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After a rocky start, Leeds have been flying under ex-Norwich boss Daniel Farke this season - what are the factors behind his success so far?
When Daniel Farke came into Leeds on 4th July – somewhat ironically symbolic for the new American owners – he said that his mission was to create an atmosphere of unity.
The previous two seasons were some of the worst I can remember as a Leeds fan. Conceding the most goals in a calendar month for any Premier League side ever, going from Bielsa to Jesse Marsch, to, eventually, Sam Allardyce, was just about as bad as it gets.
The dressing room and atmosphere behind the scenes was toxic. Players were refusing to play, or sign new contracts, some threatened to sue the club if they weren’t allowed to leave. And many left via loan clauses.
This was the kind of calibre of players we had – those who refused to take responsibility, and in some cases – like Weston Mckennie – strutted around the pitch feeling sorry for himself and putting in zero effort.
Farke changed all that. There is now a team unified, both on and off the pitch. They work hard, are disciplined, and he’s brought in quality that’s gelled. It’s a complete transformation.
On the table this time last season Leeds would have been in first place after 20 matches, are you confident that you can catch Leicester and Ipswich to avoid the lottery of the playoffs?
On Opta’s “Expected Points” table Leeds are actually top, with Ipswich fourth. After a shaky start, Farke has Leeds purring. But Ipswich is a fairy tale and an unbelievable story.
I don’t think after winning the Premier League and the FA Cup in recent years anyone expected Leicester to be relegated, but through poor recruitment and being unlucky with injuries – here we are.
It’s an extraordinary start to the Championship season. No two teams have ever amassed more points after 20 games than the top two – at least – not in the 19 seasons that I have looked at. Even in their record-breaking season of 106 points, Reading ‘only’ had 47 points at this stage.
Everyone is expecting Ipswich to fall away. I think they will also. If they get hit with a few injuries they will not be able to cope as well as the recently relegated clubs in the same scenario.
Leeds have the luxury of Jaidon Anthony, Djed Spence, Wilfried Gnonto, Ilia Gruev and many more to come off the bench. Anthony and Spence were in previous Championship teams of the year and would walk into many sides in this league.
Gnonto has represented Italy and Gruev is Bulgaria’s great hope for their national team in the future. Farke has a record of instilling a relentless mentality in teams in this division and I think we’ve seen all the signs of that so far.
Looking at your home and away records, your home form has been far better, what would you say are Leeds’ weaknesses on the road?
The kits. No, but seriously we have had some terrible kits the last few seasons and we did go on a run of not winning in a non-white for a year or so.
I don’t think we have too many weaknesses away from home really. We’ve won at Leicester, Ipswich, Millwall, Norwich. And some of those games were real battles: Norwich 2 Leeds 3; Ipswich 3 Leeds 4.
I’d say our weakness away from home is that we can have the odd blip where we’ve taken our foot off the gas or turned up and thought it was going to be easy and been spuriously rolled over. 3-1 at Southampton, 1-0 at Stoke – so a touch of complacency – if you catch us on an off day you might win.
Jack Clarke has been on fire for Sunderland this season, is he finally starting to show the player you thought he would become after that breakthrough season at Leeds?
Jack Clarke was a little wizard. A lot of people talk about Micah Richards bursting onto the scene, Jack Clarke actually did. He was magnificent. Would absolutely terrorise defenders from wide positions, was very direct and could create something from nothing.
Until... I think it was against Middlesborough away and he collapsed on the subs bench and there was a huge delay in the game. I think that was when Kalvin Phillips scored the latest-ever goal for a Leeds player in something like the 106th minute.
He was never the same after that and we celebrated when we got 10 million for him, we thought we had Spurs pants down. But I’m glad he’s found his feet and is doing well again. Always liked him.
Another ex-Leeds academy player who has performed well this season is Niall Huggins, is he another that you expected to do well at Sunderland?
Huggins was part of the u23s PL2 Div2 Champions that included Charlie Cresswell, Sam Greenwood, Joe Gelhardt, Cody Drameh, Leif Davis and Crysencio Summerville, as well as a few others. He didn’t massively stand out in that side but that would be difficult.
Bielsa spent a lot of time with that team and it was very well coached by Mark Jackson. They were a very talented crop of young players, very exciting to watch as you can see by this season in the Championship Summerville is probably the current player of the season, Davis has the most assists, and Greenwood’s free kick goal is a goal of the season contender, Cresswell had a brilliant season on loan for Millwall last term.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Huggins was a bit of a late bloomer, he has bags of potential and again I hope he does well in the rest of his career. Lots of good memories of that team.
On the topic of Leeds players who have been at Sunderland, Joe Gelhardt appears to have struggled for minutes this season - do you expect him to leave in January?
I’m not sure if he would leave. It would depend on if he asked of course and if we got injuries which are always possible. Personally, I would rather see Paatrick Bamford moved on.
I would like Gelhardt to go get some minutes somewhere, I think he needs them. He is another player who has enormous potential. His ability to find a yard and hit and unstoppable shot with very little backlift is unusual.
He has vision too, and can pick a pass. But he needs time to gel with teammates and into a formation and I don’t see him getting the minutes with us.
Looking at your attacking options, Summerville, James, Piroe, Ruiter, Gnonto, Bamford really is scary depth at this level - which of those have stood out this season?
The best thing about this bunch is they all bring something different. And they all have their little purple patches.
Summerville – all-around quality, pass, touch, finishing, crossing, vision, he’s about 4 foot but he also headed a goal the other day so he’s even got that. But what stands out is his persistence and bravery, he will keep running at defenders, taking them on and putting them on the back foot.
James – his speed obviously, his tenacity, his willingness to get back and help defend – he cares as much about that as going forward, his quality from set pieces is solid, he doesn’t have the greatest long shot in the world but he is decent in one-on-one situations.
Piroe – Joel is the finisher I’ve craved for years at Leeds. Extremely cold in the area, doesn’t look like he’s going to miss. Great penalty taker. He’s got vision as well, can pick a pass, and he works hard off the ball which you wouldn’t necessarily expect of a striker of his type. Very streaky with his goals, nets a few and then goes quiet for a few games. But you know he’s always got that capability in him.
Rutter – absolutely ridiculously talented. Skills coming out of his ears. Very strong too. Difficult to shake off the ball or intimidate. He plays with a swagger that fills you with confidence and already has a kind of telepathic connection with Summerville. A player that is far too good for the Championship. And on his day completely unplayable. But his best quality is his personality. He has a huge smile on his face, and he is someone that celebrates everyone else’s goals as if he has scored a last-minute winner in the Champions League Cup Final. The heart and soul of this team.
Gnonto – In a bit of hot water after refusing to play and attempting to force a move earlier in the season. He has never really looked the same player since then. He still has bags and bags of quality and potential though he does tend to sulk about at times. Powerful shot, very dinky can dive around players or pummel through them. When he’s on form he can create something out of nothing. Great connection with Summerville.
Bamford – the less said the better. He has to figure out a way to induce “exercise-induced amnesia” because he’s clearly got all the talent and work rate but psychologically he seems to let the crowd effect him at times. We’ve all wanted Bamford to replicate the form he showed in lockdown when there were no fans in grounds and he earned himself an England cap. Unfortunately, he’s never been the same since and the injuries haven’t helped. Sort his head out though and he would be one of the best in the country.
Aside from the above-mentioned players, who would you say have been Leeds’ best performers this season?
Joe Rodon and Ethan Ampadu. Two player brought in over the summer and have transformed a defence that conceded 150+ goals in two seasons to one which is very difficult at times to play against.
And can’t not mention Sam Byram who has returned this summer and been so solid. 7 or 8 out of 10 every game and no less. And Archie Gray who, at 17, puts many grown men to shame, he is so incredibly talented, has so much potential. He’s a future Leeds captain, I could see them building a team around him he’s that good. I haven’t been this excited about a Leeds youngster for a long, long time.
What tactical setup can we expect from Daniel Farke’s side and which eleven players do you think he will select?
We’ll play 4231 and we’ll look to dominate possession. But when we don’t have the ball we’ll often only rarely employ anything but a mid-block. We’ll look to soak up your pressure a little and then hit quickly on the break.
Meslier, Spence, Struijk, Rodon, Gray, Kamara, Ampadu, Summerville, Piroe, James, Rutter.
Sunderland have only lost one of their last five matches against Leeds, dating back to 2006 - what is your prediction for the final score?
I think these types of historical records are fairly meaningless. 2006 was a long time ago with very different players. I don’t think it will be easy though. I’d say we might just edge it 2-1 or 3-1 Leeds.