Leeds United have not played a minute of Premier League football since May 2004.
Back at the end of that 2003-04 campaign Leeds finished 19th and were relegated to the second-tier for the first time in 14 years. Major financial issues off the field had damaged the club beyond instant repair. The club’s main attractions - like Mark Viduka and Alan Smith - had to be sold to free up much-needed cash, as did the stadium and training ground.
After years of top-flight football, the situation at Leeds quickly changed from a state of elation to a state of grave concern, with few anticipating the depths that the club would sink to in the upcoming years.
Following their demotion to the Championship in 2004, Leeds’ spell in the second-tier lasted only three seasons. A second relegation in just three years saw the Yorkshiremen fall to their lowest ebb, demoted to the country’s third division.
It became the darkest of times for Leeds; just seven years previously they finished fourth in the Premier League and were playing European football, now they were facing midweek trips to Hartlepool United and Yeovil Town.
Fortunately, that period now appears to be over and Leeds look to be a team completely transformed under current boss Marcelo Bielsa.
The Argentine took over as head coach 18 months ago and since then the feel-good factor has firmly been reinstated at Elland Road.
Bielsa is one of the best football managers in world football, so to see him coaching in England’s second-tier is somewhat of a baffling concept to most.
The quirky South American, who has previously taken charge of Argentina, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille and Lazio - among others - has implemented his trademark, unique style of high-pressing play in West Yorkshire, and it is working.
It worked last season and many believed that it would result in the club finally earning promotion back to the Premier League after such a lengthy spell out of it. But, such is the nature of Leeds United Football Club, they fell at the last hurdle.
The club have been mercilessly ridiculed over the years for their seamless ability to ‘bottle it’ when things get tough. Last season, after sitting top of the pile for large parts of the campaign, Leeds fell out of the automatic promotion places after an embarrassing 2-1 defeat to a 10-man Wigan Athletic at Elland Road on Easter Friday.
It was both unbelievable and completely believable to witness; after all, this is Leeds. This is what they do best.
The scintillating football that they play most weeks can never be truly enjoyed by the supporter base because there has - and always will be - an overriding feeling that next week they will undo all of their good work. As a result, the Whites had to rely on the play-offs to earn promotion, succumbing to Frank Lampard’s Derby County, who eventually lost to Aston Villa in the final.
Against Arsenal in the FA Cup at the start of January, Leeds played the Gunners off the park for the first 45 minutes, away from home. But, an array of squandered chances saw them enter the break with absolutely nothing to show for their efforts.
Typically, in the second-half, Arsenal upped their game and won the contest narrowly 1-0. Despite the defeat, the performance of the Championship visitors that night was sublime.
The tenacity shown by the ever-impressive Kalvin Phillips in central midfield earned the young Englishman plaudits nationwide, with many claiming that the 24-year-old should now be considered for international selection ahead of this summer’s European Championships - it is hard to disagree with those claims, however outlandish they may seem.
Leeds’s performance against Arsenal left the neutral fan, sheltered from in-depth second-tier knowledge, confident that they would blitz the Championship this season.
The build-up play, the press, the passion of it all was second to none. “Why are this team not playing in the Premier League?” was the question left on the lips of many.
Well, that question was hastily answered the following weekend, when Sheffield Wednesday came to visit in the league and beat them comfortably 2-0. Good old Leeds United, consistently inconsistent to the most painful degree.
Last Saturday in their most recent league outing, Bielsa’s side were again undone, losing 1-0 to 14th-place QPR at Loftus Road. Despite dominating the lion share of possession (64%), completing almost double the amount of passes than their opponents (428) and taking eight more shots on goal than the R’s (17), they came away from west London pointless, extending their dismal run of form in the Championship to just one win in seven.
Between November 2nd and December 10th, Leeds took 21 points from a possible 21 and, as a result, topped the Championship.
Now, though, thanks to another almighty collapse in form, Leeds have slipped beneath West Brom by a single point and find themselves just three points ahead of third-placed Fulham and four ahead of a Nottingham Forest side who currently occupy fourth spot. The phrase ‘squeaky bum time’ has never been so relevant.
Leeds appear to be ‘bottling it’ once again, but why?
Is it because Bielsa’s intense style of high-pressing play is too much for players at this level to cope with, and they simply cannot retain the level of performance required throughout an entire campaign?
Quite possibly, but the main issue seems to be their lack of firepower in front of goal.
Currently, Leeds have only one recognised first-team striker in Patrick Bamford, who has scored 10 league goals this season - almost a third of the club’s overall goals in the Championship (43). This is a fairly promising return, but if you take into account the amount of opportunities he misses, and how many chances Leeds create in front of goal - ultimately to no avail - the stats actually make for pretty bleak reading.
Bamford’s last goal came in late-December, when he found the net in a 2-1 defeat to Fulham; he has now failed to score in his previous four outings. With Tyler Roberts out injured and Eddie Nketiah prematurely recalled from his loan spell by Arsenal, there has been nobody to share the goalscoring duties at Elland Road and it has massively affected Leeds United and their push for promotion.
It’s remarkable to think that Bamford is the only player Leeds have in the current list of this season’s top-50 Championship goalscorers.
Bielsa desperately needed to bolster his attacking options before the end of the January transfer market and now, finally, he has after capturing the signature of Red Bull Leipzig forward Jean-Kevin Augustin, formerly of Paris Saint-Germain.
The 22-year-old has joined the club on an initial loan deal until the end of the season and will look to provide the Whites with some much-needed firepower in front of goal. There is now real hope that promotion is back on track.
With an elite manager at the helm, some fantastically talented individuals on the pitch and a spirited fan-base who will quite literally never give up on their club, the next four months is make-or-break for Leeds United.
Leeds are currently falling apart, again. The difference is, this time they’ve got plenty of time to pick themselves up and turn it around - starting this evening, when they host Millwall in a pivotal clash at Elland Road.