Leeds United: What to expect on their Premier League return

Examining Marcelo Bielsa's style of play, the key players at Leeds and the new signings expected to make a difference. Watch Liverpool vs Leeds live on Sky Sports Premier League and Sky Sports Main Event from 5pm on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

Marcelo Bielsa's current deal gives Leeds the option of extending it at the end of each season for the following three years.

For the first time in 16 years, Leeds United will kick off a season with the Premier League badge on their shirts again. It’s a baptism of fire.

They go to Anfield with Marcelo Bielsa pitting his wits against the best the top division has to offer immediately in Jurgen Klopp. His transformation of Leeds United from a side stuck in the Championship to one playing vibrant football in front of a packed Elland Road will resonate with the club's supporters forever.

But what can the rest of the Premier League expect?

Bielsa's impact

Marcelo Bielsa and the players celebrate winning the Sky Bet Championship.
Image: Marcelo Bielsa and the players celebrate winning the Sky Bet Championship

On June 15, 2018, Marcelo Bielsa signed a contract to take charge of Leeds United. No one knew quite what to expect. His name, forged in Argentina, cemented in Chile and revered at Athletic Bilbao and Marseille, had dipped in his last two jobs - a disappointing stay at Lille and a whirlwind period at Lazio where he quit after two days over broken promises.

With a reputation for unpredictability, he landed in Yorkshire and delivered one of his famous news conferences, lasting well over an hour. His impact was instant. Leeds delivered on the field, producing a memorable season of football that no one involved with the club will ever forget.

They missed out on automatic promotion and fell short in the play-offs, but Bielsa stuck around to fix that. Leeds again dominated the division in 2019/20 and despite lockdown threatening to halt their promotion charge, no one took more points after the restart and Leeds waltzed to the title.

What did he change?

In short, everything. Backed by Chairman Andrea Radrizzani, Director of Football Victor Orta and Chief Executive Angus Kinnear, Bielsa oversaw a change in culture that Leeds hope will continue to have an impact long after his departure.

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The training ground was revamped at significant cost; the club installing a running track, sleep pods for his players whilst renovating the dressing rooms so they replicated the ones at Elland Road. He pushed for a small playing squad, utilising the club's top-class academy to push for first-team places.

The big surprise in the first summer was the lack of new signings. Barry Douglas, Patrick Bamford and Jack Harrison were the only arrivals to have any significant impact.

Players fans had written off like club captain Liam Cooper were deemed instrumental. Players previous managers had written off in Mateusz Klich were reborn. And players like Kalvin Phillips were reinvented, from a midfielder unsure of his best position to a new deep-lying midfielder, the lynchpin of Bielsa's side.

Phillips epitomises everything Bielsa has done with Leeds. The decision to sell Ronaldo Vieira, another academy product who played a similar role, and keep Phillips raised eyebrows. Phillips is now an England international who Leeds fought off bids over £20m for last summer.

Some transformation.

The fall and rise of Leeds United

The fall and rise of Leeds United

From a Champions League semi-final to League One... and the long journey back to the Premier League

Style of play

His style is legendary. His disciples, as everyone knows, include Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone. Bielsa has favoured a 4-1-4-1 formation at Leeds, but can easily switch to a 3-3-1-3 depending on the opposition.

His philosophy is simple. Score more goals than the other team. Leeds dominate possession brilliantly with their short passing, building from the back, but they are also capable of breaking with speed. The full-backs create overloads in attack in an attempt to dominate the wide areas.

Leeds' press is phenomenal. Spearheaded by Patrick Bamford, they push up high and at speed. Players are capable of rotating positions and know the system inside out. And they have the work rate and desire to carry it out. There's a clip from an away game at Wigan from November 2018 that shows seven Leeds players hunting down Josh Windass as he heads towards goal.

There were doubts his methods would work in the Championship, especially across a 46-game season. Those doubts were blown away emphatically.

Key players

Kalvin Phillips has been instrumental in the progression of Leeds under Bielsa.
Image: Kalvin Phillips has been instrumental in the progression of Leeds under Bielsa

Kalvin Phillips - The key to the way a Bielsa team plays. He often starts the build-up in attack, playing out short from the back or capable of finding players with accurate long balls. Phillips will join the two centre backs to form a back three, allowing the full backs to push forward.

He's strong, capable of holding off the opposition and doesn't mind a tackle too, although he's occasionally guilty of taking that side of his game too far with red cards against Nottingham Forest and QPR in the last two seasons.

Phillips is critical to allowing Leeds to push high up the pitch, capable of recovering the ball and making interceptions when the opposition tries to counter-attack. The man the fans call the Yorkshire Pirlo has already caught Gareth Southgate's attention. Will he continue his rise in the Premier League?

No player has contributed to more Championship goals since Pablo Hernandez's arrival at Leeds
Image: No player has contributed to more Championship goals since Pablo Hernandez's arrival at Leeds

Pablo Hernandez - The Spanish wizard is now 35 years old. But you know what they say about fine wines. Even Bielsa, a former manager of Argentina and Chile, has called him one of the best players he's ever coached.

His goals and assists output for Leeds has always been impressive since joining in 2016, but it improved significantly under Bielsa. He managed 12 goals and 12 assists in the 2018/19 campaign and while that dropped to nine goals and nine assists last season, Hernandez's role had changed slightly.

After lockdown, Bielsa used him as an impact substitute, capable of winning a game with his brilliance or defending one with his ability to control possession.

Hernandez's timing for big moments is impeccable and his winner at Swansea to put Leeds on the brink will be replayed for decades to come.

Last season, he had an assist of the season competition pretty much on his own, just check out his stunning through balls for Stuart Dallas' goal away at Stoke, Helder Costa's early strike at home to Cardiff or Jack Harrison's clincher at home to Fulham after lockdown. How Bielsa chooses to use his trump card in the Premier League will be intriguing.

Hernandez's journey with Leeds

Hernandez's journey with Leeds

How Pablo Hernandez's move to Leeds came about and his changing role since

Liam Cooper - The club captain has been at Elland Road since 2014, playing under all of Massimo Cellino's six managers, captaining the side on occasion in his very first season. But it's not always been an easy ride for Cooper at Leeds, especially with the club's supporters.

He was third choice behind Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley under Garry Monk. And having regained the armband the season after, he was cruelly nicknamed 'League One Liam' by a section of the fanbase after a difficult 2017/18 campaign. But he's certainly shrugged off that tag.

Not many would have backed him to suit a system playing out from defence, but Cooper has improved steadily under Bielsa, showing real leadership skills in the process.

Impressive in the air and dominant in the duel, he's earned his shot at the Premier League. It was Cooper who got that opportunity to hoist the trophy with blue and yellow ribbons into the air to secure the top-flight return. And for that he'll go down in the history books.

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New signings

Rodrigo - The battle to be Bielsa's main striker will be an intriguing sub-plot early in Leeds' Premier League return. The Spain international Rodrigo has arrived for big money from Valencia and getting a player of his stature as a newly-promoted club is a real coup for Leeds.

But Patrick Bamford is a key cog in Bielsa's system. He leads the press, he works hard off the ball and brings others into the game with his intelligent hold up play. But the main criticism of Bamford is his finishing. He missed too many clear-cut chances last season.

In that regard, Rodrigo isn't perhaps the man you'd think of to replace him. He's never scored 20 league goals in a campaign and managed just four in La Liga for Valencia in 2019/20. But he should suit a Bielsa side. He'll drop off or drift to link up with others and provides a creative force with seven league assists last season, an unusual quality for a leading striker. But will he replace a Bielsa favourite?

Robin Koch - The new arrival from Freiburg has a difficult job immediately at Leeds. He has to step into the considerable and popular shoes of Ben White, the loanee who's outstanding campaign priced him out of a permanent move from Brighton.

Leeds turned their attentions to the German international once it became clear White would not be heading north this summer. He's versatile in the same way White was, capable of stepping up and playing as a defensive midfielder should Phillips be absent.

Koch is comfortable in possession, essential for a Bielsa centre back but he may add a different dimension to Leeds' backline. He's 6ft 3in and is strong in the air, an area of White's game that still needs improving for him to reach the very top. Koch looks like a shrewd investment and will have to get up to speed fast given Leeds' lack of options at centre back.

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