LEEDS United were soundly beaten by Liverpool at Elland Road in their fourth Premier League game of the season. After four games, they have yet to click into gear and Premier watchers are wondering if Marcelo Bielsa’s team are suffering from second season syndrome, much as Sheffield United did in 2020-21.
Leeds haven’t had the easiest of starts to the campaign, Manchester United away, Liverpool at home and tricky games with Everton and Burnley. Leeds, typically, have enjoyed an average of 57% of possession across their four games, versus 43% for the opposition. They’ve averaged 12 shots per game, but only 27% of these have been on target, hence they are averaging a goal a game. By contrast, their opponents have had an average of almost 19 per game, with 37% on target, which translates into goals conceded 2.75 per game.
Last season they had to face Liverpool and Manchester City in their first four games, losing 4-3 and drawing 1-1 respectively. Leeds have scored half as many goals as they did in the first four in 2020-21 and have conceded three more goals.
Leeds finished 2020-21 well with one defeat in 10, fuelling optimism for the current season. Only six clubs had a worse goal against record than Leeds (54 conceded) but they scored more goals than fourth-placed Chelsea (62 versus 58). They spent around £ 50 million to strengthen their squad in the close season, but the club’s director of football has said the second season is harder for promoted clubs.
Certainly it is difficult to see Leeds closing the gap on the teams that ended 2020-21 above them. Already there are signs that they may have to settle for consolidation, year two. Bielsa’s style is praised by fans and pundits alike, and the Elland Road faithful passionately defend the man on the bucket from every criticism. The question is can Bielsa make Leeds successful or will they be satisfied with the sort of status that Ron Greenwood’s West Ham had in the 1960s and early 1970s – great to watch but infuriatingly inconsistent?
Second season syndrome is something that afflicts team that have over-performed in their first year after promotion. Sheffield United were blighted by it in 2020-21 and in the past, Reading (promoted 2005-06), Ipswich Town (1999-00) and Middlesbrough (1994-95) all made a splash and sunk in year two.
Way back in football history, some promoted teams have had a roller-coaster ride after winning their place in the top flight. For Example, in 1960-61, Ipswich won the second division and a year later, the league championship. A year later they finished 17th and in 1963-64, they went down again.
Success after promotion can be attributed to a number of factors. Money, of course, comes into it, but the element of the unexpected, lots of adrenalin and enthusiasm, innovative tactics and talented management are every bit as important. Take Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, who were managed by the legendary Brian Clough. Forest took the third promotion place in 1977 and then won the league with a team of unlikely heroes. That Ipswich team, managed by Alf Ramsey in his pre-England days, also applied different methods to take the first division by surprise.
Often, it works for just a limited period, hence a team that has something different can steal a march for a year, but then gets “found out” and struggles to maintain momentum. Crystal Palace, in 1979-80, started impressively and topped the table in the early weeks of the season. Likewise, Sheffield United in 1971 were leading the way for much of the autumn before burning-out and finishing 10th.
The average first-year position of the clubs promoted to the Premier over the past five years has been 15th. Leeds managed ninth in 2020-21, a position bettered only by Wolves in 2018-19. Prior to that, Birmingham reached ninth in 2009-10.
People point to Leeds United’s wayward defence and Bielsa’s somewhat cavalier approach to his back line as reasons why Leeds will not move beyond their current status. There will come a time when the club’s management will demand tangible success, in other words, a trophy. At present, Leeds are happy to be back and the Premier is equally pleased to have them back – they are a sizeable club, after all. But if the next step is moving from highly-praised also-rans to contenders, then they have to be set-up differently to avoid regular emphatic defeats.
It is early days, and the fixtures haven’t been the kindest to Leeds, but at some point, they will have to demonstrate they are building on what’s been achieved in the past few years.