Three Players Leeds United must retain to aid their Premier League return

Leeds United have returned to the Premier League after 16 years but who are the three current players that can aid their cause next season?

The 2003/04 season stands out in English football history for a few reasons. Many remember the famous Invincibles, who achieved the incomprehensible idea of going an entire league campaign undefeated. The same season also signaled the beginning of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea; the Blues have not looked back since.

However, what often gets overlooked is the fall of a giant of English football. Back in 2004, Leeds United were relegated to the Championship after over two decades in the top-tier. The descent had been quite rapid and dramatic to say the least, seeing as the Whites had been playing European football the previous season.

While their drop down to the second division was surprising, there was an expectation that Leeds could make a quick return to the Premier League. But, that was far from the case, although they did reach the playoff final in 2006. Just three years after becoming a Championship team, Leeds were down to the third-tier of English football for the first time in their history.

It was another three years before the West Yorkshire club were back in the Championship, having come close in each of the two previous campaigns. Post their promotion, though, there was hardly any stability at Elland Road, especially during the infamous Massimo Cellino era. Managers came and managers went through the revolving door; there were 12 of them in 8 years, when they failed to make the playoffs even once.

Things looked grim before the arrival of Andrea Radrizzani and Marcelo Bielsa. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)
Things looked grim before the arrival of Andrea Radrizzani and Marcelo Bielsa. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

Things finally started taking a turn for the better upon the complete takeover of the club by Andrea Radrizzani. The Italian had first arrived at Elland Road at the onset of 2017 and five months later, he had complete ownership of Leeds. The first season following Radrizzanni’s takeover was far from memorable, as Leeds finished 13th in the Championship.

Things, though, started taking a turn for the better when Marcelo Bielsa was appointed as the new manager ahead of the 2018/19 season. Going by the Argentine maverick’s career track record, there was a chance that the gamble to sign him could have gone horribly wrong. However, Leeds were on the money pretty much from the get-go, never finishing a matchday outside the top four.

Having said that, the Whites managed to make things difficult for themselves during the run-in, having been one of the favourites to secure automatic promotion for much of their campaign. In the end, they could not even reach the Premier League via the playoffs. Well, as the old saying goes, it’s better late than never, and Leeds have finally made it happen.

The 2019/20 season had a similar theme as the previous campaign. Only this time, Leeds got their act together and ensured they did not slip at the crucial junctures of the season. And so, while it took a long time coming, the West Yorkshire club have finally made it happen, returning to the Premier League after 16 long years.

Now is the time for them to continue their upward trajectory under Bielsa. The decisions that Leeds take ahead of the 2020/21 season will go a long way in determining their fate at the end of the campaign. A big part of the same will centre around the players Bielsa chooses to retain in their squad.

After all, calculated continuity and stability often go hand in hand. With that in mind, The Hard Tackle picks out three players that Leeds must keep hold of to aid their cause in the Premier League next season.

Kalvin Phillips

The midfield powerhouse. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)
The midfield powerhouse. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Marcelo Bielsa is often hailed as one of the best coaches in world football and in large part due to the style of play he promotes. Wherever he goes, the Argentine is intent on having his teams play a direct attacking brand of football, with the focus being on retaining possession as much as possible.

Such a style of play is also prone to facing devastating counter-attacks and therefore it is imperative to have a rock solid holding midfielder. Now, in Bielsa’s system, this midfielder needs to be two-pronged in his usage. While he needs to suffice his primary task of protecting the back-line by reading the game smartly, the player also needs to be proficient with ball at feet.

It is here that Phillips has excelled remarkably under the tutelage of Bielsa. The beating heart of the Leeds United side, the 24-year-old sits at the base of the midfield, expertly dropping deep to create a back-three during the possession phase by becoming an auxiliary centre-back. This, in turn, helps him utilise his passing abilities.

In the Premier League, Leeds are unlikely to maintain a high possession percentage, particularly against some of the better teams in the division. So, Phillips’ passing range ought to come in handy in sparking rapid counter-attacks, as he is capable of playing in defence-splitting through balls as well as open up play with accurate long balls out wide towards the full-backs.

However, his reading of the game is what makes Phillips an extremely important player for the Whites ahead of their return to the Premier League. The Leeds native has the tendency to be in the right place at the right time during the defensive phase of the game and it is this anticipation that ought to enable the newly-promoted outfit to minimise the threat as much as possible against much superior teams.

Finally, with his prowess on the ball, Phillips poses a great deal of threat during set-piece situations and he notably created several chances from corners this past season. All in all, Phillips is a complete package, whose qualities both on and off the ball should surely aid Leeds’s cause upon their return to the top-flight.

Ben White

Ben White impressed on loan at Leeds this season. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)
Ben White impressed on loan at Leeds this season. (Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images)

Now, this one is a bit of a different case from that of Kalvin Phillips. Ben White is no longer in Marcelo Bielsa’s squad following the expiration of his loan deal. Having said that, Leeds are hoping to sign him on a permanent deal and retaining his services for the 2019/20 season would be imperative.

In the campaign gone by, White was arguably the best defender in the Championship; so much so that he is now a target for some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League. Champions Liverpool, in particular, are keen on securing his services, which makes Leeds’ job all the tougher. However, the Whites must do all that they can to sign the young defender permanently.

Here are some numbers that point towards why signing White is imperative for Leeds. In the 2019/20 season, the 22-year-old ranked first in the Championship for minutes played (4140), ball recoveries (301), interceptions (116), successful passes (2185), defensive duels won per 90 (9.2), blocks (25), clearances (122) and clean sheets (25).

In addition, White was only behind one player each in touches (3197), duels won (271) and aerial duels won (129). These figures are ridiculous for someone who had a a breakthrough campaign in senior football in 2019/20. While the numbers should undergo a correction when he plays in the Premier League, the sheer ability to perform at a high level both on and off the ball potentially makes White a ready-made quantity for the top-flight.

Simply put, the well-rounded defender has the quality to rekindle his partnership with Liam Cooper at the heart of the Leeds defence whilst retaining the ability to shut off the threat of most teams in the Premier League. So, if Leeds can manage to sign White permanently, they ought to have their defence sorted for the season to come.

Pablo Hernandez

Finally, here is one player who is likely to be crucial in the final third for Leeds, his advancing age notwithstanding. Pablo Hernandez has been named the Whites’ Player of the Year for a record third time following a stunning campaign and for good reason.

A sprightly winger at his pomp, the 35-year-old has adapted his game marvellously as his pace started dropping. Now an intelligent attacking midfielder, the Spaniard has been using his vision to good effect for some time now, with Bielsa, in particular, exploiting his creative abilities in the best way possible.

In the two seasons that the Argentine has been at Elland Road, no Leeds player ranks higher than Hernandez in assists (21), goal involvement (42), chances created (204), big chances created (29), passes into the box (689), through passes (209) and deep completion passes (241). In addition, he has also scored 6 goals from outside the box, a quality that ought to come in handy in the Premier League.

Hernandez also won Leeds 15 points with his goals and in the season gone by, Leeds won 2.18 points per game when the veteran midfielder featured – the most of any player in the second-tier in 2019/20. Also, Hernandez created the second-most chances per 90 minute in the Championship this season (2.9) and while Jack Harrison created five more chances than Hernandez (82), the 35-year-old ran his younger teammate close despite being rotated heavily.

Expected to be rotated once again in the Premier League, Bielsa’s tendency to use the Spanish playmaker smartly means that El Mago ought to retain his influence in the side in the season to come as well.

Most importantly, it is his previous experience in the Premier League with Swansea City that should come in handy for a Leeds side that is brimming with players who have mostly played in the Championship. A key player for Bielsa and Leeds for 2020/21.

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