Leeds United: Is Marcelo Bielsa's quest for Premier League promotion under threat?

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"I can understand the anxiety amongst the crowd when key moments to win the game do not go as we want," admitted Marcelo Bielsa after Leeds' 2-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in January.

"There is a sense of doubt around the team when things are not going to plan." Having been at the helm during the play-off failure last season, the modest Argentine feels the pain on a similar level to that of the long-suffering supporters.

With his side's grip on a top-two finish seemingly loosening by the week, we take a look at the factors hindering their progress...

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The situation

It all started so well for Leeds. When they breezed past Bristol City 3-1 on the opening Sunday of the season, the heartbreak that had unfolded at Elland Road less than three months earlier began to fade from memory; when they sat top after five games, having won four and conceded just three, it had all but disappeared.

Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds will face Derby in the Championship play-offs
Image: Marcelo Bielsa's side remain second in the table, just a point behind West Brom

Narrow 1-0 defeats to Swansea and Charlton, coupled with a shock 2-1 reverse at managerless Millwall on October 5, saw Leeds slip to fifth, but their powers of recovery shone through following the international break, with a 10-match unbeaten run lifting them back to second. However, things soon began to unravel.

On December 14, Cardiff battled back from 3-0 down to secure a point at Elland Road, with a thrilling 5-4 victory over Birmingham 15 days later sandwiched between 1-1 draws with Preston and West Brom. The defensive solidity that had seen them concede just 10 goals in the opening 21 games was beginning to slip and continued to do so in their two most recent games, when they were brushed aside by Sheffield Wednesday and QPR.

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For Leeds fans, this is becoming an agonisingly familiar story. Top for large swathes of the first half of last season into the second, a 2-0 defeat to Hull on December 29, 2018, set in motion a drastic change in fortunes and only once did they win more than two consecutive games. It's probably not too much of an exaggeration to suggest they were in free fall.

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What the stats say...

If the results don't make it clear enough, the stats behind Leeds' slump do not make for encouraging reading, with a marked drop in successful passes and shots faced, though possession has seen a slight increase in recent weeks.

Leeds' first 21 games of the season compared to the last seven

First 21 games Per game Last seven games Per game
Goals scored 32 1.5 11 1.6
Goals conceded 10 0.5 14 2.0
Successful passes 8553 407.3 2609 372.7
Passing accuracy 80.7% - 78.3% -
Possession 64.22% - 64.98% -
Shots faced 186 8.9 75 10.7

Not only that, goalkeeper Kiko Casilla's stats are somewhat troubling, too. Having made 2.24 saves per game in the first 21 games of the season, the Spaniard has made a dramatically reduced 1.1 per game across the last seven fixtures without once keeping a clean sheet. He's also conceded 14 in that period, with his save percentage dropping from 82.46 per cent to 36.36 per game.

Kalvin Phillips' suspension

Another impending worry is that Leeds will be forced to try and arrest their ill-timed slump without influential defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips. Arguably the standout performer of Bielsa's reign so far, the 24-year-old was shown a straight red card in the 1-0 defeat away at QPR on January 18 after a reckless lunge on Rangers defender Geoff Cameron.

Kalvin Phillips was suspended for Leeds' win over Huddersfield at the weekend
Image: Kalvin Phillips will miss Leeds' next three games, against Millwall, Wigan and Nottingham Forest

Brighton loanee Ben White, adept at centre-back or in front of the defence, is being readied to move forward to take the place of his team-mate; how he will fare in the next three games remains to be seen, but Bielsa has said he's capable of filling in for Phillips in the past. A quick glance at the stats reveals he has big boots to fill.

Leeds' Championship record since August 4 2019

With Phillips Without Phillips
Average goals for 1.6 1.2
Average goals against 1.0 1.4
Points per game 1.9 1.2
Shots conceded per game 9.2 11
Win percentage 55.1% 40%

Phillips has missed just five of Bielsa's 74 games in charge and, on average, not only do Leeds concede fewer goals when he plays, they also concede fewer shots, score more goals and take more points per game.

Squad depth

Since his surprise appointment in the summer of 2018, Bielsa has made it clear he likes to work with a smaller squad than most. He believes a closer-knit group means players will play more games and, as a result, all be focused on the same end goal: returning to the Premier League for the first time since 2004.

Leeds lost to Derby in the Sky Championship play-off semi-final in May 2019
Image: Leeds lost to Derby in the Sky Championship play-off semi-final in May 2019

In his first game - a 3-1 win at home to Stoke in August 2018 - he had the luxury of Patrick Bamford, Tyler Roberts, Stuart Dallas, Pontus Jansson and Jack Harrison on the bench; by the final game of the regular season - a 3-2 defeat to relegated Ipswich - the spaces were largely occupied by inexperienced teenagers, including 17-year-old pair Ryan Edmondson and Mateusz Bogusz. Owing largely to injuries, with more than 20 games under his belt, 18-year-old Jack Clarke was a relative veteran; it wasn't a squad adequately equipped for promotion.

As Bielsa took stock of the situation in the summer, following the failed play-off campaign, former Leeds goalkeeper Paul Robinson told Sky Sports News in August that he was "worried" the size of the squad wouldn't increase. No funds were spent on first-team additions, yet the loan signings of White, Helder Costa and Eddie Nketiah filled fans with hope; Harrison and Clarke signed on loan, too, with the latter having been sold to Tottenham in an £11m deal.

Ian Poveda, Manchester City 0:37
Pep Guardiola says Ian Poveda has made the right decision by leaving Manchester City to join Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds

For the most part, the depth hasn't been much of an issue this term, with Roberts and Adam Forshaw the only long-term absentees, but the experience on bench has started to wear thin of late, with Ezgjan Alioski the only player to have played more than 30 games for the club.

Arrivals were limited this time last year - with Kiko Casilla the only major incoming - but there's no doubt the club's business this time around has been in reaction to their slump. It's hoped Ian Carlo Poveda will add a much-needed spark on either flank, with highly-rated RB Leipzig striker Jean-Kevin Augustin the solution in front of goal.

Leeds' striker conundrum

A long-standing debate - at one point, a conundrum - ended earlier this month when striker Nketiah was recalled from his loan spell by Arsenal after starting just four of his 19 appearances for the club and failing to displace Bamford up front.

Speaking to the Sky Sports EFL Podcast, David Prutton discussed the loan signing of Augustin and his hopes for the 22-year-old during his time at Elland Road.

He said: "With any signing, regardless of where they've come from, it's certainly a lot for a Leeds fan to get excited about. As ever, the proof's in the pudding; if he comes in, hits the ground running then he'll endear himself to this group of fans no end.

QPR v Leeds Highlights 2:13
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between QPR and Leeds

"I'm intrigued to see the way he fits into the way Bielsa wants to play football. He's been very set in the way that he approaches it; very set in the personnel that he's wanted to use. With Augustin, he's similar to Nketiah. He's 22-years-old, so he's not a baby by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is he the senior player that perhaps they thought they might be bringing in up front.

"I'd be surprised if we saw something similar to the Nketiah situation, where we had a player that very rarely started a football match, and if Leeds' woes continue going forward, then Bielsa has got to seriously think about starting a player like that.

"The flip side of bringing in signings is how it might spur someone else on. Bamford might think he's got to pull his finger out or Pablo Hernandez might think he's the player to push them onto the next level. It's, hopefully, good business all round."

Will Bielsa's men rediscover their form?

Next up for Leeds is the visit of Millwall to Elland Road on January 28. The aforementioned defeat to the Lions at The Den came as quite the shock given the stark contrast in their respective league positions back in October, but just eight points separate them now.

They will no doubt face further stern tests in the coming months, with Nottingham Forest, Brentford and Bristol City to play in a matter of just seven days, but February looks as though it has the potential to define their season.

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