Records are there to be broken but some are more coveted than others. Should Leeds fail to beat Watford at Elland Road on Saturday it would leave them with the unwanted distinction of having failed to win any of their opening seven league fixtures for the first time. So what has gone wrong for Marcelo Bielsa’s team, who swashbuckled to ninth place last season but languish in the bottom three?
Adrenaline and capacity to surprise have gone
Patrick Bamford believes Leeds are suffering from a bout of “second-season syndrome”, a debilitating condition afflicting a high percentage of teams a year or so after winning promotion. “As soon as you come up in the first season you have momentum, you’re riding the crest of a wave, it’s almost not real,” the England striker told the official Leeds United podcast. “You play without expectations. There was no fear, no nerves [last season], everyone was just taking it in their stride.”
It does not help that opponents are finally fathoming the nuances of Bielsa’s high-intensity pressing game, man-for-man marking and near-constant, kaleidoscopic positional rotation. “We also had the surprise factor last season; nobody knew what we were about,” said Bamford. “I think this year people know what they’ll get with us and they plan for that. It means we have to be bang on it all the time; we can’t even make a little mistake. Crowds being back also plays a part and make away games a little tough.”
Lack of strength in depth
Bielsa has always preferred to rely on a relatively small nucleus of senior players, with no more than two experienced options in any position. “I like the amount to be sufficient rather than excessive – this is of course risky,” he has acknowledged. “I like to have a trimmed-down, lean squad that’s not too top heavy in terms of numbers so everybody’s getting regular game time.”
Until now this policy has worked well but, for the first time in the Argentinian’s tenure, Leeds have suffered a rash of injuries. The team that suffered a 2-1 home defeat by West Ham last Saturday featured only one experienced centre-half in Liam Cooper, and the average age of Bielsa’s substitutes in recent weeks has been 19.
Bamford’s lack of goals and a defence that needs bailing out
Bamford’s 17 goals in 38 league games last season were integral to his team’s success. This term he has scored once and is absent until after the international break with an ankle injury. His replacement, the £30m Spain striker Rodrigo, is full of inventive movement but has never been prolific and is operating as more of a deep-lying false nine, with Bielsa hoping for goals from midfield. “We’ve played well until the final 30 metres this season,” said Bamford. “And it’s just that last pass that turns possession into a chance or converting that actual chance that we’ve struggled with.” Tellingly Leeds have unleashed 85 Premier League shots but only 27 have been on target, producing six goals. Meanwhile 14 have been conceded, with only Norwich’s Tim Krul picking the ball out of his net more than Bielsa’s outstanding France Under-21 goalkeeper, Illan Meslier, who has made more saves than any other top-tier goalkeeper this term. “Illan is unbelievable,” agreed Bamford. “He’s bailed us out.”
Bielsa’s accelerator pedal has become jammed
Leeds are exhilarating to watch but all this glorious entertainment involves far too much tactical anarchy and kamikaze defending. A big part of the problem is that their style is so fast and furiously intense that possession is frequently conceded, prompting West Ham’s manager, David Moyes, to liken the chaotically end-to-end nature of his side’s win in West Yorkshire to a basketball match. Leeds still alarm, and fatigue, opponents but they are rarely in control and, apparently stuck in top gear, seem incapable of slowing down and varying the tempo. “Not many teams in the world play football like them,” said Moyes. Such stylistic rarity is easily explained: Bielsa’s exhausting yet intricate gameplans are fiendishly tricky to execute. His side remain irrepressible in patches but struggle to sustain top form for 90 minutes.
But reasons to be cheerful remain
Few defenders relish facing Raphinha, Bielsa’s Brazilian winger, England’s Kalvin Phillips is eminently capable of dictating midfield in the next four, winnable matches against Watford, Southampton, Wolves and Norwich and Diego Llorente, a key centre-half, is fit again. “We knew the second season would be harder,” said Bamford. “But it’s still early – no one’s panicking.”