Football Features

Leeds on the brink of Premier League return but Barnsley show Bielsa there’s still work to be done

By Harry Edwards

Published: 19:17, 16 July 2020 | Updated: 15:41, 20 July 2020

Leeds United are on the brink of Premier League football for the first time since 2004 thanks to a 1-0 win over Yorkshire rivals Barnsley.

The three-time top-flight winners are now just one point away from securing a return, with two games remaining in the Championship thanks to an own goal from Michael Sollbauer.

Although it took a goal from one of Barnsley’s players to put Leeds on the brink, Marcelo Bielsa’s men showed just why they are Premier League ready.

Even though Leeds required just four points from their final three games – going into Thursday’s match – to secure promotion, even the most optimistic of fans would have been wary of calling it a done deal. Over the years the club have built an unwanted reputation of falling towards the end of a season, undoing the hard work from the rest of the campaign. It only added a new definition to the phrase of “Doing a Leeds”, first coined following the club’s fall from the Champions League semi-finals to League One in the space of just six years due to financial mismanagement.

Fears of a drop off were added to following Brentford’s eighth-consecutive win on Wednesday night, delaying Leeds’ potential promotion and reminding Bielsa’s side that the Bees were still chasing them.

But when Jarred Gillett blew the whistle at the start of the game on Thursday evening, Leeds’ players showed no signs of fear. Initially noted as lining up in a 4-1-4-1, Leeds quickly shifted into a Biesla-special 3-3-3-1 which allowed them to play with confidence at the back, as if it was just another day at the office – no pressure or nervousness.

This was a game that Barnsley just had to win to keep their Championship survival hopes alive and they were playing as such, having the better chances early on. But Leeds did not let this get to them, there were no signs of panic or a lack of composure, and Bielsa’s gameplan carried on as usual.

The 3-3-3-1 set Leeds up to rampage down the wings, with Tyler Roberts and Jack Harrison causing a lot of trouble on the left in the first half. But it was a move down the right from which the opening goal came.

Leeds' average positions in their 1-0 win over Barnsley (16/07/20)

Leeds’ average positions in their 1-0 win over Barnsley

With Patrick Bamford almost playing a free role leading the attack, often finding himself on either wing, the English forward was released by an excellent pass from Mateusz Klich. It looked as though any opportunity for Bamford to score had gone, as he neared the byline but the Leeds man had three teammates in the box to pass to. He did not find any of them, but his dangerous ball caused panic in Sollbauer who directed it into his own net.

From there Leeds looked to be in control for the remainder of the first half, with Bielsa’s plans to nullify the biggest Barnsley threats working a treat. But he was called into action midway through the second half as Barnsley had control of the game, making positive substitutions and worrying Leeds at times.

In response, Bielsa brought on another defender in Pascal Struijk and reverted back to the 4-1-4-1, instructing the 20-year-old to sit just in front of the defence and deal with Luke Thomas who had caused problems after coming on at half-time. The change allowed Leeds to soak up a lot of the Barnsley pressure and made them more secure when seeing out the win.

Now six points clear of third-placed Brentford, Leeds could be promoted to the Premier League before they kick off against Derby County on Sunday. Should the Bees drop points against Stoke City on Saturday, they will be unable to catch Leeds at the top of the table, allowing Bielsa’s side to celebrate against the team that ended their Premier League dreams last season.

However, should Leeds seal promotion – and it is a case of when and not if – there is still a lot of work to be done for the club to avoid doing a Norwich City, as shown by the Barnsley performance.

Starting with the performance of Barnsley themselves, the Terriers will be extremely frustrated that they didn’t take at least a point away from Elland Road. In the first half, Barnsley had the better of the chances, even when including Leeds’ goal. The first came from an attack down the left, resulting in Jacob Brown flashing a shot across the face of goal from a tight angle – narrowly avoiding a touch from a Leeds shirt which would have brought an own goal.

Then came their best opportunity from a corner, as Mads Andersen found himself free to get on the end of a wonderful corner from Callum Styles. But the Dane’s header was a real missed opportunity, failing to trouble Illan Meslier in the Leeds goal, sailing wide. Just moments later Leeds took the lead.

Barnsley went on to dominate the second half, looking more promotion chasers than relegation battlers, pinning Leeds back for most of the match. And their failure to equalise was more down to their own struggles in front of goal than Leeds’ good defending. The play of the second half, even with Bielsa’s changes, was summed up by one particular chance for Barnsley with 15 minutes remaining which saw them have two players in the box for a cross to Leeds’ one. Cauley Woodrow’s shot was saved by Meslier but the warning was there.

And it wasn’t just Barnsley being wasteful in front of goal. Despite being the Championship’s third-highest scorers this season, Leeds have experienced a real struggle in putting away their chances – a problem that arose once more on Thursday.

Over the 90 minutes at Elland Road, Leeds managed just seven shots despite having a lot of luck on the wings. From their seven shots – their lowest tally at home this season – just three hit the target, with Leeds having to wait until the dying moments of the first half to truly test Jack Walton in the Barnsley goal. That it was a Barnsley player who scored Leeds’ goal – the seventh time Bielsa’s side have benefitted from an own goal this season – emphasised the problem their forwards were having in making a real impact.

In the Premier League next season better teams will give Leeds problems at both ends of the pitch and though Bielsa will not be able to completely prevent that, this summer must be used to find a fix.

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