The Championship has looked a done deal for much of this season, with Leeds and West Brom going on long winning runs through the autumn to put 11 points between themselves and the chasing pack going into Christmas.
However, one win from six for both sides has seen the lead trimmed to seven points for West Brom and six for Leeds. For Leeds this has given rise to a sense of déjà vu and now the club’s chances of success rests on how much they learned from the mistakes of last season.
Close But No Cigar
When Kemar Roofe popped up with two injury time goals to beat Blackburn 3-2 on Boxing Day 2018 it seemed Leeds were set to end their 15 year stay in the EFL.
Leeds were top of the table, but more importantly they held a six-point cushion on third placed West Brom and 10 on Sheffield United. However, Leeds then finished their Christmas run with successive defeats before making a critical desitny-defining mistake.
Most of the attention on Elland Road last January focused on the spy-gate drama as English football reached for its default setting of sanctimony.
However, as the debate over whether or not a Leeds employee standing on a public path watching Derby County train constituted fair play, Leeds were making a mess of the January transfer window.
Leeds did sign goalkeeper Kiko Casilla from Real Madrid but lost two players in playmaker Samuel Saiz and midfielder Lewis Baker. Leeds had little say in losing either player, with Saiz desperate to return his unsettled family to his Spanish homeland and Baker recalled from loan by Chelsea due to his lack of playing time at Elland Road.
Neither player had been central to the promotion push but they did account for 33 appearances between them and took away rotational options as the schedule bit deep into Marcelo Bielsa’s playing resources.
Leeds identified Swansea winger Daniel James as the man to boost the squad. However, in a deadline day farce to match Peter Odemwingie sat in the QPR carpark, Swansea pulled the plug as the deadline expired and James who’d already had his photo taken in a Leeds shirt was forced to return to Wales.
It left Bielsa short and Leeds went on to lose 8 of their last 20 games to finish third. It was the combination of injury and lack of squad depth that did for Leeds. It was best summed up by Leeds bench in their playoff elimination consisting of four academy players and a striker who’d played 11 minutes all season, whilst Roofe, Adam Forshaw, Barry Douglas, Tyler Roberts and Ezgjan Alioski all watched from the stands nursing injuries.
Ghost Sightings at Elland Road
It’s easy to see the parallels between last season and this at Leeds. Eddie Nketiah proved a hit amongst Leeds fans scoring five goals but his lack of starts saw his loan cut short by Arsenal, whilst Jack Clarke’s second spell at Leeds proved unsuccessful and he was recalled by Tottenham in moves similar to Saiz and Baker.
Leeds have identified a principle target in Southampton striker Che Adams, but halfway through the transfer window a deal is not close and a repeat of the Daniel James fiasco is feared amongst the fans.
Leeds haven’t suffered the volume of injuries they did last season, but they haven’t been immune with key midfielder Forshaw out since September whilst Jamie Shackleton, Pablo Hernandez and Roberts have all suffered long spells on the sidelines.
Another ghost of last season is back to haunt Leeds on Saturday with an away game at QPR. Eleven months ago, Leeds went down to a surprise 1-0 defeat at QPR to leave them in third place in the Championship, with the post-match reports headed by a picture of Bielsa down on his haunches in a Loftus Road corridor. Leeds will still be in the top two come Saturday evening but the gap could be down to just three points should they lose.
The pessimism at Leeds peaked last weekend with a 2-0 home loss to Sheffield Wednesday. It was only their fifth defeat of the season, however it followed the widespread acclaim they picked up five days earlier in the 1-0 FA Cup loss at Arsenal, three points at home trumps the praise of the Match of the Day panel!
Learning the Lessons
Leeds currently sit on 52 points with 19 games to play, to make it over the line a further 38 points would guarantee promotion but 33 should be enough. Leeds urgently need to sign a striker, with Patrick Bamford the only centre-forward in the squad.
Leeds cannot wait much longer on Adams, if a deal cannot be struck before their home clash with Millwall on the 28th an alternative must be signed.
Leeds are thought to be close to deals for two youngsters; goalkeeper Elia Caprile as cover for Casilla and winger Ian Poveda to replace Clarke, however central midfield has been a problem area and unless Forshaw can be relied on to return soon a new signing should be sought.
The club are worried about sailing too close to the EFLs Financial Fair Play rules and seem reluctant to double down in order to push their promotion bid over the line, although they are actively looking for a forward.
Older Leeds fans will also recall how Howard Wilkinson signed Lee Chapman in January 1990 to push his Leeds side over the line. Chapman bagged 12 goals in the season’s final 21 games including the last day winner at Bournemouth that secured the title, Bielsa’s side need a similar tonic.