Misfiring up front and soft in defence - are Leeds suffering second season syndrome?

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Marcelo Bielsa - Misfiring up front and soft in defence - are Leeds suffering second season syndrome? - REUTERS
Marcelo Bielsa - Misfiring up front and soft in defence - are Leeds suffering second season syndrome? - REUTERS

Leeds United were more like a whirlwind than a breath of fresh air on their return to the Premier League, as they threw opposition teams into disarray and blew them away with their high energy, attacking football.

But Marcelo Bielsa’s side are finding things tougher at the start of their second campaign and are one of five teams in the top flight who are yet to win a league game.

Telegraph Sport looks at the unique set of circumstances behind Leeds' 'second season syndrome'.

A misfiring Bamford

Although Patrick Bamford earned an England call-up this season, the Leeds forward has not been playing well and there is an argument to make he was far more deserving of international recognition last year.

He has scored just one goal in seven games, which will lead to accusations he was a one-season wonder in the top flight. He scored 16 goals in 47 games in Leeds’ promotion season and 10 in 25 the year before that, despite playing for a side that created more chances than any other in the Championship, which is why his fantastic return of 17 in 38 appearances was a surprise.

It is far too soon to write off Bamford and he thoroughly enjoyed silencing his critics last season and would love to do so again. But Leeds are finding out what so many have done before them - when your main centre-forward stops scoring the whole team struggles.

Patrick Bamford of Leeds United is seen in action during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Leeds United at St. James Park on September 17, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England - GETTY IMAGES
Patrick Bamford of Leeds United is seen in action during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Leeds United at St. James Park on September 17, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England - GETTY IMAGES

A blunted attack

It would be harsh to focus solely on Bamford when the club’s £26 million signing, Rodrigo, has failed to make his mark on English football and has been particularly poor this season.

The Spain international was a flop at Bolton Wanderers at the start of his career and has done little so far to suggest he is ever going to be prolific in the Premier League. He managed seven in 31 appearances last season and none so far this term.

With Bamford and Rodrigo both finding goals hard to come by, Leeds needed two goals from winger Raphinha to secure two of their three points. The statistics show a side that is not only creating less chances than last season, but one that is also failing to convert enough of the ones it does.

Leeds’ expected goals has fallen from 1.49 to 1.10 per game, with the actual number of goals falling from 1.63 to one per game. Shots on target have fallen from 5.24 to 4.4, while even the number of touches in the opposition box has dropped from 24.42 to 22.2. Passes or crosses played into the box are also down from 32.74 to 29.4. These are small margins but they can add up to a significant impact on results.

Soft-centred defence

There are some things beyond a manager’s control and the fact Leeds have only had one specialist centre-back available to play against Newcastle and Fulham was bound to weaken them defensively. Captain Liam Cooper has remained fit but he was tortured by Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin last week and his lack of pace has been exposed.

The suspension of Pascal Struijk and injuries to Robin Koch and Diego Llorente, plus knocks to Jack Harrison, Luke Ayling, and Raphinha, have all come at the same time, and is the sort of perfect storm that can blow a side apart.

Suffering so many injuries so early in the season does raise questions about Leeds’ notoriously intense training regime, even if this is the first time in the four years Bielsa has been in charge that so many players have picked up injuries at the same time.

What is obvious is that Leeds are a lot easier to score against this season, conceding 2.4 a game compared to 1.42 across the whole of last season. The goalkeeper is facing 18.4 shots per game compared to 14.68 last term, with seven on target compared to 5.29. The fact less saves are also being made paints a pretty bleak picture of a side that is being opened up far too often. Teams facing Leeds this season are expected to score 2.04 goals a game compared to 1.54 in their first season after promotion.

Lack of shock factor

Everybody knows how Leeds are going to play and while stopping them is another matter, it does mean that the Premier League, with its vast array of analysts, have had time to study how to nullify them and opposition managers have been able to work out how best to beat them.

Bielsa is not going to change and nobody at Leeds United would want or expect him to do so. That is why he has been at the club for longer than he was at Atletico Bilbao, Marseille and Lille. He has been given the freedom to do things his way, but that lack of surprise is undoubtedly a reason why they are not being as effective this season. Everybody knows what to expect and is taking the appropriate countermeasures.

The return of fans

Leeds could not wait to welcome their fans back to Elland Road and there are not many more partisan crowds in the top flight. Having waited 16 years to return to the Premier League, playing last season behind closed doors was cruel on their supporters. But just as Leeds were looking forward to playing in front of a full house, so too were the rest of the league.

Last season was an odd one. As much as people pretend otherwise, the games without fans were slower and far less intense. There was a training ground feel to them, as it was football without adrenaline.

That played into Leeds’ hands because Bielsa demanded their play with such high intensity, it was second nature. They created their own adrenaline and often overwhelmed teams with it.

But with fans back, every team is playing with more energy, more focus and more determination to impress. Leeds might just have lost the biggest point of difference in their favour.

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