Bielsa’s Leeds: How Former Championship Level Players Have Blossomed Into Exciting Premier League Talent

Leeds United Champions Trail on full display in city centre this weekend -  Leeds Live

Leeds United had just finished 13th in the Sky Bet Championship when Marcelo Bielsa was appointed manager of the club in 2018.

All with plenty of dead wood and toxic activity surrounding one of England’s most famous clubs. Numerous players who were at the club during this time were considered average or surplus to requirements by fans.

Now they have solidified their position as Premier League calibre players in a team that has lit up the top flight with entertainment since promotion last summer.

We take a look at just some of these players and how the man dubbed as ‘El Loco’ has changed their Leeds careers dramatically. 

Kalvin Phillips 

Leeds ace Kalvin Phillips reveals plan to make incredible Marcelo Bielsa  gesture after first England call-up

Born and bred in Leeds, Kalvin Phillips made his debut for the club back in 2015 as a 19 year old box-to-box midfielder.

Phillips flew under the radar in his first full season in comparison to fellow academy graduates Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook who were constantly getting sniffed at by superior clubs.

When Garry Monk was appointed manager in 2016, he was featured often in a defensive midfield of two with license to make attacking runs when necessary and chipping in with the odd goal as a result.

The season after under Thomas Christiansen Phillips recorded his best goal contribution tally of seven goals and three assists for the season.

But he was still accused of inconsistent performances. And a lackluster style of play that left the young midfielder splitting opinions within the Leeds United fanbase.

Bielsa’s arrival immediately began by declaring Phillips as the team’s main pivot in a solely defensive role, receiving the ball from the defenders and tucking into a back three if need be.

The change of style complemented Phillips to a tee and helped move Leeds up the pitch in attack, whilst staying strong and street wise when defensive cover was needed.

The midfielder excelled right from the off in his new role and was named in the EFL Championship Team of the Year in the following two years.

His improvement in his long range passing has translated his play into a ‘quarter back’ role where he now receives the ball short and looks to spread it up the pitch with precision.

Before he even kicked a ball in the Premier League, Gareth Southgate identified his talent by calling him up to the England squad and has since planted a firm grip of his game against some of the world’s best. 

Liam Cooper 

Liam Cooper makes more Leeds United supporting claims despite fulfilling  Hull City 'dream' - Hull Live

Signing from Chesterfield in 2014 for just half a million pounds, Liam Cooper featured regularly under a turbulent first few years at the club and under Leeds’ numerous managerial appointment changes at the time including Dave Hockaday, Darko Milanic and Steve Evans who all favoured the defender.

The only time he did not primarily play in a season was during the 2016/17 campaign under Garry Monk with fan favourites Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson forming a dynamic duo that campaign, leaving Cooper on the bench.

Fans would be left frustrated with Cooper’s erratic performances and rash decisions that led to a leaky defence in his pre Bielsa Leeds career.

When he did feature during Monk’s era, his misunderstanding with Italian goalkeeper Marco Silvestri led to the penalty goal that earned non league Sutton United a famous win against The Whites before getting sent off in the same match.

Cooper was named captain of Leeds the following season which bemused Leeds fans as a result of his recent noninvolvement in the squad and with many critics questioning his quality at championship level. 

Bielsa made Cooper a regular in his team from game one, and even retained his position as club captain which Bielsa insisted was a decision happily agreed with by the players.

Forming a starting partnership of himself and Jansson for the Argentinian’s first campaign in charge. Cooper’s performances rose incredibly as he looked more confident on the ball and organised the team well on the pitch.

The season after which resulted in promotion, he formed another excellent duo alongside loanee Ben White that gave The Whites the best defensive record in the league.

It was clear that Cooper was likeable in the dressing room and was never concerned about being in the limelight ahead of Jansson or White who were more favourable in the centre back position.

He also became the first Leeds captain since Gordon Strachan in 1992 to lift a trophy for the club. It is fair to say that the player weathered the storm in his earlier years. And now seen as a historical figure in the team’s recent history. 

Stuart Dallas 

Stuart Dallas proves fans' favourite in Leeds United player of the year  poll - Belfast Live

Northern Ireland international Stuart Dallas joined Leeds as a winger from Brentford back in 2015 for £1.5 million after being part of The Bee’s recent promotion push.

Dallas was always considered a handy player to have in the side.

A who would work hard for the team and would feature frequently on either wing in a midtable Leeds side in his first season.

His following two seasons before Bielsa’s arrival would follow a similar pattern of mediocre performances but a flash of above average games from time to time.

The 2016/17 season under Garry Monk saw him form a good partnership with striker Chris Wood. He would manage to execute some great crosses into the box for the New Zealand international to finish. But he was relatively more known for his hard work and dedication to the team rather than technical qualities.  

Bielsa completely changed the role of Dallas when he was appointed where he barely even featured as a winger unless the team was chasing a goal.

The Argentinan identified his traits and used him as a utility player, primarily using him at full back where he had dabbled in for his national country.

He was able to get up and down the pitch with his already superb fitness levels, making him an attacking threat and reliable defensive presence.

Dallas even played in midfield on multiple occasions, just in front of Kalvin Phillps. With the ability to zip around the pitch to win the ball back and keep possession.

Being so versatile that he doesn’t have a specific position at this stage of his career, even being tasked to man mark certain opponents out of the game due to his defensive qualities.

His game now compares to a James Milner of Liverpool, where he is seen as the wise veteran of the team who is known as ‘Mr reliable’ to those around him.

Ultimately, he was a key feature in Leeds’ title winning season and continues to impress in the Premier League. 

Mateusz Klich 

One manager's outcast is another's ever-present: How Mateusz Klich has  become a constant factor in Bielsa's team – The Athletic

Out of all the players mentioned so far, Mateusz Klich’s rise to fame in this Leeds side has perhaps been the most surprising considering his start to life in Yorkshire.

The Polish international came to Leeds for around £1.5 million in 2017 and barely played under Thomas Christiansen in the first half of the campaign.

When he did get his chance to start away at Cardiff, his slip led to the Welsh side scoring the opening goal of the game and getting substituted early into the second half, subsequently resulting in a 3-1 defeat.

It was virtually the only time we saw him play in the league and was loaned out to FC Utrecht for the second half of that season.

It looked like the last time Leeds fans would ever see Klich with his departure looking inevitable despite not getting a fair crack of the whip. Even the Pole himself would admit it was unlikely he’d play at Elland Road again. 

Returning from his loan and of course with a change of manager, Bielsa identified Klich as a key player that would fit with his team and style of play.

Just ahead of Kalvin Phillips in midfield, Klich would roam around to keep the team ticking with his touches and close control, accompanied by some terrific goals that he could pull out from distance.

Klich would go on to play all but one Championship game under Bielsa’s Leeds in what was a remarkable comeback to his Leeds career.

He gained double figures in goals in Bielsa’s first season, whilst gaining multiple assists with his link up play with striker Patrick Bamford and forming a key partnership together. 

Bielsa admitted recently that the Pole “could play for any team in the world” which is some complement from one of the greatest coaches to date.

His Premier League campaign has started well, looking calm and composed with the extra space that you get when playing top flight football.

If it wasn’t for him being in his thirties there would be no doubt that world class teams would be scouting him closely.  

Luke Ayling 

Leeds United news: Luke Ayling deal explained by Victor Orta | Football |  Sport |

In contrast to the previous Mateusz Klich, Luke Ayling’s Leeds career did start well prior to the arrival of Bielsa when he was signed by Garry Monk for the 2016/17 campaign for less than a million pounds. Leeds fans were unsure of the signing at first due to the unknown quantity that Ayling was at the time in the Championship, and with Bristol City manager Lee Johnson suggesting he wasn’t good enough for his side anymore.

The right back answered critics right away. Looking comfortable on the ball and becoming a great outlet on the right side. That was able to get early crosses into the box and track runners defensively.

In his first season when Leeds just missed out on the play offs, he was one of Leeds’ key figures to build around for the following season and looked like a great value signing.

His form continued into the next season although was cut short by injury when Leeds were again in the play off run, and missed the second half of the campaign when The Whites form went completely out the window.

It seemed as if Ayling was already a quality Championship player that was already playing at his peak.  

Yet even players that were deemed good enough to help Leeds get out of the Championship, still were able to elevate their game under the presence of Marcelo Bielsa.

Ayling mentioned he had to lose weight when Bielsa arrived at his request, taking his fitness levels to a whole new level so he could bomb up and down the wing for the entire 90 minutes.

Subsequently, his form peaked even higher than before to a point where even after Leeds’ first failed promotion campaign under Bielsa, he looked an already made Premier League footballer.

During his time under Bielsa in the Championship, he was even asked to play centre back numerous times, a position he hadn’t played since his academy days at Arsenal

Leeds’ injury problems at centre back since promotion have meant he has already had to play there against some of the top strikers in the league but shown to do little wrong in this unpreferred role.

He still has the ability to drive the ball out from centre back and pick out passes from this position, as well as improving immensely in the air despite not being the tallest for a centre half.

Another fine tuned player under Bielsa.

Ayling has come on leaps and bounds despite already impressing when he first came to the club.  

Gaetano Berardi 

Leeds United defender Gaetano Berardi wears full kit while out in Leeds bar  | Yorkshire Evening Post

A final player whose progress in a Leeds shirt may not be quite as obvious is defender Gaetano Berardi, signing for the club back in 2014.

Berardi has always been well loved by fans for his commitment and team efforts that have symbolised the ethics of the football club, but usually used sporadically in his time at the club.

Operating at both left and right back in his first four years.

He would solely be told to concentrate on defensive duties with a reluctance to attack down the wing in contrast to a modern day full back.

Berardi was also notorious for picking up silly red cards for dangerously unnecessary challenges or off the ball incidents that hindered the result of games, missing ten games combined through suspension during the 2017-18 season.

It was clear that the Swiss defender would never be the first name on the team sheet in terms of quality.

But his heart is what kept Leeds fans in favour of keeping him around the squad. 

Plenty might have thought Bielsa would have dismissed Berardi once he came to the club, like he had done with several other fringe players he deemed unable to help take the club forwards.

However, he took a liking to Berardi and helped convert him into a centre back where he started in Bielsa’s first ever competitive fixture against Stoke City.

He showed improvement with his footwork on the ball to pass out from the back.

Also expressing a great ariel presence in challenges despite being under six foot tall.

Berardi would not be a starter in a fully fit Leeds United team during any time under Bielsa’s reign, although his ability to cover positions and fit in comfortably was a big plus for the team.

His dressing room presence was also a big factor in helping to motivate players and boost chemistry. An important ingredient for a promotion winning side.

When he tore his ACL against Derby County in the penultimate game of the Championship winning campaign, his contract was due to run out at the end of the season and would have made financial sense for the club to let him go.

Although, the club rewarded his loyalty and performances throughout the season with an extension whilst he was recovering from injury and is set to be back to action in the spring.

I’m sure it would be a great sight for all fans if he made a Premier League appearance upon his return to honour his improvement and dedication throughout his time at Leeds. 

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