Leeds United Season Preview 2018/19
When Bielsa was announced back in June, I wrote about my misgivings. Not specifically about the man himself, although it is true that his recent record in Europe does provide cause to pause. Instead, my misgivings centred around issues with the current squad and the financial and reputational draw of a club that has now been outside the top flight for over a decade.
With two weeks left in the transfer window, those concerns looked very well-founded. Jamal Blackman and Lewis Baker on loan were Leeds’ only signings of the window. Now, with just a week left of summer dealings, things are looking up, but they’re still not perfect.
Cause for Optimism?
Leeds signed left-back Barry Douglas who, as probably the best wing-back in the league last year, is a brilliant capture. Capable of playing both ways, he’s perfect for Bielsa’s system and philosophy. Patrick Bamford, for £7m, also looks to be a great addition. Yes, Leeds would have loved Vydra from Derby (a failed transfer which demonstrated Leeds’ wage-structure limitations) or even Hernandez from Hull, but Bamford has shown what he can do when given a run in the side and the backing of his manager. In much the same vein as Douglas, he’s an intelligent player made in the Bielsa mould.
Perhaps most encouragingly for a club with the limitations we’ve discussed, Bielsa looks to be turning that much-vaunted Pep Guardiola admiration - he once called him ‘the best manager in the world’ - into something much more tangible. First to join was highly-rated winger Jack Harrison, who City brought over from their sister club New York City last year. But now it looks as if Leeds are keen to poach more sought-after City youngsters, punching well above their weight in terms of financial wherewithal and status as real contenders for the title. Defender Jason Denayer (whose potential suitors also include Galatasaray) and striker Lucas Nmecha (also wanted by Swansea, Blackburn and West Brom) are both on Leeds’ radar with reports suggesting that Guardiola’s respect for Bielsa might be enough to get them over the line. If Leeds can make these signings then they’ll certainly be welcome. They’re largely unproven at this level, and in this country, though.
Leeds still lack quality at centre-back to play alongside Jansson. The goalkeeper situation is still a battle of relatively unproven youngsters. Bamford is a good signing but there’s limited depth behind him. In the wide positions, Alioski is a divisive figure among fans, Roofe has come in for criticism and there is a lack of out-and-out pace.
On the flipside, Jansson is excellent, Barry Douglas’ quality is clear, as is that of Samuel Saiz and Pablo Hernandez. And Bielsa could be the manager Leeds have been waiting for.
So, cautious optimism about the season ahead then?
Well, no. Not exactly. My predictions for Leeds this season are anything but cautious. A cautiously optimistic prediction might put Leeds in line for a 6th place finish, squeaking into the playoffs. But with this Leeds side, this Leeds manager and this increasingly crazy league, it seems much more likely that Leeds will either sink or swim, and finish 2nd, prompting an automatic and long-awaited return to the top flight, or 13th, and another season wasted with mid-table mediocrity. Leeds occupied both of these spots last season – the former all too briefly – and both are on the table again this season.
Either Leeds will get the centre-backs they need or they won’t. Either Bamford will be the Bamford who was named player of the season and the one who scored 7 in 8 during a stint last season or he’ll be the Bamford who failed to make appearances at Burnley, Crystal Palace and Norwich. Either Bielsa will be the coach he was in Argentina - the man Pep and Poch so love - or he’ll be the manager he was at Lazio. Either Leeds will be the team Fulham were last season, or they’ll be the team they were last season. Either talented youngsters will prove themselves ready for this level or they won’t. It’ll either be 2nd or 13th. And I don’t know much except that it almost certainly won’t be somewhere in the middle. That might sound vague. A cop-out. It’s not. I literally think it will either be 2nd or 13th and no other position.