The 2022-23 campaign was a turbulent one for Leeds United. They won their fewest games in a league season since 1947, dropped 25 points from winning positions, broke their own record for goals conceded in a month in the Premier League and dropped out of the division they had craved to return to for 16 long years. Ending the season with Sam Allardyce in charge for four games in a desperate bid to win enough points to scrape over the line would have been incomprehensible to any Leeds fan just two years ago, when they finished ninth on 59 points, just two behind Arsenal, but that’s how bad things had got by the summer of 2023. Two seasons after their promotion, with 159 goals conceded and just 16 league wins to cheer about, it was back to where they started.
This summer was a period of change, with new owners, a new recruitment team and, crucially, a new manager. Daniel Farke was a common-sense appointment, with the German winning the division in his two previous Championship campaigns, 2018-19 and 2020-21, with Norwich City.
Although his Premier League record was poor (35 defeats in 49 games), part of what attracted Leeds to Farke was his desire to return Leeds to the top flight and to prove himself there, something he felt he hadn’t been able to do at Norwich due to the quality of the squad.
Farke’s Championship pedigree and credentials are obvious, with his win ratio (51.0%) bettered only by Steve Coppell (51.1%) of all managers to take charge of at least 100 games in the division since 2004-05. In Marcelo Bielsa’s time at Leeds, Farke’s Norwich were one of only two teams to score three goals in an away Championship league game at Elland Road, a 3-1 win in February 2019.
Although this summer was complicated by the departures of many players who didn’t want to play in the Championship, player ill-discipline and Luis Sinisterra leaving on deadline day, Leeds also made several shrewd signings. Joël Piroe, the leading Championship scorer over the past two seasons, came in from Swansea. Ethan Ampadu joined from Chelsea to add to the midfield, as did Glen Kamara from Rangers, a UEFA Europa League finalist as recently as 2022.
On loan, Joe Rodon has shored up the defence, while injury has robbed Leeds of seeing any more than nine minutes of Djed Spence, a Championship promotion winner in 2021-22 with Nottingham Forest. Steadily, Leeds have built a squad capable of challenging at the right end of the table.
So, can Daniel Farke do what only Bielsa has managed in the last 20 years and take Leeds United back to the Premier League?
Style of Play
One of the main criticisms of Leeds United’s style of play since the sacking of Marcelo Bielsa was the lack of emphasis on keeping hold of the ball. Leeds ranked 18th for passing accuracy in the Premier League last season (75%) and 16th for successful passes.
In the Championship this season, Leeds are averaging 10% more possession than last campaign (56.4%) and completing almost 100 more passes per game (396 vs 299), while they are up to 83% for passing accuracy. They’ve had 130 open-play sequences of 10 or more passes this season, which is already more than 70% of their total for all of last season (182).
Clearly, there are other factors at play – mainly the drop in quality of opponent – but there is no question that Leeds are looking to dominate the ball in a way they weren’t under the last couple of managers.
This is typical of a Farke team. In his last Championship season in 2020-21, his Norwich side dominated the possession charts (60.7%), and were top for successful passes (20,879) and passing accuracy (82.8%) as they won promotion by 10 points.
The change in style has also helped goalkeeper Illan Meslier, who conceded 146 league goals across the previous two seasons and, at the age of just 23, is still relatively young in goalkeeping terms, with only Gary Sprake (350) and John Lukic (165) making more appearances than Meslier (137) when aged 23 or younger for Leeds United among goalkeepers.
Looking at his passing stats under his four permanent managers (Sam Allardyce opted to drop Meslier for Joel Robles for the final four games of 2022-23), Meslier’s accuracy is up to 77% under Farke, a huge jump from his numbers under Javi Gracia and Jesse Marsch, thanks in part to the number of short passes he is making. Only four goalkeepers have completed more passes this season in the Championship than the Frenchman (317).
Sorting Out the Defence
One of Leeds’ many nadirs last season – relegation aside – was breaking their own record for goals conceded in a month in Premier League history. They shipped 23 in April, the most by a top-flight side in a month for 58 years. After beating Southampton 1-0 in February, Leeds let in 39 goals in 14 Premier League games and, unsurprisingly, had the league’s leakiest defence across the entire season (78). Unfortunately for Leeds, that continued into this season, as they conceded in each of their first six games in all competitions, stretching their run without a clean sheet to 21 games, their worst since 2004.
Then September arrived, and a goalless draw against Sheffield Wednesday sparked a run of five clean sheets in seven Championship games, the most of any Championship side in that time.
Only Leicester (3) have conceded fewer goals than them since the start of last month (4), while they have also faced the fewest shots (60) and lowest xG against (5.15), an unthinkable prospect for anyone going into last month. Their 1-0 win over QPR saw them equal their tally for clean sheets for the entirety of the 2022-23 season.
One of the key signings of this summer for Leeds was the loan capture of Welsh international Joe Rodon from Tottenham Hotspur. This season in the Championship, Leeds have only conceded five goals in the eight games and 673 minutes he’s been on the pitch, compared to six goals conceded in 431 minutes without him. They also haven’t let in a single goal in open play with him on the pitch in his last five appearances. Rodon has won 4.9 aerial duels per 90 minutes in the Championship this season, second only to Preston’s Jordan Storey (5.8) among defenders.
When Daniel Farke last won the Championship title in 2020-21, his Norwich City side had 91 more shots than any other side (718) during the regular league campaign, while also topping the xG charts (79.3). Leeds this season are following a similar pattern. Although not top for shots outright (177, behind only Ipswich and Southampton), Leeds do have the biggest differential in shots taken to shots faced in the Championship, attempting 73 more than they have faced.
Leeds scored four goals in their victory over Ipswich in August – the Tractor Boys’ only league defeat in their last 30 games – despite going 1-0 down early in the game. It was the first time they’d netted four goals in an away game after conceding first since December 2012, a 4-2 win at Huddersfield. The Ipswich win also saw the first goal in a Leeds shirt for Piroe, and the Dutchman has added four more to take his tally to five goals in eight league games, the fastest any Leeds player has scored five league goals since Davide Somma in 2010, who did so in six games.
Piroe’s signing was one of a club doing the obvious – sign the Championship’s most potent striker in recent years and let him score goals. However, he hasn’t been playing as an out-an-out striker and instead has played behind Georginio Rutter, something that Farke felt compelled to spend 13 minutes answering questions about in a recent press conference (“When it comes to strikers, I know my business”).
The next game, Piroe scored the winner against Bristol City, bringing vindication all round. It took his total to 46 Championship goals, the most of any player since his August 2021 debut. Piroe also scores plenty from outside the box – 10 to be precise, also the most since his debut.
Rutter, a 21-year-old Frenchman signed from Hoffenheim for big money in January, is starting to come good. The move made little sense at the time, with Leeds desperate for a more experienced player to hit the ground running and keep them in the Premier League, and Rutter made only one league start – in a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in March. The drop in division, however, has allowed Rutter to flourish. Although he only has two goals to his name, it is Rutter’s creative qualities that have stood out this season, creating the most chances in open play (21), attempting the most dribbles (41) and having the highest expected assists total (2.97) of any Championship player since the start of September. He’s also chipped in with three assists, a total only one player, the former Leeds defender Leif Davis (4), has beaten in that time.
The future feels positive, not least because this Leeds United team is a young one, with an average starting XI age of 24 years and 86 days – only Sunderland’s (23 years, 7 days) is younger in the Championship this season.
Leeds have handed 48 league appearances to players aged 21 or younger so far this season, their most at this stage of a season since 1999-00 (53), when the likes of Alan Smith, Michael Bridges and Jonathan Woodgate were leading Leeds to the top of the Premier League.
This season, two young players linking up particularly well are Crysencio Summerville and Rutter, who between them have created 13 chances for one another – the most of any Championship duo, despite only playing 544 minutes together so far this season.
Toppling Leicester and Ipswich
Leeds have 19 points from 11 games this season – one more than Burnley had at this stage last season, who later won the title with 101 points, 21 points clear of third. While that may sound positive, Leeds are already nine points off second spot, with this season seeing an unprecedented start by two different teams. Leicester City have 30 points and promoted Ipswich have 28. Before this season, the only team to have 28+ points at this stage of a Championship season was Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United in 2005-06, who had 30. The only team to come from 11 points behind after 11 games to win the Championship title is Sunderland in 2006-07, who were 13 points behind.
Positively for Leeds, the last team to win the title from 10+ points behind were Farke’s Norwich in 2018-19, who were 10 points behind Bielsa’s Leeds after six games.
Leeds haven’t bounced back from relegation with an immediate promotion since 1932, and it took them 16 seasons – three of which were spent in League One – to return to England’s top table last time. But with a Championship promotion expert at the helm, the league’s most prolific striker of recent years and, finally, some clean sheets on the board, there are plenty of reasons to feel Leeds might not be hanging around in the lower divisions for quite as long this time.