It had to happen. When I wrote about Leeds United in glowing terms on these pages last year, the fallen giants were unbeaten after seven league games and sitting proudly on top of the Championship under unheralded head coach Thomas Christiansen, whose recent appointment had certainly been left-field. But his team’s fluent attacking football and defensive solidity (they hadn’t conceded a league goal since the opening weekend of the campaign) was winning me around.
And then? Well, in that commentator’s curse sort of way, Leeds lost their next game – at Millwall – and proceeded to lose six of the next eight thereafter as the wheels came off in double-quick time. After a mini revival around Christmas, the club won just four of their final 22 matches to finish in a dispiritingly mediocre 13th position. Christiansen was sacked in February and Paul Heckingbottom, his successor, was similarly dismissed after the season’s end.
With a miserable FA Cup third-round defeat at League Two Newport County adding to the ignominy, it was as if the first month of the season had been a mirage and those same players who’d been setting the standard in late summer were, in fact, just a bunch of disparate journeymen.
Well, it’s “déjà vu all over again”, as a broadcaster once so delightfully opined. Under new head coach Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds are sitting on top of the Championship with a third of the season gone. Glory be!
Immediately after his appointment in June, the inspiring Argentinian watched every minute of every match that Leeds played last season. Every minute of every match. Much of the dead wood was jettisoned while a mere handful of new recruits, some on loan, arrived to form part of a vastly more streamlined squad.
But it was nevertheless surprising when Bielsa’s starting XI for the opening game of the season, at home to fancied Stoke City, included 10 players who’d been part of the previous season’s downward spiral, with left back Barry Douglas the only newcomer. In the face of a high-intensity and high-energy passing, pressing game that is wholly characteristic of Bielsa’s coaching career, Stoke were dismantled by a 3-1 margin and Leeds, Bielsa and his blue bucket were gloriously up and running.
Defeats by Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers, partly caused by untimely injuries to a clutch of players – including Gaetano Berardi, Pablo Hernandez, Kemar Roofe and Douglas – stemmed some of the early-season momentum, although Leeds, remarkably, have still enjoyed more than 50% possession in every game they’ve played. And goal-scoring opportunities aplenty have continued coming, even if the conversion rate could have been more ruthless.
It could all end in tears, of course, starting at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. But Bielsa, who still urges caution to all those dreamers, continues to place the vast majority of his trust in a nucleus of players whose fortunes nosedived so spectacularly last season. And the consequences are coruscating.
Marching on together at Leeds with magical Marcelo Bielsa. It’s a latter-day miracle. For the moment.