Leeds United have had a rough time since being relegated from the Premier League in the 2003/04 season having spent 5 seasons competing in European football, including a Champions League semi-final appearance prior to the drop. Since then they dropped into League 1 where they spent three seasons before being promoted back to the Championship. Having spent the next decade in the Championship, it began to feel like they’d never leave.
Then came Marcelo Bielsa, also known as El Loco. The Argentine is considered one of the most influential and impressive coaches with an incredible attention to detail and work ethic. His CV isn’t the most impressive at first glance but reading about Bielsa you can understand how it doesn’t tell the full story.
Now they’re back. Back to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years. In this article we’re going to assess the areas of the squad that could do with reinforcements or replacements, suggesting three players per position. We wrote a similar piece on Ajax which you can read here.
Bielsa’s Leeds played some of the best football the Championship has seen in a long time. They dominate the ball but not for possession’s sake and play with a high tempo you rarely see in teams with 60%+ possession. They’re quick in attack, always looking to play forwards, each player usually only taking 1-3 touches before shifting the ball. Their players carry into space but don’t tend to take on defenders that often, completing the 5th least dribbles in the league when accounting for possession.
They setup primarily in a 4-1-4-1 which becomes a 3-1-3-3 or 3-3-1-3 in possession. Leeds use a lot of width, they were the most wing dominant team in the league with 80% of attacks coming down the wings and averaging the most crosses (26 per game). One of the standout abilities of Leeds is how they play through scenarios on the wing like 3v3s, 4v4s and 4v3s. Where most teams struggle and slow down, Leeds are excellent at beating these situations and carrying on towards goal.
This is one of the many reasons you can see that they are a very well-coached team. They use patterns and combination play to progress the ball, with players constantly rotating, and they have constant runners and options on the ball, making ball progression look easy. Their midfielders drift wide to support the wings or make forward runs into the box and make it difficult to defend crosses.
They’re also not afraid to go long and are good at building from the back, attracting pressure and then going long into space. They’re lethal on the counter, with the most goals on the break in the league, and create high quality chances with the lowest proportion of shots coming from outside the box.
The high intensity they play with in possession is matched when the opposition have the ball. They press and counter-press aggressively, not allowing the opposition any time on the ball and are excellent at not allowing the opponent to play the way they want to and winning possession back quickly after losing it.
You can read one of our match analyses of Leeds below. The key fundamentals of their play are intensity, playing direct and with width, off the ball movement, combinations and pressing.
Areas That Need Strengthening
Promoted teams tend to keep hold of their players so we don’t have to worry about their current squad leaving, other than Ben White who was on loan from Brighton. Jack Harrison was also on loan but has signed for another season. Therefore we identified four positions that could do with strengthening or more depth.
- Centre Forward – backup and competition for Bamford
- Left Wing – another winger to add depth and competition
- Centre Midfield – competition and to possibly strengthen, potentially to replace Pablo Hernandez eventually
- Centre Back – Replacement for Ben White if he can’t be brought back in
We also think that adding depth at defensive midfield would be beneficial but without wanting to make too many signings we wanted to look at centre backs or centre midfielders who can also cover Phillips.
When doing this piece a huge consideration to make is that this isn’t an ordinary manager you are talking about. Bielsa is extremely loyal to those players he trusts and those who got him up. It’s more squad options that Bielsa will want, and those who a few months into the season are pushing into the first team with strong sub and U23 appearances, apart from the right centre back. Only when he fully trusts that they understand his system and demands will they begin starting for him. Most of these players have played under him for two seasons, he trusts them and they know the system perfectly. To bring in several new players and expect them to start would ruin the system and harm their play.
We are mostly looking at young players who won’t be expecting loads of minutes and also don’t need to make an immediate impact but will be expected to learn and grow into the season.
Right Sided Centre Back
The Leeds centre backs need to be comfortable playing in a high line and playing on the front foot to press out into midfield. They need to be comfortable on the ball with a good range of passing. They keep a deep position in buildup and don’t face much pressure but need to be able to play forwards. Being able to offer depth at defensive midfield is a plus also. They don’t face that many aerial duels but of course should still be good physically and in the air.
Need to have a high work rate and stamina. They need to be able to drift wide to help the wingers and be problem solvers. Should be good at breaking lines with their first touch, playing forwards and carrying into space. Will need to make late runs into the box and make runs off the striker. They need to play with a high tempo and be direct, taking only a few touches and not spending a lot of time on the ball. Crossing from deep positions in the half spaces and being able to switch the play are useful. Out of possession they need good concentration, work rate and pressing ability to man mark and counter press. Being able to cover at defensive midfield is useful.
The winger needs high work rate to be able to track back when needed and the willingness to. They need good movement to link with their full back and centre midfielders, able to play combinations and passes into the box as well as making runs into the box themselves. Crossing and the ability to find or create space are also very good. Will largely maintain a wide position but should be able to attack the back post and bring more of a goal threat than the current options.
Bamford only averaged 15 passes a game so doesn’t get the ball too much, but should be able to hold up play, be solid in the air and play layoffs to runners from midfield. Needs to have good, intelligent movement in the box and to get behind the defensive line. Needs to be able to deal with long balls and low crosses. Bamford stays central throughout the game and needs to be an intelligent presser with good work rate and stamina.
1. Juan Foyth – Tottenham Hotspur
Foyth is a 22-year-old Argentinian international who has been used sporadically at both right-back and centre-back for Tottenham, struggling for regular first-team football since 2017. He suffered injuries at both the start and end of last season but does not seem to be in Mourinho’s plans even when fit, playing only 65 minutes of league football and making just 3 starts in all competitions.
He is an intelligent defender with a good understanding of the game that compensates for his lack of physicality and allows him to perform well in 1v1 situations. He is not particularly aggressive and can be beaten too easily in the air but he anticipates well and reacts quickly to make important interceptions. He has a calm playing style in possession, speaking when he joined Tottenham of how he likes to ‘bring the ball out’ from the back which is reflected in his ability to beat the initial press and play accurate progressive passes.
Leeds have been strongly linked to Foyth throughout the summer and the move makes a lot of sense for a player with Premier League experience who is also a compatriot of Bielsa. Comfortable on the ball and able to read the game well, he is stylistically similar to Ben White in possessing qualities that are essential to implementing Bielsa’s philosophy. A loan would be cost-efficient and could allow their transfer budget to be allocated elsewhere as they look to assemble a squad of Premier League quality.
Estimated worth: £12.000.000 – £15.000.000 (potential loan with option to buy)
2. Joe Rodon – Swansea City
Rodon has been at Swansea since the age of 8 and, with Swansea losing to Brentford in the play-off semi-finals, the 22-year-old may be thinking now is the time to move on in order to play Premier League football. He looks ready to play at that level, impressing in the centre of defence in an albeit injury-plagued season that saw him make his international debut for Wales. His injury record is a concern and he has missed a lot of football over the last two seasons, but a fully fit Rodon is a strong leader at the back and a player with a defensive skill set that is well-suited to the Premier League.
A tall, strong centre-back who excels in physical duels, Rodon likes to defend aggressively and use his 6’4 frame to dominate opponents both aerially and in ground duels. He is very confident on the ball and is a strong passer, comfortable playing vertical progressive passes or long diagonals in a side that likes to play out from the back.
Leeds would benefit from his physicality and his ability with the ball at his feet is well-suited to Bielsa’s system. He doesn’t have the covering pace of Ben White but he is stronger in the air which would be very important given Leeds’ struggles from set-pieces last season. His aggressive style and ability to intercept the ball high up the pitch would work well in a team that likes to create overloads and attack with pace.
Estimated worth: £15.000.000 – £18.000.000
3. Amos Pieper – Arminia Bielefeld
Pieper is a 22-year-old Borussia Dortmund academy product who joined Arminia Bielefeld in January 2019 having been at Dortmund since the age of 12. Arminia have enjoyed a remarkably similar season to Leeds, being promoted to the Bundesliga as winners of the second division in a dominant campaign that saw them score the most goals in the league whilst conceding the least.
As you would expect from someone with a Dortmund education he stands out for his confidence on the ball, showing good press resistance and accuracy with his long passing in a possession-based system that sees him take on a lot of ball-playing responsibility. He is not the most physical centre-back but he is very athletic and has good positional awareness, a combination that often sees him make impressive last-ditch blocks and tackles.
Pieper is not as involved as White is defensively but when he is it often comes at very important times. He has a very similar style of play in possession, although could be slightly braver with his passing choices. He is an intelligent and mature player that would improve a lot under Bielsa’s coaching methods and would be a cheaper alternative to the other options, although would be a slight risk having never played in England before.
Estimated worth: £4.000.000 – £7.000.000
1. Emi Buendia – Norwich City
Buendia could be a very appropriate Pablo Hernandez replacement for Leeds. He’s versatile, creative and proven at Premier League level despite his relegation with Norwich. Buendia averaged 3.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 in the Premier League, the highest out of wingers and 10s. He also ranks in the 97th percentile for pressures across the top five leagues for his position.
An excellent dribbler with great ball mastery, Buendia a creative force with excellent chance creation for the worst team in the league. He’s explosive and direct, able to get the ball into the box and put teammates into dangerous positions.
He also brings important versatility, able to play on the wings or as a 10, and we also believe he’d be a more than competent centre midfielder in this system, allowed to run into the box and drift wide to help the attacks. Leeds would have to beat some big competitors for the Argentine and he would be an expensive signing but a big statement of intent and he would be an excellent addition to their squad.
Estimated Price: £20,000,000 – £25,000,000
2. Conor Gallagher – Chelsea
The Chelsea academy graduate proved himself at Championship level last season with two successful loans, first to Charlton and then to playoff semi-finalists Swansea. The 20 year old is unlikely to be able to get into the Chelsea squad with the current quality they have and another loan move is surely on the horizon, ideally to a Premier League side.
The midfielder was a goal threat at Charlton and their standout player despite only being 19 at the time. At Swansea he was more of a creator with 6 assists in 21 games, showing his versatility and broad skillset. A loan to Leeds would be an excellent development loan for the youngster, he may not be a regular starter, to begin with at least, but would add good competition.
The former England youth captain is an exciting player who always wants to go forwards and try something. He can lose the ball a lot but sometimes it’s better to be experimental and take risks, but this is something he needs to refine as he develops to make better decisions a higher proportion of the time. He’s hard working off the ball, always on the move and has shown good stamina. We believe this would be a strong move for each party and would offer a very strong option to compete with their midfield. With it likely being a loan deal it allows them to save their budget to invest elsewhere.
Estimated Cost: Loan
3. Josh Dasilva – Brentford
The 21-year-old received an A2 rating after his only viewing on Target Scouting and has built on his first season at Brentford by having something of a breakout year since signing from Arsenal in the summer of 2018, ending this season with 47 appearances and 10 goals to boot.
Dasilva has had an impressive year for a Brentford side that was one of the best in the league. At 6’1” he provides a physical presence in the middle of the pitch, he is quite lean so has scope to fill out a bit, but he uses his body well to protect the ball. He is able to use his long limbs to his advantage to hold defenders off and he uses his stride well to move away from opponents as he has good acceleration and pace.
His Brentford side put emphasis on winning the ball quickly, high up the pitch and is a team that was particularly press resistant during the Championship season which would stand Dasilva in good stead were he to join a Leeds side that presses relentlessly. He shouldn’t find it too difficult to adapt to the style of play.
Dasilva has also been important in terms of ball progression, he has impressive ball-carrying abilities and is able to penetrate opposition midfields and move into the final third with regular success. He is also adept at playing passes into attacking zones, seeming comfortable when receiving the ball in deeper positions and looking to get his teammates into space in dangerous areas. As well as being able to pick up space between the lines in more attacking areas to receive on the half-turn. Dasilva was one of the Championship’s best ball progressors from centre midfield this season when it came to progressive runs and passing per Wyscout. He has progressive passing numbers that are comparable to, if slightly worse than, Leeds’ own Mateusz Klich.
Dasilva would fit well into the Leeds’ system as a capable presser and passer from midfield and would add an increased goal threat from range which could help against teams that defend in a low block. Brentford, though, will be reluctant to lose many of their first-team squad with Watkins and Benrahma looking destined to leave as well so he might be difficult to prise away from them.
Estimated worth: £10,000,000 – £15,000,000
Left Sided Winger
1. Emi Buendia – Norwich City
Whilst his team struggled to pick up points, Buendia was one of the shining lights of a Norwich side that suffered relegation back to the Championship. However, due to his performances over the course of the season, it would not appear likely that Buendia will be plying his trade in the second division of English football next season.
The 23 year old Argentine forward operated primarily on the right side for Norwich but we feel he could comfortably operate on either wing. As mentioned previously, he could be an eventual replacement for Pablo Hernandez, but given the latter’s impact on the team in the promotion season, we could see them line up alongside each other with Buendia playing in the wide role, for the coming season at least as well as offering depth as an 8 and as a 10 when certain systems are employed.
It would be an incredible statement of intent from Leeds if they were to secure the signing of Buendia, however, he will no doubt have attracted other potential suitors and so the newly promoted club may be forced to look elsewhere.
Estimated Price: £20,000,000 – £25,000,000
2. Milot Rashica – Werder Bremen
Rashica is a 24 year old Kosovan left winger who has impressed in the Bundesliga for Werder Bremen and has been largely touted for a summer move. He is a very direct, pacey winger who has shades of Son Heung-Min. He’s a goal threat who likes to cut in from the left side onto his stronger right foot, however his shot selection could be improved upon, often shooting from range.
He is Werder’s key player but with the German side only surviving in the Bundesliga through the relegation playoff, Rashica is ready to step up to a better team. He is also a creative force, using his speed to get into good positions and charge into space.
He recently rejected Aston Villa, saying he wanted to play higher but we believe that Leeds have a bigger appeal despite being a newly promoted side. It would be a tough signing to make but one that is worth pursuing. He has experience in a top league and at international level so would be a strong addition, however, he would most likley be wanting starting minutes.
Estimated Cost: £22,500,000
3. Myziane Maolida – OGC Nice
Maolida could be more of an outside shout for the left wing role at Leeds. The French youth international moved from Lyon to Nice in the summer of 2018 for a fee of around £9 million at the age of just 19, but has since struggled at times to get a run of games in what is a competitive Nice forward line. However, highly touted from a young age, with a lot of raw talent and still only 21, the Frenchman could be an interesting signing for Leeds.
Having primarily played as a striker in the early stages of his career, Vieira’s system and the form of Kasper Dolberg has seen Maolida adopt wider positions. Certainly at times, Nice’s system required him to play almost as a wing back when defending before getting well forward when in attack, playing as more of a traditional wide man.
Physically, Maolida shouldn’t have a problem adapting to the Premier League, possessing a quick burst of acceleration when required, and he is able to use his body well to protect the ball and shrug off challenges. He is an inventive player who is capable of linking up effectively with his teammates, an important asset in the Leeds system. Meanwhile with his striker’s instinct and relative height (5’11) for a wide man, he would provide an added goal threat running towards the back post. Whilst defensively, he has shown the willingness to track back, especially when used in that almost wing back role for Nice.
Maolida would pose a bit more of a risky transfer than the other two players that we have recommended, as he hasn’t had the best of times since joining Nice whilst Rashica and Buendia are more proven entities with greater experience. However, he certainly has the physical attributes and skill to be an exciting player and would perhaps be a cheaper option for the newly promoted side, and at only 21 years of age he could quickly realise his potential, especially under the tutelage of a manager like Bielsa.
Estimated Cost: £8,000,000 – £15,000,000
1. Lys Mousset – Sheffield United
Lys Mousset is a 24 year old striker who currently plays for Sheffield United in England. The Frenchman offers top level experience having played for Bournemouth and Sheffield United over the past two seasons.
When Mousset has started for the Blades, it has typically been on the left hand side of a pairing in Chris Wilder’s 3-5-2 system. Mousset is technically sound, with a good ability to link play with his midfield as well as making runs in behind. Mousset is a great ball carrier too, with a 64.8% dribble success rate, completing 2.54 successful dribbles per 90 in the Premier League last season. Averaging roughly 6 successful pressures per 90 the Frenchman would also have no issues with the defensive responsibilities needed in a Bielsa system.
Reports have suggested that he could potentially be on his way out of Sheffield this summer. A fee of around £12m would be enough to secure the 24 year old and he could provide valuable Premier League experience.
Estimated worth: £10,000,000- £15,000,000
2. Ollie Watkins – Brentford
Ollie Watkins is a 24 year old English frontman who has set the Championship on fire this season. The former Exeter City striker had his best scoring season to date, scoring 25 times in all competitions. With Watkins’ impressive performances, it’s clear to see he will become a Premier League player by the end of this summer, with a number of clubs reportedly interested in snapping up the forward.
Starting as a centre forward in Brentford’s 4-3-3, Watkins often exchanges positions with his winger, finding himself in wide areas regularly throughout games. However while central he shows an excellent knack of being in the right place at the right time to score the tap-ins. Watkins also excels at holding the ball up, linking with his midfielders then making a smart run in behind the opposition defence with electric pace.
Watkins can play anywhere along the front three, but his physical profile lends itself to a central berth. Watkins is a very hard worker defensively, constantly leading Brentford’s press by harrying opposition centre backs. He holds his own aerially and has the physical strength to give defenders a problem.
Estimated Worth: £18,000,000
3. Rafael Santos Borre – River Plate
Santos Borre is a 24 year old Colombian striker who currently plys his trade for River Plate in Argentina, although he holds a Spanish passport. The Colombian has previous experience in Europe, having previously played for Atletico Madrid and Villareal in La Liga.
While Santos Borre typically plays in a strike partnership at River Plate, we believe he has the attributes to effectively lead the lead for Marcelo Bielsa in this upcoming season. At 5ft 8, he is not the most physical striker however, he is more than capable of holding play up before linking with his midfielders. The Colombian’s link-up play is his key attribute, being able to create space well for himself as well as his teammates.
Defensively Santos Borre is a workhorse, often pressing the opposition midfield from behind when the opportunity arises. This defensive workrate alongside his offensive link up play and ability to drift into space makes him a worthwhile target for Marcelo Bielsa.
The former Atleti striker is a man in demand, with Italian giants Lazio reportedly interested in the Colombian. For a full in depth analysis of Rafael Santos Borre and his playstyle, there is a player report here.
Estimated Worth: £10,000,000 – £15,000,000
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