After seven games of The Championship the pre-season favourites are living up to their tag. Being favourites has often proved a poisoned chalice in this division, as Stoke found to their cost last season, but the hat seems a perfect fit for Leeds United.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side are sitting pretty at the top of the division and in sharp contrast to last season doing so with a minimum of fuss. Leeds were barely out of the news last season, from Bielsa’s transformation of a mid table team, to miracle Christmas comebacks, to spygate, the Daniel James saga, title stutter and finally playoff defeat.
Leeds’ dramatic season was captured for the documentary ‘Take Us Home: Leeds United,’ whose director could barely believe his luck in getting such a dramatic season to film.
For all the controversy and Bielsa brilliance, Leeds fell short due to the combination of a never ending injury list, over dependance on Pablo Hernandez and a thin squad. Leeds’ Head of Medicine Rob Price was the most overworked man in West Yorkshire, whilst Leeds went through the second half of the season with a bench made up largely of academy players.
The ‘Take Me Home’ documentary ended with Leeds CEO Angus Kinnear stating “The goal for next season is automatic, we’re not dicking around with the playoffs anymore.” Kinnear’s word’s followed the announcement that Bielsa was staying for a second season and the phrase “we go again” was born.
Whispers that it would be a difficult second season were silenced on the opening Sunday as Leeds blitzed much fancied Bristol City 3-1 at Ashton Gate. The statistics from Leeds’ first seven games are ominous for the rest of the division. Five wins, 12 goals scored and just 3 goals conceded.
Bielsa’s side have been just as exhilarating going forward as they were last season, however opponents are better prepared to face them and many are sitting deep, most obviously Brentford who came within 9 minutes of taking an unlikely point at Elland Road.
However, whereas last season the Leeds bench looked thin, this season Bielsa has been able to turn to former Wolves winger Helder Costa and Arsenal loanee Eddie Nketiah to finish sides off.
Nketiah came off the bench to beat both Brentford and last week Barnsley, his pace and ability to find space in the box at times reminiscent of a young Jermain Defoe. Meanwhile Costa offers guile and pace, relieving some of the creative burden from Hernandez.
But the change that exemplifies the shift in mentality this season the most is in central defence. Last season Leeds had fiery cult hero Pontus Jansson, the snarling Swede was best remembered last season for swearing live on Sky Sports and being furious for allowing Aston Villa’s walk in goal.
This season they’ve loaned in Brighton’s Ben White, the young defender has been coolness personified, sweeping up in defence and setting up attacks with his nice ball playing skills from the back.
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Rivals Still to be Revealed?
Whilst Leeds are remain title front runners, it’s not yet clear who will rival them for automatic promotion. West Brom were highly fancied and have yet to lose but have drawn too many, Slaven Bilic’s side look potent in attack but like last season are leaking goals in defence.
Fulham have arguably the strongest squad in the division having retained Alexsandar Mitrovic and signed Anthony Knockaert, but are struggling to find their feet in the division as are Cardiff.
So far the biggest challenge to Leeds has come from surprise packages Swansea and Charlton. Swansea provided the one blot on Leeds’ copybook by winning in a smash and grab at Elland Road, but then lost their unbeaten record at home to Nottingham Forest.
Steve Cooper has done an excellent job with limited resources, getting a tune out of Borja Baston and bringing U-20 World Cup Golden Glove Freddie Woodman into first team football from Newcastle.
Lee Bowyer’s Charlton are another side operating on a shoestring, but Bowyer has galvanised a side many thought would struggle to stay in the Championship with Montserrat forward Lyle Taylor amongst the goals. It remains unlikely Charlton and Swansea have the resources to mount an automatic promotion bid, but plenty said that about Norwich last season and look how that turned out!
This weekend will go some way to shaping the Championship season with Swansea visiting third placed Bristol City, Fulham facing a tricky visit to Hillsborough to face new Wednesday boss Gary Monk and Leeds hosting the team formally known as Frank Lampard’s Derby County.
Inevitably the spygate affair will be revisited in the press and it was Derby’s memorable comeback in the playoffs that ultimately dashed Leeds’ promotion hopes last season. However, under Philip Cocu and shorn of loan stars Harry Wilson, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori, Derby have struggled having failed to win since their opening game of the season.
Leeds kick off first this weekend, giving themselves an excellent opportunity to consolidate their position at the top of the table. They then travel to Charlton and host West Brom.
Leeds are notorious for making life complicated for themselves and their fans will be wary, however if they emerge unscathed from the next three games it’ll be very hard to see past them for automatic promotion.