Impressive 'Big Six' stat, welcome defensive 'headache', Harry Maguire's claim - Leeds United talking points

A RUN of three mouth-watering games stood out like a sore thumb when Leeds United’s fixtures were unveiled for their Premier League return.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 11:30 am

A trip to Manchester City followed by back-to-back home games against Liverpool and Manchester United. Talk about welcome back to the Premier League.

Not a time to be scrambling for points for top-flight survival - although, as it happened, there were absolutely no worries on that score.

Instead, Leeds headed for the first of those challenges at Manchester City this month more or less already safe.

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IMMENSE: Leeds United's England international midfielder Kalvin Phillips, centre, as Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes, left, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, right, look to close in. Picture by Tony Johnson.

The trio of fixtures would instead provide the sternest test of Leeds United’s progress and a measure of their credentials against the bigger sides for the longer-term picture as part of their Premier League return.

Having taken five points from a possible nine, it is a test Marcelo Bielsa’s Whites have passed with flying colours - and they’ve shown a new steely side to their game.

Thanks largely to improved defending, Leeds now boast a fine record against the division's so called Big Six at Elland Road having held every one of them to a draw with only Tottenham Hotspur to come.

The five games at LS11 against Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and now Manchester United have yielded five points and just two goals conceded to City and Liverpool plus three goalless draws.

Leeds have gone from conceding six goals against Manchester United to none in the space of four months and defensive solidarity is now making the Whites an even more potent force.

Aside from the still sometimes prevalent trait of wastefulness, there has been little doubt about the side’s attacking prowess upon their Premier League return, for which their opening display at Liverpool set the tone.

Three goals netted against the champions yet four conceded and the Whites were facing huge questions about their defence in the aftermath of this season’s first clash against the Red Devils.

A 6-2 hammering meant Leeds had then conceded 30 goals from their first 14 games, after which their goal difference stood at minus six.

Yet despite being faced with some of the toughest opposition the division has to offer of late, the Whites have now conceded just seven goals in their last nine games and a goal difference that once stood at minus six is back all square for a team now flying high in ninth and unbeaten in six.

The defensive improvement has been key and there are several factors for such improvement being forthcoming.

Top of the list is the players that Bielsa is now able to call upon following the return of both Spanish international Diego Llorente and German international Robin Koch from injury.

The continued improvement of Pascal Struijk is another huge factor.

The still inexperienced Struijk has been so impressive that even Koch is having to settle for a place on the bench at present and was called into action only in the 77th minute of yesterday’s clash against the Red Devils as Bielsa looked to counter Solskjaer’s move to bring on Paul Pogba.

Koch was left to fill a defensive midfield role and it should also be remembered that United’s last two stellar defensive displays have been achieved without the services of their captain and another key cog, Liam Cooper, who remains suspended.

Quite what should be the first-choice defensive partnership when everybody is available and fit is one for another day and a rather welcome headache.

The continued progress of England international Kalvin Phillips in the holding midfield role has also been crucial and, likewise, the form of Luke Ayling at right-back and the continued development of a still-inexperienced keeper, Illan Meslier.

Gjanni Alioski is also making a fine fist of things as a left-back.

But Bielsa has regularly insisted that the defensive work of his side is a project for the team as a whole - right up to striker Patrick Bamford - and Leeds were excellent at keeping Red Devils chances to a minimum at Elland Road.

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire felt his side controlled the game but lacked a cutting edge and Solskjaer’s side certainly had chances.

But so too did Leeds who might well have had a penalty for Luke Shaw’s handball in the first half and the debate can continue over whether a draw was a fair result.

It certainly looked that way but, either way, there is no doubt as to Leeds’ stellar defensive improvement which now has them as a force to be reckoned with at both ends of the pitch.

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Thank you Laura Collins