Leeds United moving suspiciously quickly for club determined to walk before they run

For a club that wanted to walk before it could run, Leeds United look suspiciously close to breaking into a light jog.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 9:14 am
KEY FIGURE - Marcelo Bielsa has proven this season that he is key to Leeds United narrowing the gap to the 'big six.' Pic: Getty

If their Premier League season was supposed to be a walking race they would be in genuine danger of disqualification with a game to go.

The Whites had every intention of attacking the Premier League this season – Angus Kinnear promised there would be swashbuckling football and a complete absence of fear and Marcelo Bielsa has made good the CEO’s vow.

That was as bold as the talk around Elland Road got last summer. Owner Andrea Radrizzani spoke only of consolidation and avoiding relegation because phase one of the plan to restore the status Leeds once had did not include qualification for Europe. That was somewhere down the line, in season two or season three, by which time the squad would be further strengthened, along with the club’s off-field infrastructure and financial might.

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So, although Tuesday night’s win, for at least 24 hours, kept Leeds in with a mathematical chance of finishing seventh and qualifying for Europe at the very first time of asking, eight is the number of perfection.

As much as a host of European teams might not be ready for Bielsaball, the Whites themselves are not quite ready for European football – particularly a tournament as arduous to conquer as the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Whoever finishes seventh in the Premier League this season will gain entry to the new continental competition and begin their epic quest on August 19, five days after the start of the domestic league season. To win it, that English team will play between 15 and 17 games. This season, Leeds have played just 39 in league and cups and, even as a Championship side in 2019/20, faced only 49 fixtures in all competitions.

It would, undoubtedly, add strain for what is a small squad, regardless of whether a few new faces are added this summer, signings which will probably just offset the expected departures or, at most, leave Leeds slightly heavier in number.

That small squad has proven perfectly adequate for a Premier League campaign, burning the burn-out myth to the ground as they finish strongly.

Beating Southampton 2-0 gave them 21 points from their last 10 games – more than any other top-flight team in that time, despite encounters with five of the ‘big six’ and injuries to key players like Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha. In fact, Leeds’ finish has been so impressive that Bielsa has been able to give important players early leave.

All of that said, the idea of a squad of this size having to play a significant number of extra fixtures, factoring in a busy summer of European Championship football for several of them and their 2021/22 international duties, would be a worrying one.

The upcoming transfer window could yet make or break next season – as Sheffield United will attest. Victor Orta got it so right in 2020 yet he himself regularly warns that there are no guarantees of recruitment success.

Despite such a brilliant first campaign in the top flight, no one is under any illusions that they will still have to punch above their weight in the second season, even if Orta adds a few diamonds this summer. Bielsa, as he has shown, is key to narrowing the gap to the richest and most established Premier League sides but this division will never be easy and the threat of relegation remains a possibility for all but a handful of clubs at the start of each new season.

A European journey, as exciting as it might be, could prove a distraction and a burden, for a club still on the road to fully establishing themselves as a top domestic operator.

For the fans, too, this autumn might not be the ideal time to be looking at flights and accommodation in Europe, as we – all things being well – ease ourselves back into the norm. If there’s an overseas jaunt to be had, better for it to be taken by the biggest possible number of Leeds fans, when the world is breathing a little more freely and, fingers crossed, not through a mask.

So Europe can wait. Not too long, of course, not if Leeds want their own ambitions to tally with players like Raphinha and others who desire and deserve the highest level of club competition but, for now, it can wait.

Finishing this season as the best of the rest, just outside the European places, as a newly-promoted team full of former Championship players, is a badge worth wearing with pride.

Eighth would do just fine and, even if they have to settle for 10th, this whole Premier League thing could not have gone much better at all. It’s not yet time to hit top speed but Leeds are on the move and picking up pace.