Marcelo Bielsa's Whites sit fifth-bottom having amassed just six points so far, but how do the YEP's team of Leeds United writers see the 2021-22 campaign panning out at Elland Road?
Ahead of Saturday's return to action at Southampton, chief football Graham Smyth plus Lee Sobot, Joe Urquhart and Flora Snelson pick out their biggest causes for optimism and worry plus their idea of United's player of the year so far and revised predicted finishing position.
Biggest cause for optimism: Marcelo Bielsa
Marcelo Bielsa has always found solutions to problems in order to make Leeds United better and ensure they remain competitive so I expect no different this season. There are issues to address but there is never a feeling around Elland Road that the head coach is not equal to them. Bielsa has earned the trust. There will be three teams worse than Leeds this season.
Biggest worry: The midfield
The midfield was my biggest concern last season yet up stepped Stuart Dallas. That area remains a concern, however, particularly with the Ulsterman yet to find his best form. It would be terrific to see Adam Forshaw return to give Leeds control, but it’s a huge ask given the length of his absence. Lewis Bate looks a real prospect, hopefully he continues to progress towards the first team.
Player of the season so far: Illan Meslier
Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha have been good but my pick would be Illan Meslier. For a 21-year-old to be playing in goal with such consistency and confidence in the Premier League is remarkable to me. He’s the reassuring presence that Kiko Casilla was increasingly unable to provide before being usurped by the young Frenchman. A huge career is off to a terrific start.
Revised prediction: 14th
Despite the warnings of a tougher second season sounded by Patrick Bamford et al, I was optimistic before a ball was kicked that Leeds could finish in mid-table this season. I still think it is possible but anywhere from 14th up would be fine. If injuries continue to be such a problem I would take 14th right now.
Biggest cause for optimism: Youth
When it comes to the bigger picture, it is impossible not to be optimistic about the future of Leeds United’s youngsters.
The Whites have two players in the England under-21s squad in Joe Gelhardt and Charlie Creswell plus three more in the England under-20s set up in Lewis Bate, Cody Drameh and Sam Greenwood.
Then there are the likes of Crysencio Summerville coming through as part of a rich conveyor belt of talent.
A spate of extremely promising youngsters might not help Leeds right now if they are not given their chance, but it means the future looks extremely bright in the long term, especially when you consider that plenty of United’s first-team players are still young themselves, notably Illan Meslier who is just 21 and Dan James who is 23.
Biggest worry: Squandering chances
Another big cause for optimism is United’s style of football under Marcelo Bielsa, through which the Whites will always create goal scoring chances.
Quite how many chances that leads to for the opposition as a consequence is a worry though Bielsa believes Leeds defend better when they attack if everything is done properly, ie. not losing the ball.
But the fifth-bottom Whites have netted just seven goals in seven games thus far – conceding 14 – and Leeds must start hitting the net with more regularity if they are going to make their way up the table.
The prospect of big money bids for Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips is another worry but a bridge to be crossed if and when it comes into view.
Player of the season so far: Raphinha
Leeds have a very, very special player on their hands in Raphinha, one who is destined for the very, very top.
He’s already even outshining Neymar for Brazil when given the chance.
The 24-year-old winger has not yet scaled the true heights he is capable of for Leeds this term but a hip injury has not helped and yet the Brazilian has still probably been United’s best player, netting three goals in seven games so far this campaign.
Illan Meslier has also been very good, making some excellent saves.
Revised prediction: 13th
Leeds would do very well to get anywhere near last season’s superb finishing position of ninth, not just because of their slow start but also because the Premier League just looks a better division this time around.
Brentford have taken to the top flight like a duck to water, Watford look bound to improve under new boss Claudio Ranieri and who knows quite what Newcastle United will be capable of given their newfound riches.
It all means that staying up will be more of a scrap than ever but Leeds should be fine and somewhere towards the upper reaches of the bottom half might be about right for finishing position, with Norwich City and maybe Burnley and Southampton to go down.
Biggest cause for optimism: Crysencio Summerville
Watching Raphinha do Raphinha things for Brazil from afar has been a source of pride for many associated with Elland Road.
It has, though, made me realise just how much he is destined for the top of the game.
Hopefully he gets there with Leeds – but if he doesn’t, Summerville eases my fears over what the Whites would be losing in the creativity department.
Biggest worry: Injuries
Injuries have kept me awake at night during Marcelo Bielsa’s time in charge.
I have full belief in the Thorp Arch production line but sometimes you do have concerns heading into a Premier League game with such inexperience.
Charlie Cresswell, however, allayed those fears a few weeks ago, which maybe says I should stop waking up screaming every now and then.
I do still have a recurring nightmare of where goals are going to come from if Patrick Bamford gets something more long-term – I’m not sure that will ever go away.
Player of the season so far: Kalvin Phillips
It’s on-brand to say Kalvin Phillips, isn’t it? Seeing him control Premier League games though with such ease is honestly a joy to behold from where he was just three or four years ago.
We recently calculated our average ratings for the season so far and the Yorkshire Pirlo was at 7.7 – which says it all – consistently a top-level performer.
Revised prediction: 12th (ish)
On the eve of the season I said anywhere between ninth and 15th would represent a good second season.
Leeds no doubt overachieved last year, which raised expectations though I still think they have plenty in the tank once injuries subside.
A couple of wins against the top six and about 12th place will do just fine – and I really believe that is achievable.
Biggest cause for optimism: Life after Kalvin Phillips
It has been heartening to see Aston Villa surviving and thriving in the wake of poster boy Jack Grealish’s summer departure.
No-one is blind to the inevitability that Kalvin Phillips will outgrow Leeds before long, but the associated dread has shrunk over the course of the last season.
In part attributable to KP’s example, the Leeds academy is well and truly on the map and with so many bright sparks queuing up for a breakthrough at Thorp Arch, KP seems less and less like a once-in-a-lifetime find.
Biggest worry: Bielsa’s preference for a small squad
While Leeds’ difficult start doesn’t put the writing on the wall for their Premier League prospects this season, it does raise questions over one of Bielsa’s key principles.
“There comes a time when you have to show or demonstrate that the project can resolve these uncomfortable situations,” Bielsa said in his West Ham press conference.
Relatively untroubled by injury in Leeds’ first season back in the top flight, the Argentine’s management of a slim squad has finally been tested and it hasn’t passed.
Player of the season so far: Illan Meslier
Only two teams have conceded more than the 14 goals let in by Leeds United this season, but the picture would be much, much bleaker without Meslier’s superb stops.
He’s saved 28 shots so far – that’s an average of four per game. Oozing confidence, he’s cutting out the errors and getting better week by week.
An injury to the 21-year-old would be harrowing for the Whites’ league progress.
Revised prediction: 11th
I can’t see Leeds matching last season’s form, but the Whites’ trio of top-drawer wingers will make up for any ‘figuring out’ of Leeds’ game that Premier League managers might or might not have achieved.
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Thank you Laura Collins