Are Leeds United making progress this season?
Many supporters are frustrated the Whites have not kicked on since losing last season’s play-off semi-final. The view from Marcelo Bielsa’s bucket on the touchline, and from the heat of battle, is that they have. The numbers back it up – just – but numbers do not always tell the whole story.
Having lost at Blackburn Rovers last season and squeezed through the reverse fixture with an uncomfortably tight 3-2 win, Saturday’s Championship match at Elland Road will be another opportunity to compare where Leeds are against 2018-19.
Fifteen matches into it, Leeds were second in the Championship with 27 points, two behind leaders Sheffield United. This season they are third, still two off the summit, but with 28 to their name. Their goal difference is three poorer, having tightened up defensively without scoring as many.
“We’re a better team,” insists midfielder Mateusz Klich, whose goal threat has also diminished. “People think we haven’t started as well as last season but we have more points. It is funny. I think we’ve grown as a team.
“Maybe it doesn’t look like we’re playing better but on the pitch we can feel we’re better, more confident at the back. It gives us confidence for the attack.”
That defensive security is undeniable. Only Sheffield United and Leicester City have conceded as few as Leeds’s eight goals this season, and they have played four fewer matches. That Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas have missed a combined 27 matches already makes it even more impressive. Ben White’s loan from Brighton and Hove Albion has made light of Pontus Jansson’s sale.
“I think we defend better. I have no idea (why) but we’re harder to beat,” says Klich. Bielsa thinks it is a sign his team are learning from the mistakes of 2018-19.
Although Leeds have lost three games this campaign, compared to two at the same stage of last, there appears to be a greater resolve.
“In the Championship you can’t win every game but I think we’re more aware (of that) than last season,” argues Klich. “Last season after 10 or 15 games everyone was so happy that we had a good start, very enthusiastic about how it’s going to be in the Premier League, who we were going to play against, and after 30 games we thought we were already there.
“This season it’s basically the same team so we know the season doesn’t end in March, we have to play until May and I hope the ending is going to be better.”
Bielsa’s take is that: “It’s a team that is growing and keeping the level (it showed last season) defensively. The team has improved offensively, but the efficiency is worse now.”
That efficiency is the most important thing, though. The game is all about goals, after all.
Kemar Roofe’s two stoppage-time goals were decisive the last time Blackburn were at Elland Road, and his sale to Anderlecht has heaped responsibility on Patrick Bamford. While the 26-year-old’s all-round game has stood up to it, his goals output has not. A burst of four in August has not been added to. The on-loan Eddie Nketiah has been more ruthless, but was only just starting to change Bielsa’s scepticism about what else he brought to the table when he picked up a training-ground injury.
With Pablo Hernandez’s guile badly missed, Klich failing to score since mid-September, on-loan winger Helder Costa yet to settle, Jack Clarke still waiting for his first league start this season and Ezgjan Alioski needed as an emergency left-back until his most recent injury, last week’s win over Queens Park Rangers was the first time Leeds had scored more than once since their September 15 win at Barnsley.
The Championship has changed too, and Klich thinks the Whites have lost an element of surprise.
“The teams are fitter than last season,” he believes. “Last season we took a lot of teams by surprise, they said, ‘Listen, they’re going to press you for 20 or 30 minutes and then they will have no power,’ but we pressed for 80 and they didn’t realise we could do that.
“But this season teams are playing differently against us and sometimes they change formation just for our game. Many teams have their best games against us. That’s why I’m proud of the team because we’re doing better than last season.”
For now, the jury is out on that.