Can Leeds Build on Last Season’s Negatives and Push For Automatic Promotion?

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    Leeds have made a strong start to the new Championship campaign after shaking off the disappointment of falling agonisingly short in last season’s promotion push. Marcelo Bielsa’s men came flying out of the blocks and surged to a 3-1 victory over a strong Bristol City in their opener. They then dominated Nottingham Forest on Saturday and they were unfortunate to be held to a 1-1 draw as the visitors scored with their only shot on target. Leeds also had a clear penalty denied in the closing stages of the game and they can feel aggrieved not to be on six points.

    However, fans should be full of optimism after witnessing their team playing the same brand of energetic, scintillating football that saw them top the table for large chunks of the 2018/19 campaign. It all fell apart towards the end of the season, as they took just one point from their final four games and slipped to third, before losing to Derby in the playoff semi-finals, despite battering the Rams in the first leg. Bielsa might have walked away after that heartbreak, but he remains at the club and that spells great news for supporters.

    The Argentinean coach, feted by such luminaries as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, remains the club’s greatest asset. Last term, he took a relatively average group of players that finished mid-table in 2017/18 and turned them into a formidable unit. Leeds’ net outlay was just £5 million, whereas the likes of Forest spent north of £20 million, but Bielsa’s hard pressing, high-energy, possession-based football inspired them to some great results. They ran out of steam towards the end, losing six of their final 11 games, but they were much improved on the previous season.

    Marcelo Bielsa, manager of Leeds United getting off the team bus before the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and Leeds United at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough on Saturday 9th February 2019. (Photo by MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

    Some fans may be concerned by the club’s summer transfer business. They did not spend a penny this summer and earned £26 million from sales, which would not normally augur well. However, they did well to bring back the exciting youngster Jack Clarke for a season-long loan spell.

    Selling Kemar Roofe might prove to be an inspired decision too. He may have been the club’s top scorer last season, but he went totally off the boil in the second half of the campaign and failed to score from January 11 onwards in the league. Leeds may well have pulled off a real coup in signing Eddie Nketiah on loan from Arsenal as his replacement. He plays like a budding Ian Wright or Jermain Defoe – a lethal finisher with great movement, acceleration and anticipation.

    WIGAN, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 03: Leeds United’s Kemar Roofe holds off the challenge from Wigan Athletic’s Cedric Kipre during the Sky Bet Championship match between Wigan Athletic and Leeds United at DW Stadium on November 4, 2018 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images)

    The lack of a top goalscorer ultimately proved to be Leeds’ downfall last season. Roofe’s drought coincided with the slump in form that cost the team the chance to be playing Premier League football this season. Patrick Bamford was disappointing last term, and he did not coat himself in glory against Nottingham Forest on Saturday. He missed several attempts to open the scoring for Leeds, including a miscued volley that struck the crossbar, and those are the chances that a player of Nketiah’s calibre would expect to bury.

    Bielsa should have the 20-year-old wunderkind leading the line soon, and that could solve Leeds’ biggest weakness. Then they just have to display greater stamina than they did last season in order to stay the distance in such a gruelling division. Bielsa is a great champion of young players, and he gave 10 academy graduates, including Clarke, their debuts last season. There is a wealth of young talent at the club, including Tyler Roberts, Jamie Shackleton, Robbie Gotts, Mallick Wilks, Mateusz Bogusz and Jordan Stephens, and they are all bidding to nail down a place in the team.

    Eddie Nketiah in action for Arsenal during pre-season. Credit – bbc.co.uk

    It is perhaps not necessary to spend a fortune in the transfer market when the coach trusts youngsters and has the ability to help them flourish. All those young legs could come in handy as the long campaign wears on, and Leeds should learn from last season’s collapse. They are more mature now and Bielsa knows the league better. You also cannot overstate the importance of players like Kiko Casilla and Pablo Hernandez, who was on the score sheet on Saturday, as their experience balances the youthful exuberance of the aforementioned players.

    Despite a lack of investment in the squad this summer, Leeds have a well-balanced squad and the best coach in the league. They are the favourites to go up this season, and that has been a popular bet. Punters could enjoy wagering on Leeds in 2019/20, as their possession-based football sees them dominate many teams, so with Leeds pushing for automatic, why not ramp up the excitement with spread betting on corners? They had 10 against Nottingham Forest after enjoying a massive 69% of the possession, and they could see many more high tallies in the weeks and months ahead. Other fans might simply fancy the odds-on offer for Leeds to seize the Championship title this time around, as they look a lot strong than their key rivals thus far.