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The Art of Staying Up: Leeds United

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In this series of articles, we will take a look at the three promoted sides in the Premier League – Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham and how they should go about surviving in the top flight. First up, we take a look at the Championship winners, Leeds United.

16 years after being relegated from the Premier League, Leeds United are back in the top flight of English football. Marcelo Bielsa has arrived in the Premier League after convincingly winning the Championship title by 10 points and are the team most people are keen to see this season. How will they cope with the top flight, will they go down, scrape through a relegation battle or be a solid top half team? Let us take a closer look at Leeds and how they should go about staying up.

Championship winners

After a heart-breaking loss to Derby County in the 2018/19 playoffs, Leeds United needed to do everything to get automatic promotion the next season. Marcelo Bielsa, with an English football season under his belt, set out his Leeds team to be ruthless in the 2019/20 season. Leeds went on to accumulate 93 points and won the league comfortably in the end. They got 28 wins, four more than any other team. They lost only nine games, the second least after West Brom. They scored the second most goals with 77 netted and only let in 35, the least in the Championship. They were clearly the best team in the Championship and they were a completely different team from just two seasons ago. This was all down to one man.

Marcelo Bielsa

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This man is already a legend in the eyes of Leeds fans. You hear stories about him, such as he lives in a small one bedroom flat on the first floor above a shop, the praises he’s earned from all the players he has worked with and top managers in the world considering him the best in the business. I’m not the first person to write about him and his stories such as his three-hour long press conference following “Spygate”, will continue to be told in years to come. A complete football person, one who chooses his projects carefully depending on the club or country, the city and everything surrounding it. He is one man Leeds United cannot afford to lose.

He has transformed Leeds United as a club. Marcelo Bielsa is not a manager who invests huge amounts into the team, but a person who brings the best out of everyone already there and moulds players to fit his own tactical identity. He requires his players to commit completely and the Leeds players have completely bought into it. His Leeds team presses high and looks for quick turnovers of the ball. The players are constantly on the move and the press is executed to precision.

He is completely focused on tactics and fitness and he studies each opponent thoroughly and likes to be as prepared as possible. He is a manager who believes in playing and winning fairly even though controversy has come his way with the infamous “Spygate” incident.

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The game at Elland Road against Aston Villa in the 2017/18 season, when he instructed his players to allow Villa to score after a controversial Leeds goal is a prime example of that. Leeds ended up drawing the game which dealt a huge blow at their chances of automatic promotion. This season, he comes into the Premier League retaining most of his side from the previous season. However, some improvements to the squad and some replacements are needed to compete at the highest level.

The summer transfer window

Every promoted team faces a huge transfer window ahead of the new season. However, with the current pandemic situation, some transfers which Leeds could have made under normal circumstances might not happen this time around. They have signed winger Helder Costa and goalkeeper Illan Meslier on a permanent basis from Wolves and Lorient respectively after successful loan spells last season. They have also completed a move for the highly rated forward Joe Gelhardt from Wigan and have extended Jack Harrison’s loan spell from Manchester City. However, Leeds know they still have to strengthen their squad to compete in the Premier League, especially playing the high intensity way Bielsa wants them to. There are 3 main positions where Leeds require players.

Firstly, the number 9 position. They do not have a backup for Patrick Bamford and will have to play one of the wingers in that position if Bamford was to get an injury. However, it looks like Leeds United are close to solving this issue, with Valencia striker Rodrigo Moreno (below) likely to join the ranks at Elland Road this season.

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To further bolster this spot, the club are also looking at Arsenal youngster Sam Greenwood as another backup option.

The next position which requires a signing is at centre-back. It will be a hard blow to take for Leeds if they do not sign Ben White on a permanent basis from Brighton. He is a player who perfectly fits the Bielsa mould, but the move looks unlikely with Brighton asking for over £40million. Replacing Ben White is key and Leeds are looking at various options.

Rob Holding and Calum Chambers (below) from Arsenal are being linked with a move to Leeds. They are young players who have experience in the Premier League and would fit the role well. An outside shout could be Joe Rodon from Swansea. He is a 22-year-old defender who is comfortable on the ball, has an impressive passing range and caught the eyes of many clubs last season in the Championship.

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Lastly, one spot which has cover but needs more depth to it is at left-back. Their only out-and-out left-back is Barry Douglas. Stuart Dallas has covered for him and midfielder Ezgjan Alioski has also played in that position. However, Leeds need to look at getting another left-back who will develop to make that spot his own.

One choice could be Vasyl Kravets from Leganes. He is a fast, six-foot-tall left-back who has a good cross in his locker. He has impressed at Leganes and seems to be have high intensity and high stamina, just what Bielsa looks for.

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Another option is Jamie Robson (above) from Dundee United. A number of Scottish left-backs have impressed recently like Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, and Jamie is amongst those coming up. He is still a bit raw and needs to improve going forward. However, defensively he looks really solid, being good on the floor and in the air. He is certainly a player who could improve massively under the right coaching which he will get under Bielsa.

What to expect

Leeds have learnt from their previous stints in the Premier League having spent massively on the wrong players and ending up in a bad financial situation. Luckily, the Leeds United set-up looks to cater to Bielsa’s style. The Sporting Director at Leeds, Victor Orta and Bielsa work together in terms of building the squad. They will look at players who are committed to the cause, which is what Bielsa expects the most, instead of big names. If Leeds manage to get the players they need in the three positions talked out above, we could expect them to stay in the Premier League for longer than a year.

Survival would be considered a successful first season back in the top flight, and once that is achieved, Leeds and Bielsa could look to establish themselves, as most fans expect them to, as a solid Premier League team, among the likes of Wolves and Leicester City. Leeds seem to have found the right man in Marcelo Bielsa to try and achieve this. Bielsa has taken them home, and now they will look to make themselves comfortable there again.

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Eddie Nketiah: Arteta’s first choice No. 9?

Arsenal youngster Nketiah has been showing his value this season under Mikel Arteta. But does this cement his place as a starter under the Spaniard?

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Arsenal finally got off the mark in Project Restart by getting all 3 points in their third game back against Southampton. Mikel Arteta yet again went with Eddie Nketiah to lead the line instead of Alexandre Lacazette, and it paid off.

The youngster scored Arsenal’s first goal in their 2-0 win. Nketiah has started 5 out of the last 6 premier League games for Arsenal and the 21-year-old looks to have won the trust of his manager. So, what does the former Chelsea youth product give to this side which Arteta is looking for?

Arsenal fans will remember the day Nketiah made his debut for the Gunners. He came on and scored with his first touch of the ball in an EFL Cup tie against Norwich City, going on to score the winner just a few minutes later. He became an instant household name amongst the Arsenal fans, who were hoping he wouldn’t be another youth product who would not live up to his potential.

At the start of the 2019/20 season, he was loaned to Leeds United to get more playing time. He impressed in his first few games at the club, with Marcelo Bielsa calling him a ‘complete’ player. However, he was seen as second choice to Patrick Bamford and did not start any of the first few league games.

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Bielsa was going to give him his first start against Queens Park Rangers, but Nketiah picked up a lower abdomen injury which ruled him out for a month. He finally started a league game in December against Birmingham City and another on New Year’s Day, but the loan spell was not going as planned for Arsenal and he was called back to the club in January.

Initially when he came back to Arsenal, Nketiah was not starting many games. His first start came against Bournemouth in the fourth round of the FA Cup where he scored Arsenal’s second goal in their 2-1 win. He made a few appearances off the bench in the Premier League against Sheffield and Burnley.

His strikes against Bournemouth and Everton really showed that he was a born striker with the instinct to score goals. That, coupled with his work rate, meant Lacazette would continue to warm the bench. In the friendly game against Charlton Athletic just before the Premier League restarted, Nketiah got himself a hat-trick, and has played all three games since the restart, starting two of them. His goal against Southampton really captured his value for the team, and it was the reward for his industry. 

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Mikel Arteta clearly prefers Nketiah over Arsenal’s £45m Lacazette who has not got an away goal in more than 18 hours of football. Due to the tight fixture list, Lacazette will definitely get his opportunities to show what he has got, but he needs to prove to his manager that he is willing to do the dirty work and he needs to find his confidence soon if he wants to be a part of Arteta’s plans beyond this season.

Throughout the season, we have seen many young players stepping up at Arsenal, especially since Arteta took over. Players like Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli look really promising and have given Arsenal fans hope for the future. Eddie Nketiah also comes under this bracket and looks like the man Arsenal could hand over the no. 9 shirt to in the future. Arsenal are six points behind sixth place and need a strong end to the season for them to have any chance of being in Europe next season.

With many injures to their backline, Arteta will look to his strikers to provide the goals they need to win games, and it certainly looks like the youngster Eddie Nketiah will the one to partner the captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front for Arsenal in the last few games of the season.