Spying on Leeds United: 5 players to watch out for

Leeds Promotion celebrations
Leeds Promotion celebrations

Abiha Khan investigates Leeds United’s incoming Premier League squad. As the recently promoted West Yorkshire powerhouse go from spying to flying, she scouts their star players and the weaknesses that could put them at risk in the English top-flight.

Leeds United had one wish: a return to the Premier League after 16 painful years away. The answer to West Yorkshire’s prayers came in the form of manager Marcelo Bielsa. After narrowly missing promotion last year, the Argentine’s aggressive and high-pressing style sent The Whites soaring to the top of the table. Not even Leeds’s fans could quite believe this miracle.

Leeds are used to being under the football spotlight, be it financial freefall, their infamous dirty play, or the intense loyalty of their city-wide fanbase. Their proud fighting spirit sets them apart and they will be plotting their legacy akin to their rival Sheffield United’s success. With a lack of European tournaments, Bielsa’s powerful ‘murderball’ – enviable energy, brutal work-rate and non-stop running – will make Leeds players the perfect choice for a high scoring Fantasy Premier League season. Although fresh signings are required, they have a strong core of players who are more than capable of rising to the challenge.

Tyler Roberts – Attacking midfielder

Tyler Roberts

The 21-year-old has the versatility to adapt to the wing or as a centre-forward, and he’s found his feet this season with his precise and clinical ability in the final third. His star quality was most evident in his MOTM performance against Hull, just before lockdown, where Roberts came on as a 67th minute substitute for striker Patrick Bamford and scored the last two winning goals.

However, Leeds have suffered with injuries and Roberts is no exception to this. Bielsa will be keen to adapt his ‘murderball’ technique to ensure key players like Roberts can thrive in the top-flight without the threat of injury.

In terms of goal-scoring, Leeds can’t rely on Bamford’s clinical ability, with a shocking 33 chances missed this season, and more shots off target than any player in the Championship since 2012.  Therefore, they need to buy a strong striker who can translate the team’s high chance turnover.

Until this happens however, Bielsa could allow Roberts to step in as the main striker while swapping Bamford for the attacking midfielder position.

Pablo Hernandez – Attacking midfielder

Most non-Leeds fans will be familiar with the magician Pablo, or as ex-Leeds translator Salim Lamrani hails him, “the brain” of the team. Pablo is Leeds’s play-making answer to Santi Cazorla or David Silva.

At 35 years of age, Pablo may not feature much when Leeds return to the Premier League. But, there is no denying his winning form and fitness, as ‘Player of the Year’ Pablo has the highest points-per-game average of any Championship player to have played 1500+ minutes this season. He’s a main reason for Leeds’s promotion, creating the most chances per game (2.3) and generating the second most chances for the club (82) after Jack Harrison (87). His influence on Leeds is undeniable, and finding his replacement will be tricky.

No Pablo, no party.

Mateusz Klich – Midfielder

Klich works tirelessly for the team, having played a whopping 45 out of 46 games this season with 92 consecutive games under his belt. Rumour has it he missed his only game of the season – the guard of honour Derby game – with a hangover. In fact, Leeds Managing Director Angus Kinnear wrote in his programme notes ahead of the final game against Charlton: “We should all be very grateful that Klich can play football better than he can drink.”

With his insane track-record, not only is he destined to start every game next season, but the midfielder is effortless in his ability to perform highly amongst defensive figures. With 254 ball recoveries, 178 duels won, and the third-most tackles won per game for Leeds this season, Klich epitomises a true Leeds warrior and is integral to the Bielsa’s ‘murderball’ system. Only tricky-Pablo made more passes in the final third than Klich.

Not only has Klich proven his success at Leeds, but Poland boss Jerzy Brzęczek awarded him with a call-up to the national team after a four-year exile.

Klich is definitely one-to-watch in the Premier League next season.

Kalvin Phillips – Defensive midfielder

Kalvin Phillips celebrates goal

The Leeds-born midfielder has been the glue that binds the team with his dominating performances and merciless style of play. Kalvin is Bielsa’s second-best success story, after the promotion of course, as the most improved player at the club.

Before Bielsa’s arrival, Kalvin was a lost puppy with more errors in him than sense – it was hard to the midfielder going far. However, with Bielsa’s man-management, Kalvin has transformed into a fantastic defensive midfielder, integral for promotion with his key ability to win the ball back and provide for Leeds’ creative and attacking players.

Kalvin will be desperate to prove his ability in the Premier League. If he succeeds, he has a chance for a place in the England set-up, especially as a central-defensive midfielder, where the national side is currently lacking. Ultimately, Kalvin is Leeds through and through, and some view him as their key to future success.

Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas – Full backs

Last season, Leeds had the most clean sheets (22) and the least goals conceded (35) in the Championship. To maintain this excellent defensive record in the Premier League, Leeds full-backs Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas will have their hands full coming up against the likes of Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling and Adama Traore.

Offensively, Dallas has created 43 chances in 45 appearances, with Ayling managing a close 29 in 37. It seems however that Ayling edges it as the stand-out full-back due to his leadership, ‘big-game player’ persona and effective versatility – providing both vital goals and assists.  

A fan-favourite, Ayling has led the team through difficult moments in the year, notably confronting the camera after the Nottingham Forest 2-0 defeat. Not only does it seem Ayling is destined to become a future Leeds captain, but he brings a package of talent suitable for the Premier League.

Leeds United – a new dawn

Whatever your opinion on Leeds United as a football club, there’s no denying their seat at the top table has been vacant for too long, and with Bielsa at the helm, football fans will be eager to see how The Peacocks faire next season.

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Behind closed doors: football is nothing without fans

Stretford End

Stretford End

Abiha Khan assesses Jock Stein’s iconic phrase ‘football without the fans is nothing’ in light of the game restarting behind closed doors. The empty stadia will impact clubs up and down the English league system, but is there any joy in stripping football back to basics?

Football has returned in England, pubs have re-opened and justice seems to have been restored. But is it the same without fans in the stadium? There is something rather unsettling about a game behind closed doors, the stadium filled with the ghostly sounds of past fans echoing into the chambers and the uncanny faces stuck on empty seats. The strangeness, however, is counteracted by a comforting familiarity of the game we love most. After three long months, there is finally a sense of normality. While we cannot join hands with our community of fans and share our emotions, we have a chance to watch pure technical ability and to tune in for the art of football with no other distractions.

You are probably sick of hearing the phrase “football without the fans is nothing”, but it could not be more true at the moment. It’s a phrase we hear a lot concerning the commercialisation of football as the price of being a supporter continues to rise. Football seems to have become less about the needs of fans and more about the club’s financial highs.

If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that you cannot prepare for the future and this could change football as we know it. At present, games behind closed doors are a short-term fix to fulfil broadcast obligations and conclude the competition. The lack of fans and spectatorship have led to an inevitable financial impact on clubs and their neighbouring communities. We all know the hit that local businesses in Upton Park took when West Ham moved from the Boleyn Ground to the London Stadium. Now imagine that impact for every single club across the country. KPMG has estimated a €1.25billion hit for the Premier League, with the 48 clubs in League One and League Two losing £50million. Smaller football leagues – arguably with the most loyal and community-driven fans – may be wiped out before the next season even starts.

But this is not the Premier League’s first financial decline. Before the intrusion of television and the gradual commercialisation which turned the game into a business, by the early 1990s football was in crisis. After the golden post-war years where football was soaring with popularity, by the 70s we could hardly afford any improvements and suddenly our top British players sought after other European leagues.  It was no longer about fan loyalty or triumphing a derby – clubs did whatever they could to financially survive with little regard for their fans. We seem to be back there again. While the iconic 1993 Sky Television deal turned English football into the big, multi-million business, the future of football is at stake as clubs will tread carefully with corporate spending, sponsorships will be scarce and the average fan will not be able to afford a membership following a nationwide recession.

While we wait for normality, the economic penalties are such that by the time stadiums re-open their doors, there may be nobody there on the field to watch or worth watching. Fans are fundamental to igniting the player’s energy and spirits. Post-lockdown, we can see the form of our greatest players has taken a hit after two months out of action. While some players may feel more relaxed without the pressure of a roaring crowd, others will be struggling to amplify their action without the main event’s atmosphere. Can the clubs afford to have their world-class players freeze in big games without the support of spectatorship? Boards must realise that ‘football without fans is nothing’ and will need to put the fans and local communities at the heart of their decisions for their clubs to survive. As Jock Stein famously said, ‘Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that. The only chance of bringing them into stadiums is if they are entertained by what happens on the football field.’ All businesses are at risk, and football is not immune to that.

Jock Stein
Jock Stein, Schiphol Airport, 9th March 1971

I love that it no longer matters if you have enough money for a match ticket or enough time to travel, football seems to now be more accessible for all fans as it should be. Before lockdown, one cannot deny the secret hierarchy among fans where the ‘best fans’ and the ‘most devoted’ were known as the ones who travelled home and away with their team. The fans who built their schedule around their loyalty to the club.  These fans would argue that those who only watch on television are, in some cases, not true fans at all. This hierarchy has made football wholly inaccessible for the majority of fans who are devoted to their club. Pubs may have re-opened but most of us are still isolating and watching from our sofas. Stripping football back to basics has allowed fans to remember why they tune in for games in the first place. We have a glorious chance to watch the football, purely for football.

If the spread of COVID-19 remains low, the Government plans to bring audiences back in stadia from October 1st. For now, fans will have to be further away from their teams than they would like and that is a sacrifice that will have to be made. Sure, football was not in any way important as the country battled with a pandemic, but the void of football added to a sense of loneliness, a loss of routine and further alienation from your community. While some would rather abandon games altogether than have them behind closed doors, the majority of fans see football as their lifeline and will not resist the urge to watch their team. We have to adapt and appreciate the fact we have football on our screens.

Moving forwards, in the ‘new normal’, it would be great to see the interests of the fans take centre stage. Clubs must reward the loyalty of their fans with more affordable ticketing and innovative and accessible viewing strategies for all. It is time to bring the players and fans closer together and to re-ignite the unity. As Gary Neville concludes, “Football needs to check itself. […] It is more than just a game. It is about a community and we need to ensure we are doing all we can not to price fans out of the game”.

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