‘Side before self’: how Leeds United have set the bar for promoted sides


The eruptions of joy as they lift the trophy, the waves of adoring fans venerating their 11 stars, eyes lighting up as they imagine the riches of Premier League football. The stars have aligned in your team’s favour, the promised land is now within reach. But when the dust of a season’s success settles, the beast in its actuality rears its ugly head; how does a newly promoted minnow tackle the stormy skies that are England’s top division?

Many have tried, many have failed. While some have managed to carry their winning mentality into early season success, it soon dissipates and the dark clouds encircle. Getting to the Premier League is one thing, but staying there is just as Herculean a task. From the most recent batch of new hopefuls, one side has shone this season, lighting a beacon that future promoted sides would do well to follow. That team is Leeds United.

This season, the team in Yorkshire White have astonished pundit after pundit, bringing a swagger and stylish football unseen from many promoted teams. Kevin Keegan recently likened them to his own Newcastle side that came up in 1993 (though putting them down slightly too). And, while they may not finish in third like the Magpies did thereafter, their new brand as ‘Entertainers’ has been crucial to their performance.

Their high-octane tactics have been down to one man above all, ‘El Loco’ Marcelo Bielsa. Many neutral fans have praised Leeds for tackling the Premier League with such bravery, and sticking with the style that led them here. If it were any other English club, they would have retreated to grinding out 0-0 draws or appointing Sam Allardyce by now. Instead, the whole club has been blessed with an aura of self-belief.

That belief is central to what makes Bielsa’s team tick. Commentators have warned several times, even when they’re losing, to never write off a spirited Leeds comeback. It is fair that not every side seeking to climb out the EFL can afford someone like Bielsa, professor to the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. But self-belief does not cost a penny, and instilling that attitude has set the Argentinian manager apart this year.

Leeds’ season should stand as a message to promoted teams; the secret recipe just requires a sprinkle of self-belief

Leeds aren’t necessarily the best-performing newly promoted side to grace the Premier League in recent history; Wolves managed to finish 7th in their first season back. Leeds, though, achieved their promotion without expensive Portuguese imports with Champions League experience. Despite spending a fair amount of money last summer, they have actually played the majority of this season with players from their Championship days. Of the starting XI that played West Ham on Monday night, nine were players that featured regularly last season. In fact, we’re yet to see a full-strength Leeds side this season, including new signings, due to numerous injuries.

One could also easily point to Sheffield United’s success of last year and argue that Leeds could face a similar fate of ‘second season syndrome’. The Blades similarly came up with their own unique style that many teams were not accustomed to. Admittedly, there is every chance that Bielsa’s men could follow their Yorkshire neighbours out the exit. However, that would depend a lot on how the next summer pans out for them. Sheffield United, barring Sander Berge, never made any signings that indicated they were pushing for more success. All the rest have looked like safe options for the Championship, in the event of relegation.

Leeds on the other hand, have managed to attract internationals from Spain and Germany, as well as a future star in Raphinha. With further investment from America, they look set to build upon their great foundations. Marcelo Bielsa made it very clear that he wanted specific players to mould to his system, and they’ve done just that. Perhaps against many pundits’ advice, there have been no seasoned Premier League veterans or journeymen. The club, every player and every member of staff, united by Bielsa, have bought into the idea of ‘Side before self’ that is etched onto the stands in Elland Road.

Leeds’ season should stand as a message to potential promoted teams; the secret recipe just requires a sprinkle of self-belief. The belief that if you give your all in each game, you could win, rather than resigning yourself to using all your might just to not lose. It takes a lot to instil this sense of belief, but armed with it, you can avoid years of Sisyphean, Norwich-esque yo-yoing, and build your own footballing identity.

Image: Mr Ush via Creative Commons

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