Manchester United v Leeds United: Robin Koch out to prove Whites were no one-season wonders

It is probably fair to say Robin Koch did not have the 2020-21 season he hoped for. For the upwardly-mobile Leeds United team he plays for, it need not be such a bad thing.

This Leeds side’s second season in the Premier League starts at Old Trafford this afternoon and as always when the ball is kicked for the first time, there will be questions, but more supporters will be excited than fearful to learn the answers.

Sheffield United spent the early weeks of 2020-21 arguing there was no such thing as “second-season syndrome” or at least that if there was, they were not going to suffer it, then comprehensively proved the opposite.

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The theory is that when fresh, exciting teams like the Whites and the Blades perform as well as they did – both finishing ninth in the Premier League the season after winning promotion to it – it has a lot to do with catching opponents by surprise but that eventually they will be sussed out. It is over-simplistic but there are grains of truth to it.

Leeds United's Robin Koch in action during the pre-season friendly match at Ewood Park, Blackburn. (Picture: PA)

This, though, is Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds and they do not always indulge convention or even logic.

The Argentinian coach hates the narrative that last season’s 6-2 defeat at Manchester United was some sort of road to Damascus moment, even though the simple numbers suggest his team got the balance between defence and attack much better from that unpleasant shock onwards. You can guarantee those looking in less detail, though, will be comparing and contrasting today.

Leeds were very good last season, yet it feels they have more to come. There has been no transfer-market splurge this summer – left-back Junior Firpo is one of the few players so far picked up from the great Barcelona firesale but the other significant Elland Road deals have been making Jack Harrison’s loan permanent, another one-year contract for Bielsa and yesterday’s five-year agreement with Illan Meslier. In other words, more emphasis on improving what is already there.

It would be wrong to say last summer’s big signings – Koch, Diego Llorente, Rodrigo and Raphinha – were not very good but only the latter showed just what he was capable of over the full season.

Robin Koch playing for Leeds United v Real Betis in a pre-season friendly at Loughbrough University Stadium. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Centre-back Koch was typical of the others – pitched in at Anfield at very short notice, he proceeded to produce an excellent first half of the season before accepting defeat and surgery on a knee problem that had been niggling away at him since that day. The baton passed to Llorente, who had himself been struggling with a succession of muscle injuries but again looked the part once he had a run of games.

His own fitness and Llorente’s form meant Koch only managed two starts after December 5 and it had a knock-on effect, fit enough to make Germany’s Euro 2020 squad but unable to win a place in the team.

With Llorente injured, Koch is again likely to start the season and will do so knowing he has to be on his game to keep his club place ahead of the Spaniard, and to impress new Germany coach Hansi Flick.

“For Germany it wasn’t the best Euros,” he admits, putting the schade in schadenfreude. “I didn’t play any games so it was not the best Euros but I was happy to be involved in the squad because I wasn’t sure (I would be) because I was out for so long with my injury.

Leeds United's big summer signing Junior Firpo. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

“After the Euros you are always looking to the next games and of course also the next games with the national team and maybe the next tournament.

“You try to forget the last tournament when it was not so good and I’m looking forward to the next one.

“I am working hard for this and for the games and the season with Leeds.”

If you do not change your squad much, the big improvements have to come on the training ground Bielsa has had further upgraded his natural habitat this summer.

For Leeds how much money they spend in the transfer market is arguably much less significant than how much time they spend at Thorp Arch. This summer has not been the getting-to-know you exercise of 2018, there has been no trip to Australia a la 2019, no 2020-style rush job.

“As time goes on and the work continues there is the possibility to polish the things that couldn’t be previously done because there wasn’t enough work time,” says Bielsa in comments that should have Leeds fans licking their lips, rivals a little anxious. “But the development of the style of play is not the only aspect that allows the growth of the team. You have to maintain the enthusiasm, the ambition, the desire to grow, take on board the expectations that can be generated by the public.

“There is a very special moment in the development of the team where the recognition of what happened before, it disappears and the demand for what happens next increases.

“Given that it is the fourth year (Bielsa has been in charge of Leeds), the methods we use (can) generates tiredness. If you do similar things for a long time it is natural you get bored of it.

“In this pre-season we tried to substitute all the exercises, the way we transmit them, the way we demonstrate how we do them, so there was some sort of novelty or evolution, but the objective is always the same, to try to improve what we think should be done.”

Koch, who unlike most ofhis team-mates is experiencing a Bielsa summer for the first time, says: “We have had a really good pre-season.

“Of course it was hard and sometimes you are on a limit but I think this is how it should be in a pre-season. Now you feel good and prepared for the start of the season.”

Feeling good, but with a personal point to prove – it is a pretty good position to start any season from.