In today’s edition:
The Premier League’s Most Exciting Team Is in 11th Place
Leeds United games feature more goals than any other team—many of them for the opposition. But the attacking strategy is the club’s ticket to another season in the Premier League.
Leeds United arrived in the Premier League this season steeled to play in the most intense soccer competition in the world. They knew that teams ran longer, pressed higher, and tackled harder than anywhere else.
Then something unexpected happened. The rest of the Premier League slowed down, to cope with the pace of a compressed pandemic schedule that has left everyone exhausted. Leeds reacted by changing exactly nothing about its approach and kept its foot on the gas. The plan wasn’t just to avoid relegation, but to stay up by providing relentless entertainment.
All of which has turned Leeds into the most watchable club in the Premier League this season—win or lose. Leeds games have featured more goals than those involving any other team, as of last weekend. That more than half of those are scored by opponents is mere detail. As long as it can stay in the Premier League, there is only one way Leeds can imagine playing soccer.
“We want to be aggressive and intense and that’s what viewers like to see,” winger Jack Harrison said with the club in 11th place. “Usually it includes lots of goals for us—and against us as well.”
Not a lot of newly promoted teams make such a bold bet. The playbook for most Premier League newcomers is to keep things conservative and scrape together results where they can. Over the past decade, more than a third of promoted clubs have been booted back into the second tier after a single season.
But Leeds’ return to the big time after 16 years away was never going to unfold quietly. For one of the most fervently followed clubs in England, recovering from hard times, the entire season has doubled as citywide catharsis.
“Coming from (England’s second division), I think we’ve honored every single game,” owner Andrea Radrizzani said, referring to England’s second tier. “It’s better than what I expected this year.”
Leeds was once one of England’s top clubs. It had reached the Champions League semifinals as recently as 2001, before devastating financial mismanagement undid its progress. Within seven years, Leeds had tumbled into the second tier, then the third, before starting its recovery in 2010.
As it turned out, there couldn’t be a worse time for a storied club to be outside the top tier. Leeds had been tossed from the casino right before the slot machines started spewing cash. Those 16 seasons in the wilderness coincided with the greatest international expansion in the history of English soccer. Television rights payments went through the roof and untapped markets opened up around the planet. But as new fans tuned in, they weren’t seeing Leeds. The club was only relevant to fans who could recall the old days.
“I like to say that we’re very well known to the dads and the uncles,” said Radrizzani, who bought the club in 2017, through his company Aser Ventures, having previously dealt in soccer TV rights.
So when Leeds rejoined the party, it became that much more important to offer something memorable. Having the Argentine coaching guru Marcelo Bielsa sitting in the dugout—or on an upturned bucket nearby—virtually guaranteed it.
Bielsa, one of the sport’s great tactical influencers, also happens to be one of its great eccentrics. He counts Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Paris Saint-Germain’s Mauricio Pochettino among his disciples. But he rarely lasts more than three years in any job, due to falling out with ownership, burning out his players, or a combination of both. His stint in West Yorkshire is already the longest he’s spent in any job in over a decade.
“During the first year, nobody knew quite what to expect,” Harrison said. “It can be very demanding playing here. It’s not for everybody.”
Nothing was more stunning than a training drill that Bielsa has carried with him, under different names, at every club since he started coaching in Argentina. At Olympique Marseille, for instance, it had the innocuous name “Opposition.” But at Leeds, the sessions are known simply as Murderball.
Set up as an 11-on-11 training match, the idea is for the players to go at the highest possible intensity without a moment to rest. There are no fouls, no corner kicks, and no breaks. Coaches are stationed around the field to throw the ball back into play the moment it goes out. “You can’t compare it with anything else,” Harrison said.
The result is that Leeds outruns most opponents, pounces on more loose balls than any team but Liverpool and Leicester City, and presses harder than anyone in the league, even in a season when exhausted teams everywhere are backing off. When they aren’t running themselves into the ground, Leeds players spend more time in the classroom than any of their peers.
And as if that weren’t enough, Bielsa insists that his team play with attacking verve. Nearly half the team’s passing sequences end up in the attacking third of the field, a total exceeded only by the Manchester clubs and Liverpool, according to Opta Sports. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta says that Bielsa has made trips to Elland Road like a visit to the dentist.
“We are really lucky to have him in the Premier League,” Arteta added. “He offers something different, a very particular style of play. Really entertaining.”
It’s no coincidence that Leeds also leads the league in “nutmegs”—dribbling past an opponent by prodding the ball through their legs.
“Marcelo has a clear philosophy of training, a clear philosophy of the game, and we don’t compromise with that,” Radrizzani said.
Leeds’ progress under Bielsa could have come even quicker. Leeds finished the 2018-19 season third in the Championship, only to lose to Derby County in the semifinal of the promotion playoffs. “That was a tough one to digest,” Radrizzani said. “But if I think about that moment now, I’m actually pleased that we didn’t get promoted that year. We could go and become much more mature as a team.”
The aim beyond Premier League survival, which Leeds can guarantee in the next couple of weeks, is now to make up some of the ground it lost during those years away. Leicester City, which went from promotion to champions of England in just two years, is the model every promoted team wants to emulate. Short of that, Leeds would settle for consolidating its place in the top tier so that it can begin renovation on its stadium and reap the benefits of living in the world’s most popular sports league.
And as Leeds has already discovered, it helps to deliver the commodity fans want most.
“Whoever watches Leeds this year,” Radrizzani said, “they never get bored.”
Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com