Being in Stoke on Saturday felt a little like being in Leeds last May.
There was the same sunshine as that long afternoon before the Derby game, the same heat, and the same optimism. And so, as always at Leeds, there was the same suspicion that all this could end with an opposition manager charging around the pitch, like a drunk teenager celebrating his A levels.
That could be Frank Lampard in May or Stoke City’s Nathan Jones, further back in January, when he was so overcome by beating Leeds that a wall-sized photo of his big moment was installed at the Bet365 Stadium. He’s had to make the most of it because Stoke have only won three games since, but a visit from Marcelo Bielsa’s unbeaten league leaders gave him a bizarre, if slim, chance of another. If his players can’t get up for a good performance against Leeds United, when can they?
There was no exuberance from Jones this time. At full-time he went to applaud the few home fans who remained. They booed him. That left him with a long walk to the tunnel in front of thousands of gleeful away fans. They jeered him. Leeds had won 3-0, almost without trying.
Leeds look transformed from the end of last season, back when Lampard had his last laugh, and losing at Brentford left the players so distraught Bielsa was compelled to relax his stern demeanour and embrace them in their sorrows.
But Leeds also look different to the start of last season. Bielsa-ball hit the Championship hard in August 2018, when Stoke were swept aside and Derby were demolished. Twelve months on Leeds are arguably even more intense, but they’re exerting that intensity as a sort of mellow confidence.
Over the weekend the Twitter account LUFCData posted a comparison with the first five matches of last season, and every meaningful statistic has improved dramatically: more possession, more passes, more chances, and far fewer shots or goals conceded.
Leeds are keeping the ball, not letting the opposition into their penalty area, and scoring beautiful team goals. Then they’re strolling off the pitch to get ready for the next game.
“We are playing with the same ideas as last year,” Bielsa said after beating Stoke, “but losing the ball less. We spent more time having the ball without losing it very easily. Then, we are suffering less counter attacks.”
Those improvements have come the way last season’s came: Ben White apart, it’s the same players but better. We can understand now why Bielsa was adamant Jack Harrison should return, so a year’s education wouldn’t be wasted. He has Helder Costa and Eddie Nketiah waiting to be used, but no particular need for them while last season’s players perform like this.
A moment in the second half demonstrated United’s current mood, when with hardly a glance across the pitch Mateusz Klich turned and volleyed a pass from the right touchline into the path of Gjanni Alioski on the left wing. It was confident, imaginative and purposeful, and characterised much of United’s play.
On Saturday Bielsa called these “spontaneous behaviours”, and observed that his team is coming up with more of them. The more you have the ball, the more opportunities there are for spontaneity, for Pablo Hernandez to split Stoke’s defence with perfect passes.
In games Leeds are having bigger ideas about what’s possible, and after shrinking away from their ambitions at the end of last season, they’re playing again with the belief that everything they try will work.
Out of games, that’s giving fans bigger ideas about what might be possible this season, but like Nathan Jones, we have to heed last year’s lessons about getting carried away. Tonight’s rematch in the Carabao Cup will give Costa and Nketiah a chance to impress, and it doesn’t offer much hope to Stoke.
Bielsa’s influence doesn’t end with the first XI, and the back-ups likely to play also include Jack Clarke and Jamie Shackleton, first-team players in waiting who have been sharing in the subtle elevation over the summer.
Okay, Stoke are awful, and Saturday brings the league’s joint leaders Swansea to Elland Road, perhaps Leeds’ first real test against a team in form. But United’s minimum standard has been raised so far already this season, I can’t wait to see their new maximum.
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.