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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Leeds United

The Athletic's Phil Hay on Sunday's season finale

20 May 2022

Leeds are 17th in the Premier League table as things stand (ahead of the midweek fixtures), with their battle to extend their stay in the Premier League to be settled on the final day of the season. What have you made of what you have seen this season?

It has been difficult from the outset and it has never, ever got going at any stage. They have had little spells where form has come and they have had spells where results have come together back-to-back and that, more than anything, is what has kept them afloat and, for the most part, kept them out of the bottom three. They have not actually spent a huge amount of time in the bottom three, but they have always been in that area. It has been apparent right from the beginning that the same spark, liveliness, fluency and cohesion they had, certainly in Marcelo Bielsa first three seasons, just was not there. Problems have manifested themselves; there have been issues with recruitment, squad size, injuries and tactics. When it comes down to it now and you look at the whole picture, there is very little that you can look at and say it has gone well or has gone to plan. That tends to be the story of clubs who go down or clubs who get into trouble – and it is not really much of a mystery, at this point, to understand why Leeds are where they are.

With every team promoted from the Championship, the question is always raised as to whether they have what it takes to survive the second season. To what extent do you think Leeds expected to be in a similar situation to the one they find themselves in at this point?

I do not think anyone necessarily expected them to finish ninth again, and I don’t think anybody expected them to do better than that, either. It was probably realistic to assume that it might be slightly more difficult this season and not quite as straightforward as it seemed to be in that first year when they were just constantly clear of the bottom three. They never looked like getting sucked in at any change. What I do not think anybody anticipated was that they would take such a big backwards step that they would be in this position: in the bottom three on the penultimate weekend and 17th as it is now. They are in serious trouble and still in severe danger of going down. That was not expected at all. At the start of the season, there was a lot of underlying confidence in Bielsa for pretty obvious reasons and there was a feeling that, with the squad - even though it was not going to last forever and, at some point, players were going to have to phased out – there were players in it who would offer another good year. That has not really happened and, individually, form has really dipped. I do feel that people were blindsided by this. There were fans who were concerned before the start of the season that they had not recruited enough or done enough to the squad, but I think the overriding mood was that they would have enough and they would be OK – and that was certainly the mood within the club as well. To say that they did not anticipate being in this scenario would be a total understatement.

Jesse Marsch took over from the much-loved Marcelo Bielsa at the end of February and has overseen three wins, three draws and five defeats from his 11 games in charge. How has he been received by the fans?

He had the difficult job of replacing Bielsa, which was never going to be easy. I often felt that the easiest way to come in after a coach as successful and popular as Bielsa was, would be to be his successor plus one. The immediate task of doing that was always likely to be difficult and, equally, Marsch has come in at a time of the season when the form was all over the place and the team was struggling and not in a good way. Coming in after January meant he could not change it with transfers either. I think what we are seeing is a team, at the moment, who are stuck between the old Bielsa tactical system, which they knew so well - and, admittedly, was not working particularly well at the end, which is why he was sacked – and one trying to shift onto a different system under Marsch and it has been a struggle. I don’t think, at this stage, we could honestly say what his style is oer what exactly it is that he wants his team to look like and I think that has been shown in some of the performances and results. There was that run of five games without defeat and, quite honestly, at the end of that, there was a very calm mood around the club; there was a feeling that they had just about done enough and it would be a challenge for the teams below them to catch up on them. Suddenly, in the space of a couple of weeks, it has changed completely, to the point where, on Sunday against Brighton, it looked like Leeds were the club under pressure more than any other. Naturally, in these circumstances, it provokes debate about whether he is the right man for the job, whether or not he is going to be the right man going forward whether they stay up or go down. Above all, the season has left you realising the squad needs so much work over the summer. When they came up out of the Championship, the way they recruited, they said in the very first transfer window that they were trying to build a squad that would last for two years in the Premier League. If they do stay up, you would have to say that it has barely done that and there are going to have to be substantial changes made.

Which player have you been most impressed with throughout the season?

I think Player of the Year will, inevitably, be Raphinha (main picture). He has not been brilliant all the way through, but he has carried Leeds in periods of it, particularly before Christmas. Ultimately, I think the reason his form has dipped it because they are asking too much of him – it can’t fall on one player time and again. He has been in a squad that has been without Patrick Bamford for most of the season, with no out-and-out centre-forward and one that has constantly been ripped up and put back together again because players have been out. The player people have most enjoyed watching in flashes is Joe Gelhardt, the young striker. He has got such phenomenal talent and ability and he has also got that knack of doing brilliant things at brilliant moments, like he did on Sunday. He has been a bright spark in what has been a pretty gloomy year. I would have to say, from front to back, there have not been many stellar performances over 38 games.

How is Marsch likely to set up his side at the Brentford Community Stadium?

His preferred system up until now has generally been 4-2-3-1. It has changed quite a lot, though. We saw three at the back against Chelsea last week, though it was almost more like five at the back. He tried in his first game at Leicester to put together a 4-2-2-2 like he used to use at Red Bull Salzburg, but my guess would be that it will be the 4-2-3-1 and he will not deviate too much from that, given that it is a do-or-die game.

As you have mentioned when speaking to us on previous occasions, Leeds do not seem to fare well in west London and have not beaten Brentford away from home since August 1950. What is your score prediction for this one?

Well, at least it is a different stadium this time! I have to be honest. Given the situation, the pressure, the way Brentford have been playing recently and the fact they have absolutely nothing riding on this - not to mention the fact that, it is fair to say, there is a little bit of niggle between the clubs going back a certain length – I could not give you a scoreline, but my money is on a home win.


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