This season we will be gathering the views from our opponents’ local press on their team, progress and hopes for the season. As we look ahead to hosting Leeds United at The Den on Saturday afternoon, we spoke to Phil Hay, Chief Football Writer at the Yorkshire Evening Post.
What was your view on Leeds United last season?
Chalk and cheese, and ultimately lacking substance. There were moments of sustained promise but not enough to bother the clubs at the top end of the Championship and Millwall were one of a number of sides who exposed their lack of backbone. A 13th-place finish was about right.
How would you assess the start to this campaign and the club’s transfer business?
The start to the season has been extremely impressive, and more so than last season. Granted, Leeds were top of the league this time last year but without the same panache or the same list of scalps behind them. The positive aspect of the summer transfer business was that Leeds moved back towards the domestic market for signings like Barry Douglas and Patrick Bamford - players who’ve done it in the Championship. That needed to happen. The question is whether they have a deep enough squad. Bielsa’s preference is to carry a group of around 22, 23 players, or two players for each position. It’s a brave move in a league this demanding and injuries are biting already.
What was the reaction like from the supporters following the appointment of a coach with the CV of Marcelo Bielsa?
There was an element of disbelief that Bielsa was willing to come. His last job at Lille paid him around £7m a year. He was being asked to work below England’s elite division and he was renowned as an inspiration for some of the best coaches in the game. When the appointment came off, it was hard to find a single dissenting voice. His first month in the Championship has only strengthened the support behind him.
What have you made of Bielsa and his style and approach so far?
He’s a fascinating guy, a deep thinker who seems to obsess about the game in every waking moment. His press conferences are a world of philosophical thought and he’s been great to write about. Tactically, his methods and ideas have shone through and crucially, to date they’ve worked. There’s no second way with Bielsa. It’s the high press, fast, technical football and his team on the front foot. Forget the idea of a plan B.
Who would you describe as Leeds’ key men?
It’s unfortunate to report, from Leeds’ perspective, that so many of the club’s key players are injured this weekend. Patrick Bamford is out for four months with a knee injury, Kemar Roofe has taken a kick in training and Leeds are travelling to Millwall without an experienced centre forward. Pablo Hernandez will miss the game too, along with defender Gaetano Berardi, and Bielsa is bound to suffer to some extent from the absence of Hernandez’s craft and invention on the right. The surprise package at Leeds has been Mateusz Klich - an outcast last season but integral now. An advanced midfielder, he’s got goals in his game. And as for Spaniard Samuel Saiz, he’s almost unplayable on his day.
Do you think this is Leeds’ strongest squad in the last 10-15 years?
That’s an interesting question. Bielsa has cut it back to the bones in terms of the surplus players he’s willing to carry and there are plenty of footballers here who struggled in the Championship last season. It remains to be seen if their consistency holds. But what Leeds do have is the most respected manager they’ve employed for at least 15 years. No-one in the boardroom or the dressing room has anything like Bielsa’s profile and as a club, Leeds need that authority in a head coach.
Are you confident the team can sustain a promotion challenge for the full length of the season after falling away in previous years?
Yes, although I’d prefer to get another 10 games in before taking a view on that. Bielsa has worked incredibly hard on the squad’s weight and their fitness and they couldn’t be in better shape physically. But as good as these six games have been, it’s a short window to draw conclusions from. Bielsa is saying that himself. And the way they cope with these injuries will be telling.
Your score prediction for Saturday?
I generally travel to Millwall expecting nothing but I’m going to go with the prevailing wind. Millwall’s form isn’t great, they seem to be relying heavily on the atmosphere to perk them up and provided Leeds are disciplined, I think Millwall will find their quality difficult to manage. There’s no question that Leeds have lost crucial players but I’m calling an away win regardless, and not before time.