As the Premier League season slowly petered out towards its conclusion, one of the less remarked upon stories was the ninth placed finish of Leeds United.
As the battle for the top four continued, and Sheffield United, West Brom and Fulham were progressively relegated, mighty Leeds’ superb run of end of season form went slightly under the radar.
With a run of four successive victories, against Tottenham Hotspur, Burnley, Southampton and West Brom in turn, Leeds surged towards the finish line, the culmination of a season where they have not only held their own in England’s top division but proven their ability to compete with the very best. And a large part of this ability has been down to the management of Marcelo Bielsa.
Since taking the helm at Leeds in 2018, Bielsa has revitalised the club, turning them from Championship also-rans into Premier League contenders within three seasons, returning the club to something of their former glory.
Despite having seen the club promoted in the 2019-2020 season, however, I would argue that this has been Bielsa’s most successful season to date.
At the start of the season, very few people expected a ninth-place finish to be in the offing. Some adequate business had been done in the transfer market, with Rodrigo, Raphinha and Robin Koch brought in for quite large sums of money, but this was still very much a Championship squad.
Although players like Patrick Bamford, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas had all proved their worth in the Championship, none of them had any significant or successful Premier League experience. In the case of Ayling and captain Liam Cooper, many saw them as mid-range Championship players prior to Bielsa’s arrival, and few saw any chance of them rising to the heights achieved by Leeds in the last couple of years.
But Bielsa has blown these expectations out of the water.
His fluid, high energy style is something relatively unique in Premier League history, and managers have struggled to deal with it. Lining up in a formation, if you can call it that, that seems to be a cross between 4-1-4-1 and 3-3-1-3, few managers have been able to come up a system that can combat Leeds. At any moment, centre-back Ayling can appear on the right-wing, joining a counter-attack intended to be quick, ruthless and effective.
The success of Leeds is in this rapidity, as a clever through ball or even a seemingly aimless punt up the pitch suddenly creates space for one of their forward players to break through the lines. Supported by a charging, supremely-fit arsenal of players, even the best teams have struggled to deal with Leeds’ tactics, let alone the players carrying them out.
Their 2-1 victory over Manchester City was a case in point, as, despite going down to ten men, they maintained their relentless attacking system, with a late Dallas goal succumbing a City side that have largely reigned supreme this season.
This therefore has led many of the Leeds players to perhaps play above their level, while also bringing the most exciting football the Premier League has seen in a number of years.
A large reason for this excitement is in the fact that Leeds are able to maintain this high-octane football throughout the season, as they have at no point slowed down due to fatigue.
In the past Bielsa’s sides have been accused of falling off towards the end of the season, a trait described as ‘Bielsa burnout’. However, with the prolonged time that Bielsa has spent at the club, more than at any other club side he has managed, has meant that he has seemingly honed his players into becoming such perfect athletes that they are able to maintain such high levels of intensity throughout the season.
It this therefore this combination of tactics, conditioning and excitement that has boosted players such as Patrick Bamford to score 17 goals this season, and, in my eyes, makes Bielsa the manager of the season.
Very simply, no other manager in the Premier League could have taken the Leeds United team that Bielsa picked up in 2018 and turned them into a mid-table Premier Leage side. He has not achieved this through stolid, defensive football, but instead his team create excitement in every Premier League game.
Brendan Rodgers and Pep Guardiola have also achieved outstanding things this season, but they simply have not done so with the same amount of verve, excitement, and unpredictability as Bielsa’s Leeds.
There is speculation that Bielsa will soon be signing a new contract, news that will be music to the ears of Leeds fans, and further proof that this is the club with whom Bielsa has formed a special relationship, perhaps above all others.