Marcelo Bielsa has regularly stated the dangers of taking too much notice of league tables still in their infancy.
“The leader is the team that has more points; it doesn’t mean that you are the best team,” reasoned Bielsa on Friday, when Leeds were top of the pile ahead of Saturday’s home clash with Nottingham Forest.
“The best team is the team that has more points at the end of the Championship.”
Leeds have since dropped to second – leaving Sheffield United in a position Bielsa described as “misleading” – still not yet one third into the season. The facts are that only five points separate second-placed Leeds and 12th-placed Blackburn Rovers with only another two back to 13th-placed Stoke City and United’s 14th-placed Sunday hosts Wigan Athletic.
Whites striker Kemar Roofe gave a decent assessment of the 2018-19 Championship in conducting Saturday’s post-match press conference after the 1-1 draw with Forest.
“Everyone has been dropping points,” admitted the Whites striker.
“Some people are surprising teams with getting points and climbing up the table and, of course, we are disappointed because we have dropped a few ourselves. But we are still up there so we must be doing something right.”
Yet since United’s brilliant start to the season featuring four wins and a draw from their first five games, Leeds are 10th in the Championship form table taken over the last 10 games which – true to Roofe’s word – is topped by Daniel Farke’s surprise package Norwich City whose return is three points better than anybody else’s.
Moreover, Sheffield United’s return of 29 points from the first 15 games is the joint-lowest return for a side top at that stage in Championship history, matched only by Watford who also had 29 to lead the division after 15 games in 2014.
It is probably no coincidence that during that same 2014-15 season, the 90 points required to win the title by Bournemouth and the 89 for finishing second for Watford were short of what is normally required.
It could be that the same is true this season – a season that appears more wide open than ever and lacking an obvious dominant force – giving United every chance if they can rediscover their early-season form, results and swagger.
That the Canaries would be top over a form table taken over 10 games seemed unthinkable back in August as Leeds strolled to a comprehensive 3-0 success at Carrow Road with goals from Mateusz Klich, Gjanni Alioski and Pablo Hernandez.
In falling to their third defeat from their first five games, Farke appeared on the brink yet the reaction to that defeat has been the best 10-game run that the Championship has to offer. In that period, Norwich have enjoyed seven victories and two draws for a collection of 23 points out of a possible 30 – the best in the division.
Leaders Sheffield United, Birmingham City and another surprise package, QPR, are next with 20 points over that period, followed by West Brom with 18.
During that same spell, Leeds have picked up 14 points – form that has seen the Whites squander their position at the top of the table – with just the three wins to their name.
There have, of course, been mitigating factors during that run, not least the injuries to key players Hernandez and Roofe who are now back in the groove. A failure to convert possession and goalscoring opportunities has also not helped matters and referee Jeremy Simpson was hardly beneficial to the Whites’ cause during this month’s 1-1 draw with Brentford.
The fact that Roofe’s equalising goal was scored with his arm in Saturday’s draw with Forest is an argument on the other side of the coin though Bielsa will quite rightly stress how dominant United were as a whole. And the wide-open nature of this season’s second tier would appear to suggest that the arrival of Bielsa has coincided with potentially the best chance yet to get out of the division. This time last year – after 15 games – Wolves topped the division with 32 points with Cardiff on 31 and Sheffield United on 30. Wolves won the league with 99 points with Cardiff second on 90.
The previous season, leaders Newcastle already had 34 points at this stage of the season with second-placed Brighton on 31. The duo finished first and second respectively with 94 points and 93.
Before that, Hull, Burnley and Brighton all had 31 points after 15 games in November 2015 with Middlesbrough and Derby both on 30 and United’s tally of 27 would have only been enough for sixth.
Burnley won the league with 93 points, with Boro second on goal difference with 89. And you have to go back to October 2014 to find the last time a team topped the division with 29 points after 15 games with Watford leading the way ahead of Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Wolves who had all amassed 27.
That season, 90 points was enough to win the league for Bournemouth and, on current evidence, something similar might be enough this term.
Going back farther, Burnley had 34 points at this stage in 2013 – with Leicester and QPR both on 32 – while Crystal Palace had 30 in 2012. Southampton had 33 at this stage in 2011 while QPR had 33 in 2010, ahead of Cardiff on 32 and Swansea on 29.
Newcastle had 30 in 2009 with West Brom on 28 while Wolves were on 34 in 2008 ahead of Birmingham on 30. Watford then had a whopping 35 in 2007 while, in 2006, Cardiff had 33. Sheffield United then had an eye-watering 37 at this stage in 2005 ahead of Reading.
And in 2004, the inaugural Championship season, Wigan had 33 with Reading on 30. Eighteen points from their first 15 games had Leeds down in 16th in their first season back in the second tier after relegation from the Premier in May that year.
Fourteen years on, the stats after 15 games suggest this could be the best time to return in the ultimate style since.