Perhaps it’s their status as one of England’s biggest clubs historically. Maybe it’s the undertones of trouble which followed them around for years. Others will have just harnessed their contrarianism at the way people fell in love with the beautiful chaos that was their style of play.
Whatever the reason for it, Leeds United didn’t get nearly enough credit for their marvellous return to the Premier League in 2020-21. There seemed to be a school of thought that their open approach to games held them back, when in truth it was what made them so good. In the last 15 years, only Wolves have finished higher in the table following promotion than Leeds’ ninth-place effort, and few can claim to have taken to the top flight with the kind of gay abandon that Marcelo Bielsa’s side offered up.
The Whites’ 38 Premier League games featured 116 goals, a tally bettered only by Manchester United, Leicester City and Southampton, as Bielsa employed the same swashbuckling style of play that got them promoted in 2019-20. Their first two games of the campaign finished 4-3, and the entertainment level barely dropped thereafter.
All the while they achieved great things with players most of whom were considered to be short of EPL standard. Patrick Bamford spent much of the season being pilloried for prolifigacy in the final third yet he ended with 17 goals, a tally bettered only be Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah and Bruno Fernandes.
Kalvin Phillips was barely known to the wider footballing audience at the start of the season and yet by the end of the summer he was an English hero. Only 12 outfield players in history have started every game in a major tournament for England from the first game through to the final, and Phillips is one of them having played more minutes than everyone bar Jordan Pickford and John Stones at Euro 2020.
But why did it take his achievements with England to really get him the credit he deserved for what he’d done at Elland Road? And will it be more of the same for Leeds United in 2021-22?
Again, their signings have hardly been blockbuster, but they are additions which ought to fit the Bielsa mould. Jack Harrison’s seemingly never-ending loan moves have finally come to an end with a permanent transfer, while left-back Junior Firpo’s arrival from Barcelona makes a lot of sense. There are also extra stocks in midfield with 18-year-olds Amari Miller from Birmingham City and Lewis Bate from Chelsea among those brought in while Kristoffer Klaesson ought to provide competition between the sticks for Illan Meslier after arriving from Valerenga.
There’s a chance that Leeds will never get the credit they deserve. They could again finish in the top half, provide more entertainment than the rest of the league put together and Bamford could net 35 goals, and still some people wouldn’t be happy.
But maybe the true sign of the progress they have made comes from the fact few are tipping them to go down. They’re 10/1 for relegation with Betfred, among the bottom half of candidates for the drop, and that’s reflective of the fact that after only 12 months back as a Premier League club they are already an accepted force in the top flight.
Bielsa might never win silverware with Leeds. He might even depart within the next year. Nothing is certain in the nomadic world of ‘El Loco’. But what can be guaranteed is that Leeds United will once more be well worth watching in the Premier League this season. The constant desire to be unimpressed with what they have to offer is just petty white noise.