‘What a day to be alive, f*ck me’ slurred Mateusz Klich, celebrating after Leeds United’s promotion back to the summit of English football. A 16-year top-flight hiatus was finally over for England’s sleeping giant, with the dark days of Wise, Warnock and Hockaday firmly laid to rest. Leeds were back, and they weren’t there for a fleeting visit.
Spanish internationals Rodrigo and Diego Llorente were brought in alongside Germany’s Robin Koch. £17m was spent on Raphinha, a Brazilian winger from Rennes, who swapped Champions League football for a chance to work under Marcelo Bielsa. Thrilling encounters early on in the season quickly saw Leeds become branded as the most watchable team in the league; ‘they want to make it like a basketball match’ became every manager’s go-to phrase whilst his players sat gasping for air in the changing rooms.
Leeds’ high intensity, attacking style was here in all of its glory, and despite a few heavy defeats along the way, Bielsa was never one to opt for a more subtle approach from his players. The side would go on to be unbeaten against the European Super League six at home, narrowly missing out on continental football despite picking up 24 points from the final 11 fixtures as they finished ninth. Their points tally of 59 was the highest of any promoted side since Ipswich Town in 2000-01.
Top scorer Patrick Bamford finished the season with a remarkable 17 goals and 7 assists, somehow missing out of Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad. Raphinha proved to be one of the buys of the season in the league, with his typical Brazilian flair, dazzling footwork and killer instincts seeing the future Seleção star averaging a goal or assist every other game.
Bielsa demanded fitness levels from his players that many deemed unsustainable, but the squad obliged, outrunning the opposition in 37 of 38 games. The only time their opponents ran further was as Leeds played 45 minutes with ten men at the Etihad. And won. A handful of star signings complimented a collective group that had been together since day one.
Ten of the players that featured in their final Premier League game against West Brom had been involved in Bielsa’s first game in charge against Stoke back in August 2018. Bielsa, deservedly nominated for the Premier League Manager of the Season award, took a bunch of average second division players and turned them into Premier League entertainers. Below are the standout players, moments and talking points from a season like no other.
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Player of the Season
For all the Brazilian brilliance of Raphinha, the ice-cold composure of Illan Meslier, or the remarkable finishing of Patrick Bamford who had been written off before even kicking a ball this term, there could be only one winner of the Leeds United player of the season award.
They call Stuart Dallas the Cookstown Cafu, an ode to the marauding forward runs from the County Tyrone star. The nickname doesn’t do Dallas the justice he deserves, however. Right back, left back, holding midfielder, box to box midfielder, playmaker, winger and a brief stint as a false nine; Northern Ireland’s Rolls Royce footballer epitomises everything that Marcelo Bielsa’s Whites stand for. Cut from the same cloth as club legend Paul Madeley, the former Brentford man’s versatility has seen him become an integral fixture in El Loco’s team, starting every single league match this campaign.
WINNER: Stuart Dallas has been named the 2020/21 @LUFC Player of the Year. 🏆
The Cookstown Cafu has been magnificent and enjoyed an exceptional campaign.
He played the most minutes in the Premier League for Leeds deployed in several different positions and scored 8 goals. 👏 pic.twitter.com/eXRKiTiUjt
— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) May 23, 2021
His eight goals and two assists made him a Fantasy Premier League must have, whilst 256 ball recoveries, 179 duels won, and 83.7% pass accuracy quickly made him irreplaceable in Leeds’ XI. Two finely taken goals at the Champions Manchester City saw Dallas further etch his name into Leeds folklore, with his last gasp winner capping off a Herculean effort from the Whites after Liam Cooper had earlier seen red.
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Young Player of the Season
Pascal Struijk’s development this season has been startling; thrown in to start at the last minute away at Anfield on the opening game, to quickly emerging as one of the brightest defensive prospects in Europe. Now caught in an international tug of war between Holland and Belgium, Struijk’s presence at the back alongside Spaniard Diego Llorente looks to be a very balanced and aggressive partnership.
Illan Meslier takes the crown, however. Bought for just £5 million from Lorient, the France U-21 stopper could go down as one of the best value buys in recent top-flight history. The first goalkeeper under the age of 21 to record eight clean sheets in a Premier League season, Meslier would add three more shutouts to his name, making an eye-opening 140 saves in just 35 appearances.
Confident on the ball, commanding at set-pieces and with limbs that seem to extend telescopically, Meslier has set a scarily high benchmark moving forward. A few nervy moments earlier in the season aside, a more settled defence in front of the 21-year-old could see him cement his position as one of the best young goalkeepers in world football.
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Mark Jackson had very big shoes to fill when he replaced Carlos Corberán as Leeds United U-23s boss. The Spaniard, who had taken over at Sky Bet Championship outfit Huddersfield Town, had guided a talented academy squad to the Professional Development League title just two seasons prior.
There was to be no change in success as Corberán departed however, as Jackson’s U23s side ran away with the Premier League 2 Division 2 title at the first time of asking. Captain and centre-half Charlie Cresswell, alongside former Arsenal starlet Sam Greenwood were nominated for the division’s Player of the Season award.
— Leeds United (@LUFC) May 4, 2021
Wonderkid Joe Gelhardt was snapped up by Leeds from Wigan Athletic at the start of the campaign and he, as well as former Fulham right-back Cody Drameh and dazzling Dutch winger Crysencio Summerville, look certain to be pushing for first-team starts next campaign.
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The narrative around Leeds United changed form throughout the season as rival fans and pundits desperately look to belittle the magnificent work done by Marcelo Bielsa. ‘He’s never won anything’ became ‘he needs to change his style’; ‘they’ll burnout towards the end of the season’ transformed into ‘they’ll do a Sheffield United next year’.
Forced into naming 13 different defensive units throughout the season, the eventual introduction of Spanish international Diego Llorente after numerous setbacks saw United end the season with one of the meanest defences in the latter stages of the campaign. Leeds have conceded just 12 goals in Llorente’s 15 appearances, with the ex-Real Madrid man yet to start alongside fellow new signing Robin Koch. In Llorente, Koch and Struijk, Leeds suddenly have fantastic strength in depth that, for the majority of the 20/21 season, they didn’t have.
Club record signing Rodrigo finished the season off in fine form as he was nominated for May’s Player of the Month award, netting four times and finely assisting Patrick Bamford’s opener at Southampton. After missing out on selection for the Spain squad, a full pre-season under Bielsa and the striker could play an integral part in Leeds’ second season back in the Premier League.
A specialised left-back, cover for England’s Kalvin Phillips and a marquee signing attacking midfielder are likely to be high on Director of Football Victor Orta’s shopping list. The club are also expected to finally sign Jack Harrison from Manchester City, with the three-time loanee rumoured to cost between £10m to £15m. For a player who had the joint-most goal involvements of any English midfielder this season, eight goals and eight assists alongside Jack Grealish (6G 10A), that is superb business should the deal go through.
The club’s most important signing this summer will be tying down Marcelo Bielsa to a new one-year deal. In typical Bielsa fashion, pen will only be put to paper when he is ready, but promising developments hint that it’s a matter of when, not if. For a side that narrowly missed out on European qualification, healthy investment into the squad could help Bielsa write the next story of his Elland Road fairy tale.
By Jack Douglas, stats courtesy of @LUFCDATA
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto