Leeds United have been dreaming of promotion back to the Premier League ever since the club was relegated in 2004.
Despite a dismal display in their first game back against Cardiff after the three-month break, Marcelo Bielsa’s men produced a scintillating performance in a 3-0 win over promotion-chasing Fulham to provide the best indication yet that the Whites are finally set for a return to the top flight.
With just seven games remaining, none of the top seven teams to play and a healthy eight-point gap between themselves and third-placed Brentford, Leeds look to have finally climbed the mountain they’ve been attempting to concur for the past 16 seasons – but the hard work is only just beginning.
Bielsa’s team have been the best side in the league by far this season – despite the occasional wobble – producing some brilliant football at times but also showing they have the character to grind out results when not at their best.
However, the gulf in class between the Championship and the Premier League is no secret, and if Leeds want to ensure they once again become a fixture in the top flight, Bielsa needs to ring the changes this summer.
Part of the reason for Leeds’ success this season has been their solid defensive unit, and key to that stability has been Brighton-loanee Ben White. The 22-year-old has thrived in his first season in the Championship, offering a calmness to the Leeds defence which was sorely missing last campaign with the talented yet fiery Pontus Jansson at the heart of the backline.
The youngster is unsurprisingly rumoured to be on the wishlist of many Premier League clubs this summer, and whether he does move to pastures new or stays with parent club Brighton, one thing is for sure: he’s unlikely to be a Leeds player next season.
Not only is Bielsa likely to be in the market for a centre back, a goalkeeper will also no doubt be high on his summer shopping list. Former Real Madrid man and current Leeds number one Kiko Casilla has looked far from convincing this campaign, making a number of errors which have led to goals. His replacement Illan Meslier has also failed to instil any sort of confidence in the Leeds defence when played, looking shaky whenever he leaves his line.
So defensive reinforcements are a must this summer, but the problems don’t end there.
Arguably Leeds’ best player this season has been Pablo Hernández. The Spanish magician has chipped in with six goals and six assists and was clearly missed by the side after being forced to sit out the 2-0 defeat to Cardiff through injury.
Adjudged to not be good enough for the Premier League by Swansea is 2014, it’s clear the Swans missed a trick in letting him leave. However, six years on at 35 years of age, Hernández will struggle to make the impact on arguably the toughest league in the world that Leeds will want him to.
Strength in the wide areas has been key to Leeds’ success this year, with Hernández ably supported on the opposite flank by Jack Harrison – yet this is another cause for concern. Harrison is another loanee in the Leeds ranks, and parent club Manchester City will no doubt request a lofty fee if Bielsa is to sign the winger.
The permanent signing of another loanee – Hélder Costa – has already been agreed with parent club Wolverhampton Wanderers and is due to take effect in July. The princely sum of £15m has been forked out by the Leeds hierarchy, yet with just three league goals to his name this season and an underwhelming campaign from the Portugal international, it’s difficult to see why Leeds didn’t focus their attention on a permanent deal for Harrison.
The man the aforementioned wingers have been tasked with providing service for at Leeds this season is Patrick Bamford, and here lies another issue for the Yorkshiremen.
Former Middlesbrough man Bamford has had numerous cracks at the Premier League – with five different clubs offering him a chance – yet he still has just one goal to his name in the English top flight.
And it’s not as though he’ll be making the jump back up to Premier League level brimming with confidence if the Whites are promoted. Bamford has endured a pretty torrid season – despite his 14 goals. Regularly the brunt of the Leeds fans’ frustration, the forward has spurned chance after chance and is clearly bereft of confidence and crumbling under the pressure of being the main man at a club the stature of Leeds United.
It looks as though Leeds will make it back to the Premier League this season, and they’ve deserved every second of the adulation and praise which will no doubt come their way.
However, Bielsa’s hard work starts the second they achieve their dream, because if they don’t spend big in the summer, they’ll be right back where they started in the Championship next year.