Marching on Together – How Leeds United Side Can Build for the Premier League

Up, Down and Back Again


Since their relegation in 2004, Leeds United have often been seen as underachievers. Poor ownership, dire finances and plain old bad luck have seen them fall as far as League One, allowing their neighbours in Sheffield to take their place as the best team in Yorkshire. After a brief period of success under Marcelo Bielsa, the club were relegated to the Championship in May 2023 amidst more ownership drama. So, was that it? Was the Premier League dream over?


Thankfully for Leeds fans, adults appear to be finally running the show at Elland Road. At the end of that season, the club was taken over by 49ers Enterprises, the owners of the NFL team, whose decisions so far have been nothing but positive. On 5th July 2023, Leeds announced the appointment of two-time Championship winner Daniel Farke as their new manager. The dead wood was then removed from the first eleven and replaced with a young squad brimming with potential.


Archie Gray: Walking in Legends’ Footsteps


It took time to get started, but the results have been impressive. Leeds have lost just one Championship match since December 29, they sit third in the table — one point behind Ipswich and Leicester City — the latter having a game in hand.. The key question is, can they go all the way? Based on current form, Leicester’s slump and remaining fixtures, I’d say it’s highly likely. The next question is far more interesting. If they do get promoted to the Premier League, how do they stay there?

The Manager

Firstly, they need to make sure the manager is right. Thankfully, this is likely to be easy. Kieran McKenna & Enzo Maresca might have a higher ceiling, but Daniel Farke is proven at Championship level. A two-time division winner, we know that his brand of possession-based football gets results. Unfortunately, we’re not sure if it can go further. Farke & his style have two main issues:


Joël Piroe & Georginio Rutter: Double Trouble for Championship Defences


  • Quality – When it works it’s great, but Farke’s brand of football is reliant on quality. If his players aren’t as good as the other team, it fails.
  • Tactical inflexibility – Rather than resort to plan B, Farke prefers to do plan A better.


It’s clear that success won’t come cheap. But, in a city where murals of Marcelo Bielsa are everywhere, the club are likely to be willing to buy into the vision. Farke will be given the opportunity/backing to establish Leeds in the Premier League. So, how’s it going to look?


The System – High risk, high reward


The German manager’s belief in his tactics is uncompromising — there never was a plan B, if you want to win then you need to execute plan A better. And what is Plan A? Possession.


Farke, who almost always uses a 4-2-3-1, coaches his teams to methodically create high-quality chances by using short, high-tempo passing. This allows his teams to dominate territory and transition the game towards the opponent’s goal.


Crysencio Summerville: Leeds United’s Breakthrough Star


In possession, they achieve this by giving fullbacks license to roam forward while at least one member of the midfield double pivot drops deep to offer defensive protection, creating a 3-6-1 or 4-5-1 depending on the opposition. Then, to ensure chances mean goals, the system relies on two main elements:


  • A creative, prolific front four
  • A mobile poacher of a striker


Out of possession, full backs resume their defensive duties while at least one member of the double pivot joins the back like, creating a 5-4-1 that has proven to be defensively solid. Under Farke’s tenure, both Norwich and Leeds have ranked highly in any metrics relating to Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA), this means opponents aren’t able to make many passes in their half before the ball is recovered. 


So in a nutshell, defensive solidity combined with a possession-based, methodical approach to attacking. But who’s going to be executing it?


Which Players are Indispensable?


Leeds’ transition to the Premier League is likely to be easier than a lot of teams because they’ve retained a high number of high-quality players, most of whom are on long-term contracts. They might need to fight to keep them, but Leeds PL tenure is likely to be a lot easier if they can keep:


Wilfried Gnonto: On the Verge of a Breakout Year at Leeds


  • Archie Gray – A future star. Likely to need time to develop at CM since he’s only 18, Gray has the potential to be a mainstay for years to come.
  •  Crysensio Summerville – The star. Summerville’s 24 G/A have been pivotal. He’s likely to have plenty of suitors in the summer.
  •  Georginio Rutter – Reinvented as an attacking midfielder, Rutter has the attributes to succeed at the Premier League level.  
  •  Ethan Ampadu – An absolute bargain. Ampadu has proven to be a rock. Whether it’s anchoring midfield or playing at CB he’s done nothing but excel.
  •   Pascal Struijk – The creator. Struijk’s ability to move the ball up the pitch from CB make him one of Farke’s most pivotal players.


Potential Outgoings


Something else the team benefitted from was most of their outgoings being loans. Per Transfermarkt, the team currently has 10 players out on loan with a combined value of around £70m. Assuming they’re able to recoup 50%-60% of that, there’ll be money to spend even before the owners need to invest.


Photo: Transfermarkt


So, you’ve got money to spend and some positions on lockdown. What about the rest?


Possible Signings for Leeds


So there’s definitely some positives. At least 5 of the starting 11 are Premier League ready, the squad is filled with quality depth and there’s going to be money to spend. But where does it need to be spent? To succeed at the next level, Leeds needs to sign the following:


  1. Right Back
  2.  Left Back
  3. Centre Back
  4. Striker
  5. Goalkeeper


Right back – Kyle Walker-Peters (Southampton FC)


Given the way Farke sets his teams up, they need to be a solid passer and able to progress the ball up the field. Walker-Peters embodies each of these perfectly. The Southampton right back is currently in the top 5 for progressive carries, successful take ons and successful short passes per 90.


Kyle Walker-Peters’ Emergence at Southampton


It’s not all good. He needs to develop certain defensive aspects of his game and only had 4 G/A. But, given the nature of the Farke system and Gray’s experience as part of a back four, Leeds are uniquely placed to exploit his strengths and cover his weaknesses. On the subject of G/A, they can come from the other side of the field.


Left back – Leif Davies (Ipswich Town FC)


While he might play for another team the answer to Leeds left back issue is someone they know well. In a team that’s shocked everyone, Leif Davies has been perhaps the biggest surprise. The former Leeds academy graduate appears to be the perfect foil to KWP. While he might not be a high-volume passer (35.5 PPG, 16th amongst left backs with more than 10 appearances) he’s lethal when he does.


Davies is currently averaging 2.8 key passes per game, good for 2nd in the division, and has turned this into 15 assists, joint highest in the Championship. In a system where full backs are encouraged to be an attacking outlet and help the team dominate territory, Davies ability as a provider is likely to be highly valued.


Centre Back – Joe Rodon (Tottenham Hotspur)


Yes, I know he’s already in the building, sue me. It might not have worked at Spurs, but as a creative outlet tasked with starting attacks from the back, Rodon is flourishing. Adept as a passer (91% pas success rate, 5th amongst Centre Backs) Rodon has also proven to be a rock at the back, the pairing of him and Ethan Ampadu is yet to concede a goal from open play. If Leeds can make it permanent, they should do so asap.


Gabriel Sara: Norwich’s Brazilian Talent


Central Attacking Midfield – Gabriel Sara (Norwich City FC)


So, now Leeds is defensively solid, but who’s going to create chances? Enter an old favourite of Farke’s, Gabriel Sara. Georginio Rutter has come into his own as a no. 10. He currently leads the Championship in assists (15) and ranks highly in several categories like successful take ons and progressive carries. Unfortunately, he also leads the Championship in bad controls per 90 (4.3) and dispossessions per 90 (2.3). 


Whether this is due to the area he occupies, or his skills is anyone’s guess. But, given the level of defending in the Premier League it’s only likely to get worse. The solution? Sign someone else to play the central role and allow Rutter to isolate the opposition fullback from out wide. Easy. The man to do it? An old friend of Farke, Gabriel Sara.


Norwich’s star man has lit the division on fire this season. One of the Championship’s top performers in terms of progressive passes (3rd), goal-creating actions (3rd) and key passes (4th). He’s proven to be equally accomplished as both a scorer and creator with 21 G/A. If Leeds can sign him then a front 3 of Sara, Summerville and Rutter should light the Championship on fire.


Striker – Thijs Dallinga (Toulouse FC)


Leeds’ squad might be brimming with talent, but they have a striker problem. Patrick Bamford can’t stay fit, Georginio Rutter is better as a no. 10 and Joel Piroe might not be PL quality. The solution lies in France.


Thijs Dallinga: A Box Office Forward


Still only 23, Dallinga is currently running rampant for newly promoted Toulouse, bagging 11 goals so far. While his accuracy needs work (41.9% of his shots are on target) his conversion rate of 42.3% is broadly in line with Farke favourite Teemu Pukki during Norwich’s two seasons in the Premier League.


While Dallinga might take time to adapt, the presence of Bamford makes life a lot easier. Dallinga can give Bamford the appropriate rest required to ensure he stays fit while Bamford’s availability offers the patience necessary to allow Dallinga to develop.


Goalkeeper – Elia Caprile (Empoli)


One that’s not an immediate priority but perhaps needs an upgrade. Ilan Meslier has never truly convinced anyone that he’s a PL level shot-stopper, conceding the most goals in the Premier League in each of his last two seasons. Whether due to Bielsa’s style of play or poor quality defending, he was never dealt a fair hand during his spell in England’s top-flight.


Now that he’s part of a team that’s defensively solid he leads the Championship with 18 clean sheets, so he probably deserves a shot. However, someone should be brought in to compete with Meslier. That man is Elia Caprile. Still only 22, Caprile has played 14 times for Serie A strugglers Empoli. He struggles to keep clean sheets (3) but boasts the 6th highest save percentage in the division (78.8%) and has conceded the 9th fewest goals per 90 mins in Serie A (1.14). Leeds might have to make an attractive offer to tempt him away from Napoli but at 22 he could make the position his own for at least a decade.


By: Kieran Alder / @The_Own_Goal

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Robbie Stephenson – PA Images