is only just into the Brazilian squad, but he already looks like he has got a starting place and is going to play regularly for them because he is that good. He is extremely quick, very good on the ball, hard to manage and he scores goals as well. Beyond that, it is worth keeping an eye out for Joe Gelhardt, who is a young centre forward who joined Leeds from Wigan. He looks massively gifted and I think he has got huge potential. He played very well in the defeat down at Spurs and made an impressive cameo in the 1-1 draw with Wolves as well. He shoots on sight, knows where the goal and, I think, has the makings of a Premier League goal machine if he keeps going in this direction.

How is Marcelo Bielsa likely to set up his side at Elland Road?

If Brentford go two up top, he will go three at the back. He has this strategy whereby, if you have one up top, he has two centre-backs in a four and if you play two up to, he plays a back three. It will be a 3-3-1-3 system, which he sort of invented way back at Newell’s in the early 90s. Personally – and I do feel the stats back this up - I never feel that Leeds look as comfortable in the 3-3-1-3 as they do in a 4-1-4-1, which is the other system that he uses, but they have been doing it long enough now to know what it is about and to understand it. So unless there is a switch from Thomas Frank, I think it will be that system. 

Meetings between Leeds and Brentford are usually entertaining, if generally tight, affairs, with the last a 1-1 draw in February last year. What’s your score prediction for this one?

I think Leeds are perfectly happy that they will never be going back to Griffin Park as it never, ever seemed to happen for them there! I think it is fair to say that they consistently met a Brentford team who were good, knew what they were doing and were very settled in the system. It has been tight recently, but I think there will be goals on Sunday. Brentford don't seem to be afraid of attacking and they have got Ivan Toney up front, though they do concede goals themselves. Leeds will know that this is a game that should be winning and have to win so I’ll go for a 3-2 home win. I think we are due a bit of a back-and-forward at Elland Road, an end-to-end epic.

Tomorrow's game is not live in the UK. Fans around the world, can click here to see if the game is on where you are. 

Domestic fans can join Mark Burridge, Ben Burgess, and Isaiah Rankin for live Bees Player Commentary

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