Leeds United are flying high in the Championship and they have arguably their most complete team for 17 years.
While the Whites have not quite delivered on their pre-Christmas potential in previous seasons, it feels different this term – so does that overdue return to the Premier League beckon?
Gabriel Sutton looks at the legacy Marcelo Bielsa is building at Elland Road – and how that may continue, even when the Argentine leaves.
When Leeds are at their best, some of their interplay is a joy to behold.
Through balls are always played with pin-point accuracy and the co-ordination of movement is delightful.
They keep possession and crucially, rarely take more than two touches per player whilst always looking to pass forward.
When the positive ball does come off, it opens up the game, but even when it does not, Leeds re-position themselves to press for the second ball and maintain their control on proceedings.
Bielsa is known as ‘El Loco’ (‘The Madman’).
He has a reputation for being a crazy, attack-minded manager who likes his teams to play an intensely extreme, high-risk, gung-ho style, always living life on the edge.
And yet, what we have seen this season is a very well-organised team, with control and discipline being ingredients mixed in with the attacking intent.
When Leeds have not been playing the aforementioned great football, they have still been able to keep their opponents out through teamwork and shrewd positional awareness.
Marcelo Bielsa's men have been incredibly organised this season
White for Jansson swap
Pontus Jansson has been the bedrock on which Leeds’ last three promotion pushes have been built.
He was a fantastic organiser in the Play-Off near-miss under Garry Monk, arguably the pick of the defenders in the streaky 2017-18 campaign then led the defence the following season.
Jansson’s time at Leeds has undoubtedly been a success and he had a fantastic rapport with natives throughout, yet his relationship with Bielsa was always mixed.
The head coach made the brave decision to let the Swede leave for Brentford and bring in Ben White, on loan from Brighton; White has shown promise in the lower leagues yet was very much unproven at this level.
It is hugely impressive, therefore, that the 22-year-old has slotted in so quickly for a side expecting promotion from this level.
White has great positional awareness, he has the composure to play his way out of tight situations, yet he is not averse to clearing the ball when the pass simply is not on.
This means Leeds have the perks of a technical, ball-playing defender without the typical pitfalls.
Leeds have now conceded just 0.50 goals per game this season (10 goals in 20 matches), the BEST defensive record in Europe's top 5 leagues and the top four tiers of English league football in 2019/20.— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) December 7, 2019
Messiah Bielsa. 👊 #LUFC #MOT pic.twitter.com/FoTSuxRgB5
In the current system, which we might call a 3-3-3-1 of sorts, there are two players who offer key flexible.
Stuart Dallas acts as a ‘lateral volante’, which is essentially a wide midfielder in a Bielsa-invented system that incorporates a three-man defence but not orthodox wing-backs, because there is only one standard central midfielder.
Effectively, this means that Dallas is responsible for covering the space that a wing-back would in front of Luke Ayling out of possession, but when Leeds have the ball, he will come inside to support play in unexpected ways.
As we saw at Huddersfield, he quite often links up with Hernandez and Costa, allowing the latter to hold the width at certain points.
Dallas can be limited when the manager pigeonholes his role to one remit; the Northern Irishman is at his best when allowed to use his aggression and energy to transcend two or three different remits.
Similar could be said of Ezgjan Alioski, who underwhelmed under Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom as a classic winger because his end product, while not necessarily bad, is not among his main selling points.
Having played as a wing-back for Macedonia, Alioski is far better when transcending defensive, transitional and attacking phases of play whilst providing pace and width, so he can help build the framework in which the masterful technicians will shine.
The beauty of Bielsa is that he has found ways of getting Dallas, Alioski and many others to play to their full potential – and become key members of a squad that is dominating this league.
🎵🎵Last Christmas I gave you my heart but the very next day, you gave it away.— Lincolnshire White. 🇬🇧💛💙🏴 (@BenBoo1984) December 9, 2019
This year, to save me from tears, I'll give it to Stuart Dallas. Dallas!🎵🎵
It's about time the Cookstown Cafu got his own chant.#lufc
Jack Harrison had an underwhelming 2018-19 campaign, when other attacking players perhaps took more of the headlines.
After 12 months of working under Bielsa, though, we could see a significant improvement in the most recent pre-season and he has taken that form into the first half of the league campaign.
Last year, Harrison appeared to be tasked with providing the width, which may have limited him in some respects.
This year, he has the license to dribble inside at an earlier stage of the build-up play and thus we are seeing more of his true capabilities.
Hernandez is not the quickest player, but he has never lost his intelligence, creativity or flair.
Having played in the Champions League for Valencia, the Europa League for Swansea and internationally for Spain, he always carries a certain amount of class and the 34-year-old’s through balls in the 2-0 win at Huddersfield last time out were excellent.
Helder Costa had been a key part of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ title win in 2017-18, so getting him on loan was a real coup.
Interestingly, Costa has been on the bench in 10 of Leeds’ 20 league games – and he has not necessarily been a dominant influence when starting.
Even when below-par, though, the 25-year-old always offers them an outlet and he can produce key moments of quality.
Faith in Bamford
Patrick Bamford scored four goals in an impressive August, but during a barren spell across September and October, many fans called for him to be dropped.
Eddie Nketiah, lightening quick and so often impactful from the bench, might have felt himself deserving of a start.
Bielsa though persisted with Bamford, because he saw what he contributed to the team in terms of his link-up play and improved work rate.
The Argentine’s faith in the main striker has since been rewarded in full, with the 26-year-old scoring three times in the last five games – although Nketiah’s return from injury for the run up to Christmas and the festive period could be valuable.
First team coach Carlos Corberan with the boss
Corberán being prepped for number one job?
Carlos Corberán is currently in charge of the Under-23s side, which enjoyed huge success last season.
In senior terms, the Spaniard is only First Team Coach yet it is he, not assistants Pablo Quiroga nor Diegos Reyes or Flores, who tends to instruct the players when Bielsa opts to oversee from his bucket.
Corberán certainly has an active involvement with every player who is contracted to the club professionally and he is learning directly from one of the most revered figures in management.
When Bielsa, 64, leaves Leeds, he wants to do so with a legacy in place – that he will is of little doubt.
Sometime down the line, we could see Corberán tasked with continuing that legacy.
Silverware for #LUFC U23s - PDL Champions 18/19. Wonderful achievement from a promising and talented bunch of youngsters under the tutelage of Carlos Corberan. Hard fought game, eventually decided on pens against a dogged #BCFC watched by almost 8k fans. pic.twitter.com/wSfTfcwYjE— SJ (@saj1964) May 6, 2019