After 16 years away, Leeds United were confirmed as a Premier League side once again as they sealed promotion from the Championship.
The Yorkshire club needed just one point from their final two games of the season to clinch promotion, but West Brom’s defeat to Huddersfield on Friday night meant that Leeds didn’t need to kick another ball.
It’s the first time we’ll see them back in the top flight of English football since 2003/04. For reference, they’ve been away from the Premier League for as long as Arsenal haven’t won the division. But it’s been a rollercoaster of a ride for them in between now and then.
The club was on the brink of collapse at one point after the charge for a league title and Champions League success failed them. They were forced to sell stars like Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer while failing to replace them adequately. At one point they even went down to League One after suffering yet another relegation. They were in administration and for the first time ever had fallen to the third tier of English football.
They slowly built themselves back up and have tentatively put themselves into the promotion equation over recent years, but they really took it seriously last season. The appointment of legendary manager Marcelo Bielsa was a statement that the club were ready to return to the top of English football pyramid.
Despite the beautiful football, high pressing and goalscoring acumen of his side, they crumbled under the pressure. It’s always been a bit of a theme with Bielsa sides that they fade away towards the end of campaigns because of just how much physicality his philosophy needs to work. It wasn’t any different at Elland Road as they fell away from the automatic promotion places into the play-offs and were ultimately eliminated by Derby County, losing 4-2 on aggregate.
This year though, there was something different. Game management seemed to be more apparent and Leeds weren’t gung-ho for 90 minutes of every game regardless of result. When they were leading with a cushion, they played with a visibly lower tempo on the ball but maintained the intensity defensively when looking to win the ball back. This has seen them overcome the issue of not having a proper goalscorer in the side.
The loan signing of Eddie Nketiah in the summer looked like a genius signing, but the England U21 international struggled to break into the side regularly and was ultimately recalled by Arsenal in January. He wasn’t replaced and the club persisted with Patrick Bamford as the No.1 striker. The Chelsea academy graduate has scored 16 goals in 43 games this season, which isn’t horrendous. But if he is to be the main man next season they will have problems.
Leeds’ footballing nature will see them look to dominate possession and press high, something we’ve seen Norwich and Brighton attempt to do this season. It’s not ended particularly well for either side and with the gap in ability between sides at this level Bielsa may need to re-think his methods. That is super unlikely though and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Leeds struggle next season without big investment to help Bielsa in his wish to carry out his philosophy at the highest level.
Nevertheless, it’s great to see a club as big and prestigious as Leeds United back in the Premier League for next season. With Bielsa at the helm, another world class manager is added to the ranks of England’s top flight which should make for fascinating tactical duels.