Leeds United’s wage bill is the second-lowest in the Premier League and that lack of quality is now threatening their top-flight status.
One of the biggest problems with overachievement is that people tend to forget the ‘over’ part. When a team exceeds expectations, the higher level becomes the new normal and falling back consequently feels like decline.
This, it would appear, is where Leeds United are at the moment, and it increasingly feels as though the road is running out for Marcelo Bielsa. Following on from the four goals conceded at home against Manchester United and the six let in at Anfield, Spurs were the latest to reap the rewards of the open tracts of land offered to them by the Premier League’s most generous defence.
As Bielsa surveys the wreckage of his team’s latest calamitous defensive performance, he should perhaps pause to consider how far the club has come. They returned to the Premier League without spending their way up, then reached ninth place, far beyond what many expected of them. But even though Leeds undoubtedly fall into the category of being A Big Club, all those 35,000 attendances can be misleading. Even now, their estimated wage bill for this season is estimated to be the second-lowest in the division. Everton’s is four and a half times as high, which is a lot to pay to be even closer to the relegation places.
But all of these are abstracts compared to what happens on a Saturday afternoon, and there can be no masking that Leeds were abysmal for 30 minutes against Tottenham at Elland Road. That was enough to put the game well beyond their reach before they even really had a chance to get a foothold in it. Matt Doherty, Dejan Kulusevski and Harry Kane were the hot knives through a buttery Leeds defence throughout this torrid opening, and by the time Leeds actually started to settle into any sort of rhythm they were three goals down and the match was effectively over as a contest.
When they did get into attacking positions, they rekindled memories of the team that upset so many applecarts last season, buzzing around between the Spurs defenders, closing them down with a swell of the noise of the crowd growing behind them. But Spurs weathered whatever storms Leeds could muster, and too often Leeds simply threw too many players forward, leaving their own defence looking highly vulnerable to a counter-attack every time they lost possession in the middle third.
This happened three times in the first half and things might have been worse had Spurs not turned the pressure down a little after they’d gone three up. But Leeds’ issues weren’t only related to their defence. They created plenty of chances but wasted them time after time. The problem was perhaps best encapsulated by one miss in particular. With 15 minutes to play, a mistake by Hugo Lloris let in Stuart Dallas on an almost empty Spurs goal, but as he got closer the colour seemed to drain from his face and, after too much delaying, his shot was blocked by Ben Davies. Pulling one back with 15 minutes to play against the famously budgie-hearted Tottenham – who knows what might have happened had Dallas scored?
Back in the real world exactly 10 minutes later, a Harry Kane through-ball released Son-Heung min to score a fourth.
Bad luck continues to shadow Leeds. At a point during the first half when they were looking their most calamitous, the BT Sport cameras lingered on Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper, the backbone of the team, all sitting in the stand. The injuries have been severe and have come in key positions. And while it’s fair to say certain more intense types of football may increase the likelihood of players picking up injuries, there can be little question that Leeds have been at least unfortunate.
But there is cause and effect in play, too. Those absences are directly affecting the team’s shape on the pitch, and a forward pairing like Kane and Son, who know each other perhaps better than any other in the division, were more than able to exploit the gaps behind the defenders that this lack of shape gave them. Leeds hit the woodwork twice and created plenty of other chances, but how much of that is bad luck and how much of it is bad football?
All of this raises the question of what happens next with Bielsa. Leeds looked defeated before they started the match and Bielsa seemed similarly downtrodden when interviewed afterwards. He ended a 16-year wait to take the club back into the Premier League and he’ll always have that. Nothing lasts forever and perhaps this particular road has run its course. But changing manager right now is obviously a gamble. One of the things in Leeds’ favour is that huge roar that builds behind them whenever the team’s tails are up. Can this be replicated, considering it would be Bielsa leaving with the team in this sort of form? As ever, the question is: if Bielsa does go, who do they get to replace him?
With Burnley and Newcastle now accumulating points, Leeds are in a highly precarious position. Even though there are other teams in similarly terrible form, it’s never desirable to be depending on others for survival. They’ve conceded 14 goals in three games and the body language of all concerned at the final whistle against Spurs didn’t offer much hope that things are going to improve. But it feels as though a combination of bad luck and poor planning have got Leeds to this position, and while one of those perhaps can’t be fixed straight away, the other can. To attempt it comes at a risk.