With almost a quarter of the season played, the Premier League table is starting to take shape. Chelsea being top and Norwich City bottom will not surprise many football fans at all but eyebrows will be raised to see Leeds United, managed by Marcelo Bielsa, sitting only a single place above the drop zone.
It has been a tricky start to the campaign for Bielsa’s side, with six points on the board. They have only won once, beating fellow strugglers Watford in their most recent home game. But Saturday’s defeat at previously winless Southampton darkened the mood again at Elland Road. So what’s gone wrong with a Leeds team that finished ninth in the table last season?
Second season syndrome
Promoted teams often find it harder on their second season in the Premier League.
Leeds United were a breath of fresh air last term, with most managers having no answer to Bielsa’s unique way of asking his team to play. The Whites were free-scoring, with their haul of 62 goals more than Chelsea managed in fourth, though they were leaky at the back due to their style.
This season has been different. Leeds have only scored seven times in their eight games to date. But they are still conceding a lot, letting in on average more than two goals each match.
Bielsa’s teams almost always run out of steam eventually. The sheer amount of work he asks his players to get through often catches up with them in their legs. Leeds did not do enough in the transfer market to improve the manager’s squad options from a position of strength either.
While retaining star names such as Kalvin Phillips, Raphinha and Illan Meslier was welcome, Dan James and Junior Firpo were the only notable new faces that arrived in the summer.
Over-reliance on Phillips
There remains an over-reliance on Phillips, with Leeds United left rudderless without their key man.
Phillips, who has sometimes looked leggy after a gruelling summer with England at Euro 2020, was missing for the weekend trip to Southampton as Leeds slipped to another tame defeat.
That means they have now lost nine of the 11 matches Phillips has missed since the start of last season, taking only six points from a possible 33 when he is absent. There is no real deputy for Phillips available to Bielsa, mirroring a lack of squad depth at Leeds.
Bielsa prefers to work with a small group of trusted players, but that causes issues whenever one of his most important players like Phillips is missing.
Bamford out of form
Bamford was considered to be an outside shot to go to the Euros after thriving last term.
The striker hit an impressive 17 Premier League goals, one better than he managed the previous season in the Championship. Having long been criticised for not being clinical enough in front of goal, Bamford seemed to have resolved those long standing issues with his game.
But this campaign has been a different story. Bamford, restricted to five starts by injury, has only found the net once – and there was a stroke of luck about his equaliser in a 1-1 draw at Burnley.
Like Phillips, Bamford was not available for the Saints game. Worryingly, Bielsa was reluctant to offer a timescale for his return from an ankle problem he sustained around a month ago.
Leeds United need their main man back and firing if they are to move clear of relegation danger. Nobody other than Raphinha has scored more than once for them in the league this season.
Injury issues mounting
Phillips and Bamford are not the only vital players to have missed time for Leeds United of late.
They have particularly struggled to cope with absences at the back, perhaps explaining why they have conceded 15 goals so far. Robin Koch and Luke Ayling are among those to have been stuck on the sidelines, along with summer signing Firpo. That is three members of Leeds’ strongest back line, a list of injuries most teams in the league would find difficult to cope with.
Indeed, for some games Leeds have been without around half of their expected starters. Their bench is often filled with academy talents who have very little Premier League experience.
Leeds are not actually much worse off than last year anyway, suggesting it is too early to be hitting the panic button. At this stage in the 2020-21 season, they had already put 10 points on the board but had just suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of Crystal Palace.
Fans will retain unwavering faith in Bielsa and when they get key players like Phillips back on the pitch and Bamford back in the goals, Leeds United should start to move back up the league table.