Leeds United's PDL North triumph a sign of the culture of success being built at Thorp Arch

Leeds United's training ground Thorp Arch.
Leeds United's training ground Thorp Arch.
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Success, they say, breeds more of the same and Leeds United have the look of a club who are manufacturing a culture of it.

This season is almost into April and three titles are not out of question, from Under-18 level to the rat-race for promotion which Marcelo Bielsa is handling in the Championship.

One trophy is in hand already after the club’s development squad put themselves beyond reach in Professional Development League North on Monday and United’s Under-18s lead their division with three weeks of games to go.

The outcome which matters, the outcome which always matters, is the fate of Bielsa’s first team - third in the Championship and up in the air - but the picture at Leeds of consistent achievement across the three senior levels of football is the visible surface of a much deeper, concerted project.

Academies tend to gauge themselves on the rate of production of first-team talent but Leeds’ Under-23s have hit the sweet spot by winning with regularity while playing the rest of their league off the park.

Continuity of results are there on paper but behind the scorelines is a continuity of style, maintained by a coaching structure which has learned to communicate from top to bottom. Bielsa is part of it, the architect of the tactics Leeds are pursuing in different age groups, but only part of it; a big cog in a machine which depends on Carlos Corberan and other coaches below him, the oversight of academy manager Adam Underwood and head of coaching Richard Cresswell, and director of football Victor Orta.

The development side were stripped of numbers and potential in depth when Orta, midway through 2017, was given the job of replenishing that group of players and the first-team squad at Thorp Arch.

A quick, initial influx of juniors - many sourced from abroad - was expensive and hit-and-miss but in the two years since, and helped but other more effective transfers, the Under-23s have grown into a balanced, effective team. Orta admitted defeat with certain signings and sent them elsewhere but others, like Aapo Halme, Patrick Struijk and Ryan Edmondson, proved to be shrewder investments.

Edmondson has double figures in PDL North and his two goals at Colchester United on Monday made the title safe.

Corberan, once an assistant manager at Villarreal but a coach with no reputation in England before Leeds enlisted him, has been in charge of the Under-23s for the past two seasons. Bielsa’s appointment in June helped him become a more coherent link to the senior team.

Bielsa is fastidious about working with assistants he knows, and all who came with him are trusted allies, but Corberan was alone in being invited into the backroom fold in pre-season. Leeds revised the Spaniard’s job title to recognise his first-team role but also to employ him as a bridge to the academy, with a “special responsibility for ensuring consistency of philosophy.”

The set-up suited everyone. Corberan’s understanding of Bielsa’s methods allowed the academy squads to train and play in a way which prepared them for Championship games. The point of that plan has been demonstrated by Bielsa giving debuts to seven Under-23s.

Many of those players work with the Argentinian at Thorp Arch day-to-day but his tactical approach was drummed into them further by the development squad committing to it on match days: passing from the back, intense pressing and movement and persistent attacks. Over the course of this season, the Under-23s have averaged two goals a game.

For Leeds, the appeal of the structure was cultural: the idea of one concrete plan which their head coach was at the forefront of. United’s youth teams have been motivated to play well by the real opportunity of first-team involvement but schooled to play well by a clear way of thinking.

It is all an extension of Bielsa’s belief that “if you can change your style it’s because the style is not strong enough. If you can change something easily it means it was not hard to build it in the first place.” Neither he nor the academy have compromised on theirs.

Corberan, who some at Leeds see as a potential successor to Bielsa depending on timing and on his own development as a coach, has felt the impact of Bielsa’s attitude.

“We have one very positive thing in the club,” Corberan said.

“We have someone who is not focused on the age of the players but focused on the potential of the players. He’s not afraid to give opportunities to the good players.

“I think this is one of the keys to the success of the Under-23s because they’re watching and they know that if they work hard and if they make their best, they’ll have the possibility to help the first team. The connection we have and the character of Marcelo helps them.

“It’s positive that our players understand the idea of football. We tried to put this idea in the mind of the players last year and we’ve signed players who have the skills to do it.

“When you have one idea, one identity about the style you want, what you have to do is help the players with their mentality. The success of the academy this year is the link with the first-team.

"Everyone is working with the same ideas - the same ideas from a different point of view. For the players it’s easier because there are no doubts about a different way.”

The players in his Under-23s squad can feel it too: the effect of understanding and football which, over time, has come naturally. They have lost five times this season and eight times in the last 18 months.

On Friday they meet Burnley - second in PDL North - in the quarter-finals of the Premier League Cup. It is another trophy which Leeds have a genuine chance of winning.

Edmondson, who Leeds signed from York City in 2017, said: “(Corberan) has helped me massively. My development from last year to this year, I think I can thank him for that.

“But also with the gaffer Bielsa coming in, he’s given us a completely different identity which teams haven’t been able to cope with. It’s given us real intensity and quality within our game.”

Leeds’ academy continues to operate at category two level, though the facilities at Thorp Arch - upgraded as part of the infrastructure overhaul Bielsa asked for last summer - are essentially good enough to meet the requirements of the Elite Player Performance Plan’s top tier. An upgrade to EPPP category one would incur additional costs which Leeds see as unnecessary while they remain in the EFL.

Their plans for a new training ground in the centre of the city would include a category one facility, by which time the club hope to be back and established in the Premier League.

Speaking to the YEP last season, Underwood said: “Category One is definitely something we’d like to be. But what does it give us? A different games programme for the 18s and 23s. That’s it.”

The current games programme has been adequate for prepping the development squad in the way that Bielsa wanted. Leif Davis, a recruit from Morecambe last summer, is one of those who found a way into the first team this season, at a far faster rate than he expected. Bielsa was bold enough to give him his debut in a blood-and-thunder game at Aston Villa two days before Christmas.

Defeat for Burnley against Bristol City on Monday afternoon gave Davis and United’s Under-23s the assurance that victory at Colchester would wrap up the division.

“Once we got told Burnley got beat, we were raring to go and push on to win the title,” Davis said.

“When you see the quality of players we’ve got, that’s why we’ve won the league. This shows that if you work hard, you get what you deserve.”