Every week for the last two months Pablo Hernandez, the Spanish elder statesman of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United team, has taken to Instagram after the game to post a triumphant fist emoji and +3 points. And after that the hordes of Leeds fans who spend their time either online or at games head over to the Championship table and look at the form guide - seven consecutive wins now - and the placing, currently leading the way with West Brom a single goal behind. And then we sit and just feel good about where we are.
Ok, I own up, I’m not speaking for all Leeds followers, just myself. As a lifelong fan this is what happens: I enjoy the moment. I try not to get involved with predictions because we’ve been here before for the last four years. Right now it feels great being a Leeds fan, far more so than last year because, to be honest, I didn’t think we’d be doing as well as we are.
The reasons are simple. Last year we failed to get promoted for four reasons. Not enough experienced cover at centre back, not getting the Daniel James transfer finished, Bielsa not resting key players and failing to utilise quality subs in the last eight games, and keeper Kiko Casilla clattering into Liam Cooper’s airspace, allowing Derby to slip through and equalise in the second leg of the play-offs. I felt it just wouldn’t happen again.
Samuel Saiz, our brightest spark, was long since gone back to Spain. Kemar Roofe, our smart, acute goal scorer, had joined Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht. And, most shockingly, fans favourite and World Cup quarter-finalist Pontus Jansson had taken his blood and thunder centre-back passion to Brentford of all places.
It was this last departure that worried me most. We started the season with just two first team centre-backs. To replace Pontus, Leeds brought in a kid on loan from Brighton who they’d seen at Newport County last year. The kid had never played above League One before. It seemed like madness.
His name is Ben White; remember reading it now because there’s a very good chance he’ll play for England at the next World Cup and be gracing the Champions League stage before then. The last time I saw an unheralded English player so self-assured and talented at Elland Road was Fabian Delph when we were in League 1, and we’ve had some very good homegrown talent like Lewis Cook, Kalvin Phillips and Jack Clarke since then.
White is something else. He plays like a top class, ball-playing, centre-back but also endeavours to block everything. Despite being only 22 he has maturity beyond his years. With an in-form Casilla behind him and experienced defenders Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Gaetano Berardi and Stuart Dallas around him, White makes up a significant part of the tightest defence in English football.
Last year Bielsa wanted to play teams to death, this year he’s become more resilient, with some people having mentioned George Graham’s time at Arsenal in comparison. We still dominate possession, we still largely play the same team week after week unless injury or suspension dictates, but clean sheets have been added as imperative targets. We have 11 so far.
Defend strong and hit them on the break; that’s the programme, and, as James Milner told The Sportsman recently, it’s a style very close to Champions League winners Liverpool. Last week against Hull City, Patrick Bamford cleared a ball off his own line and, as Polish international Matteus Klich charged forward down the right wing on the counter-attack, Bamford made up the yards to be at the other end of the ground seconds later and hammered a shot without breaking stride against the Hull goalpost. The follow-up was smashed in by goal-scoring Macedonian madman Gjanni Alioski.
Two things are important about this break. One: Bamford is by no means the fastest runner in that team, there are much younger and speedier legs around, but he wants to score. Secondly, this end-to-end break which sealed a two-goal winning lead took place in the 88th minute.
The current Leeds team are even leaner, fitter and hungrier than last year. They’ve become attuned to Bielsa’s expectation and they wear it well. Bielsa likes players like Ayling, Dallas and Berardi - men with personality and character. But he also likes workers and athletes like Alioski, Man City loanee Jack Harrison, Klich and Dallas. Men who will give you everything. Add to this the ambition, energy and skills of the likes of new signing Helder Costa from Wolves, bright young Leeds thing Jamie Shackleton (currently out injured), Arsenal whizkid Eddie Nketiah and Tyler Roberts, another goal scorer with real potential if he can stay fit, and you have a very well balanced set-up. They come from all over the place, but the blend of nationalities, ages and skills works very well.
The aforementioned Hernandez and Kalvin Phillips are the cream. Hernandez is a top, top player at this level, a man with a very good career behind him, and in turn Phillips is a player with it all ahead of him. Many think he could contend for England’s defensive-midfield berth once he plays in a Premiership team. Manchester United have reportedly been looking at both him and White, and Aston Villa have already had a £20million-plus offer turned down. But hopefully he’ll play in the top flight in white, not red, or claret and blue.
One beaten opposition manager recently said of our players: “Leeds think as one brain.” And when the brain is Marcelo Bielsa’s, we fans have every right to enjoy each game as it comes. Are we going up this time? We’ll deal with that in May.