We’re still more than two months away from the Premier League’s final weekend, and for the second season in a row, the title race is less a “race” than a steady march toward the inevitable. Manchester City is the runaway champion-to-be, 11 points clear of its Mancunian rival and flaunting a greater than 99 percent probability in FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer predictions of winning its third league title in four years. Fans could be forgiven for skipping the weekly VAR debates and handball confusion, knowing full well that sky-blue ribbons will adorn the Premier League Trophy at season’s end.
However, the lack of title drama obscures the fact that the greatest show in English football is taking place just an hour’s drive from Manchester. Leeds United isn’t an absolute underdog, with a proud history containing a solid decade as one of Europe’s elite teams between the 1960s and ’70s. But after a 16-year absence from the Premier League, Leeds and its manager, Marcelo Bielsa, are putting together perhaps the most entertaining season by a newly promoted club in recent history.
Leeds announced its return to the Premier League in August with a frenetic 4-3 loss to defending champion Liverpool. Each of Liverpool’s first two goals received a Leeds reply within 10 minutes, but a clumsy lunge by Rodrigo Moreno gave Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah the opportunity to convert the winning penalty shot. Still, it was easy to dismiss the result as a fluke: All three of Leeds’s shots on target found the back of the net. An entertaining watch, to be sure, but likely an aberration when considering the certifiably bonkers rate that goals were being scored across the Premier League at the time.
The next week, they did it again. Another 4-3 scoreline, this time with Leeds emerging victorious over fellow promoted club Fulham.
We’re now through Matchweek 27 of the Leeds United Experience, and despite nil results in the club’s last two matches, the goals — at both ends — have barely slowed down. Leeds matches are averaging a blistering 3.3 combined goals, the highest in the league and well above the 2.6 average. Just as significantly, the numbers under the hood suggest the goal-scoring bonanza is sustainable. Leeds and its opponents have combined to rack up 86.6 expected goals (xG), just two fewer than the 89 goals scored in reality.
How unprecedented is the Yorkshire-based club? Over the past five Premier League seasons, no newly promoted squad has averaged more combined goals per match than Leeds. In fact, only one team, period, has matched that rate: Manchester City, in 2017-18 and 2019-20.
Other Premier League newcomers have achieved greater success in terms of results. Wolves qualified for the Europa League with their seventh-place finish in 2018-19, while Sheffield United remained in contention for Europe last season all the way until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Results are nice; they put bread on the table and keep managers at clubs instead of in broadcast studios. But Leeds dares to ask the question: Why not have fun at the same time?
To anyone who has followed Leeds or a Bielsa-coached team in previous seasons, the commitment to relentless, attacking football comes as little surprise. A quote from Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Ander Herrera, who played under Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao, is instructive. “[Bielsa used to tell us] that the best way to defend is to keep attacking,” Herrera said in an interview for the documentary “Take Us Home: Leeds United.” “The best way to get the victory is to score more goals and more goals and more goals.” Sounds simple when you put it that way, but Athletic Bilbao averaged only 1.22 goals per match in La Liga during Bielsa’s two-year tenure.
For all of the attacking style that his past teams shared, it was fair to wonder if Bielsa would be able convert that flair into actual goals, especially given the skill deficit at Leeds after making the leap from the Championship. Nine of the 11 players who started against Liverpool in Matchweek 1 also served as key cogs during its promotion-winning campaign — players that didn’t exactly arrive boasting a Premier League pedigree. Right back Luke Ayling was released from Arsenal’s academy at age 18. Captain and central defender Liam Cooper spent two seasons plying his trade in the fourth tier of English football. Starting goalkeeper Illan Meslier, who was born in the 21st century, appeared in 28 matches for French Ligue 2 side Lorient before joining Leeds. The website Transfermarkt, which provides dollar value estimates of players and full teams, has Leeds’s total market value at $213.92 million, the fourth-lowest in the Premier League. For comparison, Liverpool’s value is estimated at $1.24 billion.
Lacking the individual talent only money can buy, Bielsa still managed to concoct a world-class attack that, at risk of sounding like a cliché, starts on defense. Out of possession, Leeds players chase their opposite numbers up and down the pitch, attempting to deny adversaries the time to pick out a measured pass. Out of all 98 clubs in Europe’s Big Five leagues, no team applies more pressures per attempted pass than Leeds. One product of such an aggressive high press and man-marking scheme is a whole lot of shooting opportunities after winning the ball back. Leeds’s 14.26 shots and 5.19 shots on target per 90 minutes are excellent; only Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool best them in either category.
Perhaps no Leeds player has benefited from Bielsa’s system more than striker Patrick Bamford. Once benched in part for bringing his parents along to watch him sign a contract, Bamford played for seven different clubs by the age of 23, mostly on temporary loan deals from parent club Chelsea, before joining Leeds in 2018. He now leads the Premier League with 13.0 non-penalty expected goals, more than a goal ahead of the likes of Harry Kane, Timo Werner and Jamie Vardy. His name has even been bandied about for inclusion on the England national team’s roster at this summer’s (planned) European Championship.
|Per 90 min.|
|Patrick Bamford||Leeds United||13.0||0.50||3.41||13|
|Ollie Watkins||Aston Villa||10.4||0.40||2.81||10|
|Jamie Vardy||Leicester City||9.5||0.44||2.30||12|
|Raheem Sterling||Manchester City||9.0||0.39||2.19||9|
|Michail Antonio||West Ham||8.1||0.55||2.84||7|
But soccer is nothing if not a game of trade-offs, and the trade-off of Leeds’s enthralling style of play happens to be, well, defense. As measured by both real and expected goals, Leeds has the second-worst defense in the league. While the Bielsa press stifled most Championship opponents last season, only allowing 0.76 goals per match, Premier League squads have found much greater success breaking it — to the tune of 1.70 goals allowed. By itself, Leeds’s inability to keep the ball out of its own net almost entirely accounts for the massive rise in combined goals in Leeds matches this year. The team’s insistence on retaining possession during build-up often leads to turnovers in vulnerable positions; goalkeeper Meslier, in particular, can be counted on for a head-scratching decision once every couple of matches. Guarding set pieces has also proven a major issue, with Leeds having conceded a league-worst 10 goals from corner kicks.
Put it all together, and you get a team that’s not quite ready to break into the Champions League and Europa League spots, but possesses a clear identity and adds a delightful helping of chaos to every match. How does Leeds evolve from being “fun” to “legitimately great”? The path to further improvement likely involves further investment, and the club’s deepening ties with the San Francisco 49ers suggests that Leeds ownership isn’t afraid to spend big. Though some players look worthy of continental competition, such as Gary Cahill-career-ender Raphinha and Leeds-born midfielder Kalvin Phillips, clear upgrades are needed elsewhere on the roster.
For now, Leeds fans can dare to dream big. And if the club finds the right pieces to add to the mix, it might not be long before Leeds United truly takes flight.
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