When Leeds United finally returned to the Premier League after a 16-year absence in 2020, it felt like the start of a successful new era for the club.
Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment as manager had brought back an optimism that had long been missing at Elland Road, with the cult coach the shock, but successful, name to steer Leeds back into the big time.
A positive initial return to the Premier League did not last, however. Bielsa’s second season saw Leeds struggle and the much-loved Argentine depart.
Jesse Marsch narrowly avoided the drop after taking the reins, but last season proved disastrous. Marsch’s mundane football made him unpopular on the terraces and the American was sacked in February, before Michael Skubala, Javi Gracia and Sam Allardyce all tried and failed to stop a decline that ended in relegation to the Championship.
Last summer, Leeds found themselves in an unwanted, but all too familiar, state of affairs. A club who had competed at the top end of the Premier League at the turn of the millennium – reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 2000/01 – was now forced to rebuild once again.
The new direction was to be directed by 49ers Enterprises, who after several years of minority ownership completed a full takeover in June, replacing Andrea Radrizzani as the club’s custodian.
The American group are owners of the San Franciso 49ers and have branched into English football with the help of some big-name investors. Golf Major champions Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas and NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Larry Nance and TJ McConnell are among the sportsmen involved in the new regime. 49ers Enterprises will hope to translate American Football success into soccer, with the San Franciso 49ers targeting a first Super Bowl since 1995 this season and current second-favourites in the bookmakers’ latest Super Bowl odds.
The Championship is often cited as the toughest league in football in an annual rat race to reach the promised land of the Premier League. First on the agenda for the new ownership this summer was selecting a new head coach, with Daniel Farke brought in to Elland Road. The German’s appointment was greeted with mixed response, but Farke has experience of the gruelling demands of the Championship, having twice led Norwich City to the second-tier title in 2019 and 2021.
Farke faced a significant squad rebuild after arriving through the door and immediately took a scalpel to the heart of the side. Last season’s leading scorer, Rodrigo, departed for Qatar’s Al-Rayyan for a fee of just £3m due to a relegation release clause, while Tyler Adams joined Bournemouth in a £20m deal to bring in some much needed funds.
Elsewhere, Jack Harrison, Robn Koch, Max Wober, Marc Roca, Luis Sinisterra, Brenden Aaronson, and Ramus Kristensen all departed on loan deals, each determined to remain playing top-level football.
The sheer scale of exits meant additions were necessary, with a focus on players with experience of England’s lower tiers, but with the quality required to step up if and when promotion was secured.
Sam Byram followed Farke from Norwich and is well-schooled at this level, while Glen Kamara and Ethan Ampadu bolstered the club’s central midfield stocks. Joe Rodon and Djed Spence were eye-catching arrivals on loan from Spurs, and Joel Piroe arrived with real Championship pedigree after 46 goals in 96 Swansea appearances.
After opening the season with a three-game winless run, Leeds have improved to place themselves in the promotion mix. Five wins from their last six fixtures has seen Farke’s side climb to third, with Leeds leading a pack bidding to chase down the runaway top two Leicester and Ipswich Town.
The underlying numbers offer encouragement for Leeds, with Farke having implemented a high-pressing philosophy since taking charge. Leeds top the Championship for high turnovers (143), turnovers that have led to a shot (30), and rank behind only Southampton and Stoke for presses per defensive action (11.4).
Crysencio Summerville and returning loanee Daniel James have provided pace and goal threat in support of Piroe, while Georgino Rutter is rebuilding confidence after a tough introduction to English football last season. The club-record signing has eight G/As from 13 league starts and is fast improving away from the Premier League spotlight.
In terms of chance creation, only Ipswich have recorded more open-play shots than Leeds (183), while the Whites rank third, behind leaders Leicester and Blackburn, for xG (20.16). At the opposite end their defensive metrics are also strong, Leeds rank second and fourth for least open-play shots conceded and open-play xGA, while no side has conceded less set-play shots.
Given Leeds’ costly recent recruitment – both in terms of price and mistakes – and the need for wholesale change last summer, Farke and the new ownership can be encouraged by the start of their working relationship. The Championship is an unforgiving beast, but Leeds United look well-equipped for a push for promotion this season.