EFL lover Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) has his say on the Championship’s prime promotion contenders, Leeds, and makes an early selection for Saturday.
One To Watch | Leeds looking solid and dependable
In August, Leeds produced three high-quality, high-intensity performances against Stoke, Derby and Norwich; those three games provoked great excitement for the season ahead under Marcelo Bielsa, who is one of the most respected figures in the game.
Since then, the Whites have certainly lived up to the early-season promise in terms of results, sitting second in the table following four consecutive league wins, which puts them five points clear in the automatic promotion race.
How should we assess their performances?
It is fair to say that, due to the rigorous nature of the Championship, the champagne football has not always flowed at Elland Road and thus they have needed to display the adaptability to win games in different ways.
Under previous managers, Kalvin Phillips has been deployed as a forward-thinking midfielder yet Marcelo Bielsa has converted him into one of the best anchor men around; he has even deputized at centre-back in the absence of Liam Cooper.
In Adam Forshaw, they have another midfielder who can be strong in the challenge and does the simple things well, providing the defence with excellent protection.
Pontus Jansson, meanwhile, has returned to his outstanding 2016-17 form; the man who kept Victor Lindelof out of the Sweden team at the World Cup has produced some composed displays in central defence.
With a sound defensive unit, Leeds have kept nine clean sheets – only Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough have kept more.
Results like September’s 1-0 win at Hull proved that, because they concede so few chances, the attacking side of their play only needs to click for one or two brief periods within games.
Can Peacock-Farrell convert doubters?
The common consensus among Leeds fans is that Bailey Peacock-Farrell is not reliable enough for a team with promotion aspirations.
Of course, he can be prone to the occasional poor performance as we saw against Birmingham and West Brom; there are also question marks about his ability to command his area.
The academy graduate though will only grow in confidence with more games and he has played well in recent weeks.
The 22-year-old made a crucial late penalty save in the 1-0 win over Reading, then made two important stops to deny David McGoldrick while the game at Sheffield United was goalless, before Pablo Hernandez won it late on.
Peacock-Farrell still has something to prove, but he always has the confidence to bark at his defence which suggests he possesses the mental strength to continue his improvement despite the occasional mistake.
Trust in youth
The Leeds squad currently possesses just 12 fit, available players with more than 15 appearances at this level to their name.
Many fans, therefore, are hoping that the club will invest in January to aid their push for the Premier League.
The indications though are that Marcelo Bielsa both rates highly the talent that is coming through the club’s youth academy and wants to embrace the challenge of nurturing them.
Winger Jack Clarke has made an impact from the bench in recent weeks and is benefiting from that involvement.
For example, he was berated by Saiz for poor decision-making in the closing stages of the Reading game, but then had the presence of mind to tee up Hernandez’s goal after stealing the ball from Dean Henderson at Bramall Lane.
Plus, right-back Jamie Shackleton has performed well in the absence of Luke Ayling; he might not offer the same quality of forward passes but makes up for that by providing extra pace and width, earning praise from his manager.
Players to return
If the Leeds squad will not be bolstered by new signings, it could be improved by those already contracted to the club becoming available.
10-goal man Kemar Roofe’s work rate and movement has been vital for the West Yorkshire outfit, but might not be able to play a full 90 minutes for four games over the nine-day festive period – Patrick Bamford’s return to fitness will therefore be timely.
Izzy Brown, who has undertaken an attacking left-sided role for the Under-23s, will soon be back in contention too.
Pablo Hernandez and Samuel Saiz both remain capable of moments of magic, but neither have quite had the same influence on games for 90 minutes that we saw in August.
It’s therefore important that Bielsa can call upon players like Brown, a star performer at this level in 2016-17, to mix things up.
Equally, right-back Lewie Coyle and forward Mallik Wilks are set to return from their successful League One loan spells at Fleetwood and Doncaster respectively; either would improve the depth of the current squad.
Versatile forward Pawel Cibicki also returns from Molde on New Years’ Eve while Paudie O’Connor, who enjoyed some positive appearances at the end of last season, could be recalled.
Of course, these possible additions to the list of players available for selection might not excite fans, but Bielsa has proved more than capable of elevating the ability of his players through excellent coaching.
When he first joined, Barry Douglas looked one of the signings of the summer in the Championship and has since lived up to that billing.
The Scot averages 1.8 key passes per game – more than any left-back in the division who has made more than five appearances – tallying five assists.
He has completed 44 successful tackles – the second-most in the league – which highlights his willingness to engage in the combative side of the game.
The 29-year-old was something of an unknown quantity when he first came into English football in 2017, but his consistency levels have been exemplary.
The betting angle
Despite the expectation of relentless attacking under Bielsa, Leeds have not led by a margin of more than one goal against 11-man opposition outside the bottom three since mid-September.
Although we should not doubt their credentials, therefore, we should perhaps re-direct our praise towards the defensive aspects of their work and perhaps that feeds into the betting.
Five of their last seven games have seen them achieve victory in a contest that sees Under 3.5 goals; a repeat of that eventuality at Bolton, incidentally, is 13/10 with Betfair.
When Leeds are not spectacular, they are at least solid and dependable.
Bolton v Leeds – Leeds to win and Under 3.5 goals (13/10 Betfair)