Can Leeds Stay the Distance and Claim Promotion?

Under Marco Bielsa, Leeds United have started the season strongly, deservedly occupying the top positions for the bulk of the opening weeks. However, there is still no room for complacency, with Sheffield United, West Brom and Middlesbrough standing as Leeds’ likeliest bars to automatic promotion.

In strictly numerical terms, Bielsa’s men have an obvious target in the short term, and their counter-attacking brand of football should see them achieve it. Tellingly, each of the last eight Championship teams to achieve automatic promotion to the Premier League have done so after scoring at least 29 points by the first weekend of November.

Leeds have every conceivable chance of reaching this sacred target. If they are to achieve it, the general belief is that they will do so by closing out October with two vital – but eminently winnable – home games, against Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest, after a trip to Blackburn.

Horrible histories hurt hopeful aura

Even if Leeds fall just short of said mark, a tally of 23 points before the October international break is usually a good one, at least in the context of staying alive within the promotion race until the very end. This is reflected more empirically by the latest Championship outright index seen here, which has Leeds down as third-favourites to win the title in addition to sealing promotion.

Encouraging though that is to see, Leeds teams have developed a habit of starting seasons vigorously before fading away after Christmas. Last season was another addition to the litany of disappointments after a flying start. Under Thomas Christiansen, the Whites took 17 points from the first 21 available and kept six clean sheets in a row. After a 1-0 defeat at rivals Millwall on 16 September, Leeds won two and lost six of the following eight matches.

That sequence gave the Whites a tally of just 23 points after 15 games and put them at a very real disadvantage in the excuse of a race for an automatic promotion that would ensue. While a good run in December kept Leeds’ hopes alive, a horrendous run of 11 defeats and just four wins after the New Year finally saw Christiansen lose his job.

Marco, the maverick magician

After a strong start, the Whites finished a whole 30 points behind the second automatic promotion spot. Current projections imply that Leeds will almost certainly beat the points tally they had going into November last year, providing them with more momentum than ever before. If those projections are to be realised, then the presence of Bielsa on the touchline will be a crucial factor.

There can be no denying that Biesla’s touchline passion, though excessive on occasion, is a unique selling point in a league where the reserved and the frantic mix. While Bielsa is perhaps closer to the latter category, his passion is not without purpose. There is a genuine sense of mutual respect in the Elland Road dressing room, and it the sort that bears broad similarities to Leeds’ other promotion rivals.

Captain Cooper’s collectivism creates Championship chance

Positive and pragmatic leadership on the touchline is essential, but so too is the presence of a captain who would willingly die for the white shirt.

Admittedly, captain Liam Cooper had a day to forget in his last game before the international break, with his mistake directly causing Brentford’s equaliser in a disappointing 1-1 draw at Elland Road. However, his leadership is crucial to establishing good structural play on the pitch, and this is evidenced by the 7.76 average rating he boasted prior to his aberration against the Bees.

Cooper’s rate of clearances per game, and win rate per challenge, also compares favourably to other defensive captains in the division. Bielsa has also given Cooper license to roam forward, and while this is never a move without risk, Cooper has thrived more often than not under Bielsa’s approach. The captain himself has also moved to praise other teammates, particularly lauding Tyler Roberts after Leeds’ win at Yorkshire rivals Hull.

Roofe/Roberts relationship revealed as real deal

As of the October international break, Roberts is, in fact, the only recognised striker in the Leeds squad to have scored. While this reliance on the young Roberts as a focal point is not to every Leeds fan’s taste, it matters little as long as Kemar Roofe is behind him. On occasion, they have looked as dynamic as Dele Alli and Harry Kane, leaving opposition defences baffled.

With Roofe himself chipping in with four goals before the October international break, the signs are encouraging in Leeds’ final third. Ultimately, all the components needed for a strong challenge at the top are there.

While injuries may yet play their part, especially when the festive fixtures start to pile up, the fact remains that nobody will particularly relish a trip to Elland Road from here onwards. For now, however, all eyes will be on Leeds’ performance at Ewood Park immediately after the international break. Three points there will, unquestionably, see Bielsa’s men enjoy drastically shortened odds.

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