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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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Joe Hart: The English Exception

With the former England number 1 making a surprise move to Spurs, we take a look at his downfall and what led him to team up with Mourinho.

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As the last days of summer fall away, the Premier League readies itself for its short-awaited return. It has for company such well-worn maxims as “If so and so were foreign” and “But can he do it on a rainy day in Stoke?” By contrast there is little to be said about the English player; very few go abroad, and it is largely considered bad form to talk about their travel troubles in polite circles.

At 6’5, 197lbs, Joe Hart is the biggest (and highest profile) Englishman to play overseas since David Beckham. His signing in mid-August with London based Tottenham Hotspur marked the end of a three-year mid-table journey that included stops at both Burnley and West Ham and Serie A outfit Torino.

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None of these misadventures netted success for the stopper, at least not to the extent to which he had grown accustomed to at Manchester City. His arrival at the Turf Moor in 2018 coincided with a period of newfound optimism at Burnley, who had recently qualified for Europe for the first time. But his participation as a starter was to be cut short after only 19 league games by the recovery of regular goalkeeper Tom Heaton. The previous year spent in Torino had been met with similarly indifferent results; the Serie A side finishing 9th in a season in which he started 36 games. 

To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino’s portrayal of down-and-out coach Tony D’Amato in Any Given Sunday, “I don’t care if you make mistakes…make them big.” The former England international and Man City mainstay has taken such advice to heart; his unmitigated descent from starter for the national team to out of fashion at Torino punctuated by consistent unforced errors. I vividly remember Joe Hart sprinting off his line to punch a ball outside of his box that was no longer there (having been played back to him by Nastasic). And that was about the same time a crossbar saved him from Andrea Pirlo. So perilous was his time as a keeper in Serie A that the club president made mention of it, saying that they “did not expect so many mistakes from an English international.”

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On £135,000 a week (at least until 2018 when he was signed by Burnley), and fundamentally incapable of meriting his contract: professionally, it’s a hell of a move. Though signing to be the third-choice goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspur – probably also a mistake – certainly represents the end for him internationally on a club and national level. With talk of MLS or another move abroad making way for a switch to Mourinho’s Spurs, Hart will surely see himself behind Lloris and Gazzaniga.

Despite the transfer looking fair on paper, this is yet another missed opportunity for Hart to regain his form with regular first-team minutes.  On the other hand, it’s good to see the Shrewsbury-born keeper back at a club fighting for the European spots.

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Four free transfers Premier League sides should consider

As contracts wind to an end at the turn of the month, which top-flight English sides should consider which out-of-contract stars?

With the financial state of European football hanging in the balance and many unaware of how much clubs will be able to spend, some sides will surely turn their gaze to the free transfer market. 

Clubs are able to offer contracts to those whose deals are set to expire at the end of June. Some players have put pen to paper to extend their current deals until the season is completed but there will still be a rich market and some gems who won’t cost a single penny.

Here, we look at four players leaving their clubs this summer who could be easy business for your favourite Premier League club.

Robin Knoche | CB | 28 | VfL Wolfsburg | Germany

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It can’t be denied that Robin Knoche has been a brilliant servant to Die Wolfe. The 28-year-old centre-back, born just a half-hour drive from Wolfsburg in Brunswick, has been on the books at the club since 2005. 

At the very least, Knoche would be a great squad player for most sides below “The Top 6” in the Premier League. Clubs such as Leicester City, Everton, West Ham United all lack depth at centre-back and Knoche would be a reliable addition to those squads.

Knoche, who is capped for Germany at under-20 and under-21 level, was a regular starter for Wolfsburg before the season paused due to the pandemic. Since Bundesliga’s restart, he has struggled for minutes, losing his place to Marin Pongračić and John Brooks. He has, however, featured from the bench.

The defender has experience of playing in both a back-three and a back-four just this season under coach Oliver Glasner. He is an able passer, achieving at 82.4% pass succession rate across the 2019/20 top-flight campaign. Knoche clears the ball around 3.6 times per 90 minutes – a rate similar to highly competent Newcastle centre-back Fabian Schär.

One could argue that he is unproven as he has never made his mark at a club besides Wolfsburg but, even if he were to flop, the buying club wouldn’t have spent a penny.

Adil Aouchiche | CAM | 17 | Paris Saint-Germain | France

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On the other end of the spectrum, here is a player with little to no experience at the top level. However, all of his youth level performances point towards Adil Aouchiche being a future superstar.

The Parisian attacking midfielder was highlighted by The Athletic’s Jack Lang in 2019 who warned of the dangers of only looking at the youngster’s statistics, saying:

“Look only at the end product and you will miss out on his casual, low-slung elegance. You will miss the subtle changes of direction, the two-footedness, the way he manages the internal rhythms of the game. You will miss the not-so-distant echoes of Zinedine Zidane, a comparison that goes far beyond Aouchiche’s Algerian roots.”

Jack Lang, The Athletic, 15 Nov 2019

Aouchiche has been prolific for France at youth level, scoring 15 goals in 25 appearances for the nation’s under-17s. He has also assisted prolifically at youth level, using his natural agility and pace to shimmy past defenders with a drop of the shoulder or a sudden change in direction.

Unlike some young players, Aouchiche is unselfish on the ball and knows when to make a pass; something which he does incredibly efficiently. The Frenchman is also strong when it comes to free-kicks.

Aouchiche’s only real weaknesses come in defence. The attacking midfielder needs to focus some attention on his aerial abilities and defensive attributes. However, he will only turn 18 next month and so has plenty of time to hone those other areas of his game. If he joins a club with strong defensive players in midfield and at the back, this becomes even less of a problem.

Arsenal have been linked with the teen since it emerged that he was definitely departing the French capital at the end of his contract. However, Aouchiche would also be an ambitious prospect for a club such as Everton as Sigurdsson, who plays in a similar position on the pitch (albeit in a different manner), ages out. Mourinho could also consider the youngster as a potential challenger to Dele Alli in coming seasons.

Wherever he goes, Adil Aouchiche will remain a bright and compelling prospect. Remember the name.

Hugo Duro | ST/LW/RW | 20 | Getafe B | Spain

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Versatility in the attacking third is something which is now more sought after than ever. Many of today’s top strikers, such as Mbappé, Aubameyang, Werner and Firmino have all played on the wing at various stages of their respective careers.

Getafe youngster Hugo Duro is a centre-forward by trade but his control of the ball in tight spaces and his strong pace have seen him utilised out wide on occasions. 

The 20-year-old has scored 11 goals in 23 games for Getafe’s B team but has not been able to fully fledge and move into the first team. Duro is a pinpoint shooter of the ball and his ability to move out of tight spaces may be beneficial if he tried to fit into a Premier League now dominated by fast, pressing sides.

Southampton have been too reliant on Danny Ings for goals this season with the Englishman netting 16 in his 30 games. Ings has been involved in 47% of Saints’ goals this campaign and, with an average of 0.57 goals per 90 minutes, he has been touted for the England squad.

Duro could certainly learn from Ings’ expertise and could ease the burden on the ex-Liverpool man when it comes to goalscoring in coming seasons.

Any promoted side could see the benefits of taking a punt on Duro too. He may not be proven at any top level but Duro could be a great, free addition to a few Premier League or Championship sides.

Mario Götze | CAM | 28 | Borussia Dortmund | Germany

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Certainly the most established name on this list, Dortmund midfielder Mario Götze looks set to depart Signal Iduna Park for a second time. The German switched Dortmund for Bayern Munich in 2013 before returning to Westphalian side in 2016 under Thomas Tuchel.

Götze has endured somewhat of a stop-start career. Injuries and a rare metabolic disorder called myopathy have threatened his career at times. However, the former Bayern man has proven, when he’s played, that he still has the qualities which attracted the Bavarians some seven years ago.

In 2018-19, Götze overcame his hardships to score seven and assist seven. However, this season, the star hasn’t been able to displace the likes of Brandt, Hazard, Sancho and Reus and club sporting director Michael Zorc confirmed his imminent departure.

Götze would be an even better solution for Everton than Aouchiche. The German would slot straight into Ancelotti’s side, potentially in rotation with Sigurdsson who is on a slow downward trajectory. Götze would link well with Tom Davies and dovetail nicely with Dominic Calvert-Lewin in attack.

He would also be a valuable addition to an inexperienced Newcastle United attack. Miguel Almirón has struggled for large parts of his time on Tyneside and Joelinton could do with some extra support to facilitate his goal-scoring abilities.