Before pre-season established a clearer pecking order at Thorp Arch, there was no guarantee that many of Leeds United’s players were safe.
The club devoted the first half of the transfer window to cutting their losses on failed signings, facing up to the errors of last season’s transfer policy. Marcelo Bielsa was not shy in encouraging the exodus.
Gjanni Alioski was in the group of arrivals which ran well into double figures last summer but unlike some who came to England with him, his face appears to fit under Bielsa. Amid some fairly deep cuts, Alioski survived and with one season in the Championship behind him, he has the benefit of a second chance to master a league which ultimately found him out.
The Macedonian winger was not alone in losing the thread of last season. Leeds dropped from a top-six position at the turn of the year to a distant 13th place in May and their post-Christmas implosion sapped all spirit from the club. Thomas Christiansen was sacked as head coach in February and his replacement, Paul Heckingbottom, got the same treatment in June after overseeing a demoralising run-in. “It was not the season Leeds needed to have,” said Alioski, with a generous amount of understatement.
Yet he and others showed flashes of promise and Bielsa, named as first-team boss a month-and-a-half ago, found something to work with.
Alioski scored seven goals and had a hand in five others, in a team with a fairly blunt attack. There were points in the first half of the term when the £3m fee paid to Swiss club Lugano for his signature looked like a reasonable gamble, particularly when Leeds employed him on the right side of midfield.
We’re ready and with how we train, we’re ready to explode. We’re like a bomb ready to come out. We train so much and a lot of time we are only in (Thorp Arch). We don’t go home.Gjanni Alioski
With three years left on his contract, Alioski falls into the category of players who Bielsa and United expect to deliver a more consistent influence.
Alioski conceded that his first year in English football had taken its toll and opened his eyes. “It’s different and it’s hard,” he said. “We started very well and I thought ‘wow, it can be this season for all of us and not only me’ but in the Championship, if you lose four or five games you are out.
“I’ve had one season to get that experience and I played many games. Now I know how it is. I know the players, we are the same team still and we don’t have as many players now so we communicate more. I feel better. It was a new culture for me and, hopefully, we will be better than last year.”
New signings have come to Elland Road amid a flurry of activity in the past week but against Las Palmas on Sunday, in the club’s final pre-season friendly, all 11 players in Bielsa’s starting line-up were part of United’s squad last season. Alioski claimed the continuity would be positive, regardless of the way in which that campaign fell apart.
“We are the same team and this is very positive,” he said. “We don’t change too much. If the players are like a family, like we are now, then we can do something and the confidence is more as a result. We know each other better after one year together.
“We’re ready and with how we train, we’re ready to explode. We’re like a bomb ready to come out. We train so much and a lot of time we are only in (Thorp Arch). We don’t go home.
“We’re together all day and sometimes all night and pre-season has been very good.
“We start at eight in the morning and go home at eight in the evening. I think nobody works as much as we do now and all the players know what to do.”
Bielsa, the stoney-faced Argentinian who has long been touted as one of football’s most innovative minds, has upheld his reputation for meticulous preparation since taking up a contract with Leeds.
His players were put through double training sessions during the first three weeks of pre-season and were at Thorp Arch for so long each day that the club arranged for many of them to stay in a nearby hotel overnight.
Bielsa insisted on employing a large coaching team and has used his staff to drill the squad in a system unlike the 4-2-3-1 formation which Christiansen and Heckingbottom flogged beyond its sell-by date.
“You’ll see really hard pressing from us and physically we’re at a really high level,” Alioski said.
“I think this is what we need because we have so many games. The season is long but you’ll see that the other teams will always be under pressure from us. It’s new for us that we attack always.
“You don’t speak individually with (Bielsa) so you do what the staff tell you and try to make him accept you. He knows us very well because he’s already analysed us. He knows all the games, he knows how good we are and he wants us to be better. Individually, of course I want to do better than last season.
“You see it’s the right plan and when Bielsa speaks you feel it after five seconds. This person, he knows what he wants. He’s direct and I’ve never seen this amount of work that we do. I’m positive about having a coach like this.
“He wants something positive to move here and I hope this year we can do this. What is waiting now is only the results in the Championship.”