Seven wins from their final 10 games. The highest points total by a newly-promoted side in two decades. A top-half finish achieved in bold and brilliant style. Leeds United’s first season back in the Premier League was one to remember.
For Marcelo Bielsa, though, the manager responsible for the club’s transformation over the last three years, the sole focus ahead of his fourth season in charge is to ensure further improvement.
The 66-year-old has never put limits on what Leeds can achieve, instead instilling optimism and belief among his players and the club’s previously disillusioned supporters, so why start now?
“Ninth in the table is a good position but I don’t want to exaggerate something that is not that great,” Bielsa tells Sky Sports, taking a rare break from his preparations for the new campaign to fulfil media duties at the club’s Thorp Arch headquarters.
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“We are going to try to improve all aspects of our play. We have weak points which we showed over the course of last season. Now is the time to correct those things and do things more effectively.
“I believe that in football, there is very little margin to invent or create new things. What we will try to do is to improve the things we have been doing up until now. Yes, we are now better known to our rivals. But they are also better known to us.”
As ever, the work has been intense since the return to training, with Bielsa pushing his players to their limits – “physical preparation is one of the most important aspects of pre-season,” he says – as he aims to raise fitness levels to new heights.
It will take some doing. Last season, Leeds covered more ground than any other Premier League side and registered the most sprints by a significant margin too. Their intensity, evident right up until May, was one of the biggest factors behind their success.
Pre-season results suggest they are still getting up to speed – Leeds have only won one of six warm-up games ahead of their Premier League opener against Manchester United – and with left-back Junior Firpo the only major addition so far, there is also a sense of work still to do in the transfer market.
There is, as a result, some trepidation among supporters that the new campaign has rolled around a little too quickly. But Bielsa insists now is not the time for snap judgements. “The official games are what matter,” he says, “all the rest is just preparation.”
That preparation has been exhaustive. Leeds are facing heightened expectations this season but Bielsa is convinced they are ready for the challenge ahead and there is plenty of encouragement to be taken from the way they finished the last one.
Leeds proved a formidable attacking force throughout the campaign, of course. Only Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leicester and Spurs scored more goals and three of those five sides, including Pep Guardiola’s champions, tasted defeat against them.
But most significant is that Leeds were able to develop defensive solidity to match their offensive potency. Bielsa’s side had shipped 43 goals in 24 games by mid-February – the second-most in the division – but only conceded 11 in 14 from then on.
That improvement was vital as they surged into the top half of the table – only Liverpool boasted a better defensive record in the final stretch of the campaign – but what was behind it?
“It’s difficult to give you a precise answer,” says Bielsa, “but sometimes, the making of mistakes is what allows you to stop making them again. The explanation I can give you is that by getting certain things wrong, we saw how we needed to correct them.
“There are other teams who don’t need to get things wrong in that sense. But in our case, we made mistakes and then we were able to correct them.”
The statistics prove it. According to Opta, Leeds made 21 errors leading to shots in their first 24 games of the season but only five in the subsequent 14. The improvement undoubtedly had a lot to do with Diego Llorente’s return to fitness.
The Spanish international spent more than half of the season nursing groin and hamstring problems following his £20m arrival from Real Sociedad last summer but he excelled once Bielsa was finally able to bring him into the heart of his defence in February.
A minor knock in the recent friendly against Real Betis caused him to miss Leeds’s last two pre-season fixtures but Bielsa expects him to pick up where he left off in the new campaign.
“Everything he went through made him stronger because he was able to confront it, resolve it, and then overcome it,” Bielsa says of Llorente’s first season in England.
“He’s a very calm player who makes very few errors. He plays with a lot of personality and there are no aspects of his game where one can see weaknesses.
“In football today, the players who spend most time on the ball are the central defenders, so he also has an important role in terms of distribution and starting our play. He is a player who has a lot of ability in that sense as well as defensively.”
Some supporters have expressed concern at the club’s modest spending this summer but Bielsa has always valued continuity and chemistry highly and it is also worth noting that there was more than £100m of investment following their promotion last year.
Indeed, Llorente is not the only player who will have benefitted from a season of adaption. The same is true of Rodrigo, who scored four goals in his final four appearances of the campaign, and Robin Koch, who, like Llorente, had to contend with injury problems.
There remains room for improvement in central midfield and perhaps a need for greater depth in other areas but Leeds have kept hold of their best players, including Jack Harrison, who has joined permanently from Manchester City, and Stuart Dallas, who has signed a new deal, while in Junior Firpo they have acquired the specialist left-back they previously lacked.
Firpo, like Llorente, has been hampered by a minor injury recently but Bielsa nods when asked whether the Brazilian, a £13m signing from Barcelona, is adapting well in his new surroundings.
“Training sessions are not things we should talk about, but yes,” he says.
“He is a player with a lot of personality who is technically very adept and physically very gifted. Those qualities helped him get a move to Barcelona and no player joins Barcelona unless they have great attributes.”
Firpo’s attacking qualities will be particularly useful to Bielsa, whose full-backs are encouraged to charge forward at every opportunity, and the manager will also be able to call on an improving crop of young players over the course of the campaign.
Jamie Shackleton and Ian Poveda are already familiar faces at senior level and there are high hopes for Cody Drameh, Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood too. The club have also brought in Chelsea teenager Lewis Bate this summer, among others.
“This is a project of the club, to create young players and try to make sure those young players develop well and become established members of the first-team squad in the Premier League,” says Bielsa.
“This is a very sensible process for any club and Leeds try to implement it with a lot of knowledge and dedication.”
Bielsa plays down his own role in the process.
“We have dedicated staff who help them, develop them, protect them and direct them,” he says. “The manager of the U23s, the head of the academy and [director of football] Victor Orta are always trying to strengthen that group.
“I try to help in any way I can but what I bring is different because it is of course linked to the final stages of the process, when they are near to playing in the first-team.”
The development of young players has become even more important to Leeds and many other clubs due to the financial implications of the pandemic. The Premier League’s elite continue to spend heavily in the transfer market but others have had to adapt.
“I believe football in general is having to go through a difficult economic period due to Covid but the Premier League is one of the leagues that has suffered less,” says Bielsa.
“That’s especially true of the clubs near the top of the league, and I say that because it appears they are still making very big signings this summer.”
The challenge of improving on last year’s ninth-placed finish becomes even greater in that context but Bielsa is excited by the prospect of fans returning to Elland Road – “it’s very important to be able to count on the public,” he says – as the kick-off draws closer.
“This competition is thrilling,” he adds. “To be a part of it, even a very small part of it as I am, is a privilege.”
Don’t bet against Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United serving up another season to remember this time around.
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