Leeds United in a better position than most in open Championship race

Leeds United.
Leeds United.
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A total of two managerial sackings by the third week of November could give the impression that the Championship is going soft. Two years ago the division had lost no fewer than eight coaches by this stage, taking a quick toll at both ends of the table.

Aston Villa’s dismissal of Steve Bruce was motivated in part by a disenchanted crowd and Ipswich Town, who jettisoned Paul Hurst after losing to Leeds United last month, are the only club with much of a guarantee about what this season will do to them. Elsewhere, the even nature of the Championship is keeping clubs engaged and managers in their jobs. With the exception of Ipswich, a side dangling six points adrift at the bottom of the league, all bets are off.

Leeds, midway through the season’s third international break, have an opportunity in front of them like few others they have seen. They boast a stronger points tally in the Championship after 17 matches than they have under any coach since Howard Wilkinson.

They are in a division which, contrary to the trend of the past 20 years, has no obvious front runner and a pace below two points a game. Norwich City hold the advantage and even their manager, Daniel Farke, is fairly surprised to be there.

“Right now we’re sitting on top of the table,” he said after the most outlandish of injury-time wins over Millwall last weekend. “You couldn’t expect this.”

In September, conversations in Norwich were focusing on whether Farke should be sacked. But Moritz Leitner kept him afloat by averting a derby defeat to Ipswich and Norwich won nine of their next 11 games. In contrast, Marcelo Bielsa has been untouchable from the outset – always in the top six and protected by consistency throughout – but he got his fingers burned at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, beaten 4-1 in a fashion which suggested again that no club in the Championship is likely to run away with it.

Previous seasons demonstrate the open nature of the field Bielsa is in. In 20 years, only Derby County in 2014 held fewer points at the top of the league than the 33 amassed by Farke’s Norwich so far. The average after 17 fixtures stands at 38 – Wolverhampton Wanderers’ tally this time last year – and in certain campaigns the division had been left behind by a single outrider. Newcastle United reached 40 two years ago. Sheffield United, under Neil Warnock, hit 41 in 2005.

No team has ever moved at a faster pace than Fulham, who sat on 44 in 2001.

Derby’s slender advantage four years ago provides an example of how close this season might be; the “nip-and-tuck” finish which Darren Moore predicted before West Brom hammered Leeds at The Hawthorns. County’s form failed them after Christmas but the general absence of a stand-out side told in the final table.

Bournemouth took the title with 90 points, courtesy of an injury-time goal from Sheffield Wednesday which denied Watford on the last day.

The league’s top four were separated by just five points and below them, Wolves finished beneath the play-offs despite posting a final total of 78. It was a term in which the finest of margins made a difference; in which Jackett came to rue a run of five straight defeats at this precise juncture.

“We’ll look at what we did in that November period if we don’t go up,” he said as games began to run out. Wolves set an unwanted record for the highest tally of points failing to earn a top-six finish. Leeds have led the table more than once under Bielsa but there is no sign of dominance in a division where first place has changed hands more than 10 times. The Argentinian preached caution about United’s league position in August and did so again when they regained first place briefly last month. “The leader is the team who have most points but it doesn’t mean you are the best team,” he said. “The best team is the team who has more points at the end of the Championship.”

United’s results are encouraging, notwithstanding their capitulation at West Brom. They have lost only three times and, alongside West Brom, have the best goal difference in the division. They are a long way short of matching Albion’s strike rate but their goals-for column is higher than every other club’s. For Bielsa, the difficulty since August has been maintaining the level of fluency which inspired United’s most impressive period of the season. His squad have been up and down in the past two months, capable of mastering Ipswich, Preston and Wigan but prone to exposure in more difficult fixtures, and Saturday’s loss at West Brom demonstrated the difficulty Leeds face when they are asked to chase a game.

On that night the risk of Bielsa’s inherent positivity was laid bare. He has experienced few games like it in England and in all their Championship seasons since their relegation in 2004, Leeds have never made more of their first 17 games. The chance of him succeeding at Elland Road relied on two things: Bielsa rewiring a squad who were badly off the pace last term and the division developing into an even pack which made Leeds a genuine player.

His team might not have been able to live with Wolves 12 months ago and there are other clubs over the years who would have left United behind but on this occasion, in Bielsa’s words, the Championship is a “beautiful competition”: open to the masses and there for the taking.