In this pre-season mini-series focusing on the promoted teams' FPL options, FPL Stag kicks us off looking at the 19/20 Championship winners, Leeds United.
After a 16 year hiatus from the top flight, Leeds United have returned to a level which matches their reputation, history and fanbase. Much of this period was turbulent as financial meltdown loomed and Leeds even briefly found themselves in League One, all the while the club went through managers at a rate noteworthy even by Watford standards. However, the much heralded arrival of Marcelo Bielsa proved to be a turning point for the club and they were promoted as champions in his second season at the helm.
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An opening run with no shortage of stern tests though there are at least two games in this group where a win will be the objective.
Leed's 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Arsenal in January 2020 is worth bearing in mind. Leeds dominated possession against a strong Arsenal XI (59%) and the Whites created a flurry of first half chances with Patrick Bamford hitting the bar. They certainly didn't approach the game as an ordinary non-top six side - not to mind a championship side – would. Mikel Arteta described the challenge posed by Leeds as a “nightmare” and suggesting it was like going to the dentist. Liverpool may have to work a lot harder than their 5-1 defeat of Norwich in Gameweek 1 last term to allow Jurgen Klopp to safely unleash his trademark toothy grin!
Play style and FPL prospects
When managers and commentators discuss Leeds' style, one word emerges again and again; “pressing”. The continuous physical exertion required by Marcelo Bielsa of his players is unlike almost anything you will see in world football. No side in the Championship OR Europe's top five leagues allowed their opponent less passes per defensive action (ie. Tackle, block, interception) than Leeds in 2019/20 (6.43). Another seldom quoted statistic also emphasises Leeds' pressing; Leeds' “challenge intensity”, a metric based on the number of challenges and interceptions made by a defending team per minute of opponent ball possession, of 8.9 is again superior to every club in Europe's top five leagues and the Championship. For reference, the Premier League's best in this category are Leicester and Southampton (6.9 each). Mateusz Klich suggested that working under Bielsa entails “tactics, tactics, tactics and fitness” - it shows.
Leeds' pressing has translated into a strong defensive record overall and they conceded just 35 goals all season from an xGC of 35 – no Championship side bested either of these figures. They kept 22 clean sheets (13 at Elland Road), one more than Sheffield United had in their promotion season. There are (of course) inherent issues with comparing records of promoted teams and attempting to translate their numbers into Premier League projections, however a good record is more reassuring than a bad one! One accusation often levelled against pressing sides is that when their press is actually breached by an opponent, the system crashes and good opportunities are conceded. This is the sort of thing which happens to Liverpool and Man City, who conceded an xGC per shot of 0.105 and 0.134 in the PL last term. In Championship action, Leeds managed to avoid this fate and limited xGC to 0.04 per shot by opponents. Through a completely different style, Burnley similarly stop opponents getting good quality chances (0.09). One expects that higher quality opposition will be able to pick holes in the Leeds press more frequently and punish it to greater effect, but it will be interesting to see just how well Leeds' defence can do.
Illan Meslier (£4.5m) should be the man in nets for the Whites come Gameweek 1. He took over from former Real Madrid man Kiko Casilla towards the tail end of the last campaign after the Spaniard was involved in an unsavoury incident which led to him being dropped. In 10 outings towards the end of the season, he recorded seven clean sheets. No shot stopper who played more than 90 minutes had a better save percentage (84%). Given Leeds' tough early run, I wouldn't consider him for a GW1 team but he may come into consideration after Gameweek 5. 8-12 clean sheets seems like an attainable figure for him and if Leeds can continue to keep the quality of the shots they concede down, Meslier should be well placed to pick up BAPs and save points while getting those clean sheets like Nick Pope does at Burnley.