After returning to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years and finishing in a respectable ninth position last season, Leeds United endured a more challenging 2021-22 campaign at the wrong end of the table, but they managed to avoid relegation on the final day.
A 2-1 victory away at Brentford, along with Burnley's defeat at home to Newcastle United by the same scoreline, helped the Whites climb out of the bottom three at the Clarets' expense.
Here, Sports Mole takes an in-depth look back at Leeds United's eventful 2021-22 campaign.
Final league position: 17th
EFL Cup: Fourth round
FA Cup: Third round
Top scorer: Raphinha (11)
Most assists: Daniel James (4)
Leeds headed into the 2021-22 campaign with plenty of optimism after an impressive top-half finish the year before. Marcelo Bielsa was adored by the Elland Road faithful, with his high tempo, gung-ho philosophy a fresh and entertaining spectacle to behold.
However, the Argentine's adventurous style of play, and his persistence to stick with it, proved to be a huge factor in the club's downturn in form, which ultimately cost him his job midway through the season.
After a summer transfer window which saw only two names in the form of Jack Harrison and Junior Firpo recruited on permanent deals, Leeds got off to a disappointing start with a heavy 5-1 defeat away at Manchester United on the opening day.
Just three victories in their next 13 matches followed – beating Watford, Norwich City and Crystal Palace – with Leeds hovering just above the relegation zone. A 2-0 loss in October away at Arsenal in the EFL Cup fourth round also occurred during this run.
Injuries were a major cause for concern for Leeds throughout the campaign, with striker Patrick Bamford – who had netted 17 Premier League goals the season before – sidelined for long periods with several problems.
Their injury woes worsened towards Christmas as star midfielder Kalvin Phillips and club captain Liam Cooper both sustained hamstring injuries during a 2-2 draw at home to Brentford on December 5. This game also saw Bamford return from injury, score a dramatic 95th-minute equaliser and then pick up another injury in the celebrations, which forced him to miss the next 12 matches.
Three successive defeats to Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, including a heavy 7-0 thrashing at the Etihad Stadium, kept the Whites precariously positioned above the bottom three at the end of 2021.
However, Leeds made a bright start to the New Year with back-to-back league victories against Burnley and West Ham United, with Jack Harrison scoring four goals across these two fixtures, including a hat-trick at the London Stadium in a 3-2 win for the Whites. This result was revenge for Leeds as they had suffered a 2-0 defeat against the Hammers in the FA Cup third round a week earlier.
Bielsa and co. would have been hoping that these results could act as a springboard for a positive run of form to climb the table, but instead the wheels came off in calamitous circumstances.
A run of five defeats and one draw in their next six matches between January 22 and February 26, in which they conceded a total of 21 goals, brought an end to Bielsa's three-and-a-half-year reign in West Yorkshire, with the 66-year-old leaving the club just two points above the relegation zone.
Less than 24 hours after relieving the Argentine of his duties, Leeds announced the appointment of Jesse Marsch. The 46-year-old American was aware of how difficult the challenge would be in turning the club's fortunes around, and that was evident in his first two games in charge which saw the Whites lose to Leicester City and Aston Villa by an aggregate score of 4-0.
However, Marsch managed to make his mark as they accumulated 11 points during a five-game unbeaten run, including three wins against Norwich, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford, which moved them five points clear of the drop zone. The 3-2 comeback victory away at Wolves provided a huge boost for the Whites during this period.
Successive defeats again to Man City, Arsenal and Chelsea then followed with Stuart Dallas sustaining a broken leg against City, giving Leeds another injury problem, while Luke Ayling's reckless tackle against the Gunners and a rash challenge by Daniel James at Stamford Bridge resulted in two needless first-half dismissals and gave Leeds a mountain to climb in both games.
These three defeats coincided with an upturn in form for relegation rivals Burnley and Everton, who both climbed above the Whites to safety, leaving Marsch's men in 18th, one point behind the Clarets with just two games remaining.
After a 1-1 draw at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, Leeds headed into the final day needing to better Burnley's result at home to Newcastle United to avoid relegation, which is exactly what they achieved. The Clarets lost 2-1 to the Magpies, while strikes from Raphinha and Harrison, the latter netting a 94th-minute winner, helped Leeds win by the same scoreline against Brentford, steering them to safety in dramatic fashion.
PREMIER LEAGUE STATS
Wins: 9 (16th)
Draws: 11 (=4th)
Losses: 18 (6th)
Goals scored: 42 (16th)
Goals conceded: 79 (2nd)
Yellow cards: 101 (1st)
Red cards: 3 (=3rd)
Passes: 16,503 (12th)
Shots: 485 (8th)
Big chances missed: 37 (=12th)
Saves: 147 (1st)
Tackles: 786 (1st)
Own goals: 1 (=12th)
Hit woodwork: 18 (=2nd)
Clearances: 604 (18th)
HOW DID IT COMPARE TO LAST SEASON?
It is fair to say that Leeds became the latest Premier League team to suffer from second-season syndrome, but unlike many sides in previous years, they managed to avoid the drop.
Nevertheless, the Whites ended the 2021-22 campaign in 17th place, eight positions below where they finished last season and with a staggering 21 fewer points. Leeds also won only nine Premier League games this term, half as many as last season.
There was also a significant shift in their goals for and against in this season's top flight. Leeds scored 62 goals and conceded 54 last season to finish with a +8 goal difference, but this term they only scored 42 times and conceded 79 – with only basement club Norwich conceding more – to end the campaign with a -37 goal difference.
In the FA Cup, Leeds were eliminated in the third round for the fifth successive season, with West Ham the fourth consecutive London club to beat them at this stage, after Crawley Town, Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers.
Leeds also failed to progress into the latter stages of the EFL Cup, after losing 2-0 in the fourth round to Arsenal, although they did improve on last season's efforts when they lost 10-9 on penalties to League One outfit Hull City in the second round at Elland Road.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON - RAPHINHA
Leeds will do well to keep hold of star attacker Raphinha this summer, who was a standout performer for the Whites in their bid for survival.
In a campaign which saw the 25-year-old called up to the Brazil national team for the first time, Raphinha contributed with 11 goals – five more than last season – and three assists in 36 games across all competitions.
Leeds relied heavily on striker Patrick Bamford to provide the goals last season, but with several injuries reducing his minutes this term, Raphinha has had to step up in front of goal, and he certainly delivered.
His wand of a left foot and magical skills in the final third have mesmerised the Elland Road faithful, who will be hoping Jesse Marsch and co. can do all they can to persuade the Brazilian to remain in West Yorkshire next season.
Jesse Marsch's fourth game in charge was one that he and the Leeds supporters will remember for years to come, as they recorded a memorable 3-2 comeback victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers on March 18.
The Whites endured a disastrous first half at Molineux, as goals from Jonny Castro and Francisco Trincao put the hosts 2-0 in front at the break, while Patrick Bamford, Mateusz Klich and Diego Llorente were all forced off with injuries, the former leaving the field in tears having only just returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
However, the major turning point in the game came seven minutes after half time when Wolves striker Raul Jimenez was dismissed for a late challenge on Illan Meslier, who became the fourth Leeds player to be withdrawn due to injury.
Despite their injury woes, Leeds managed to take advantage of the extra man and restored parity with two quickfire goals in the space of three minutes from Jack Harrison and Rodrigo. The momentum then shifted into Leeds' favour and in the 91st minute defender Luke Ayling – an unlikely source for goals – managed to score a dramatic winner when he smashed the ball in from close range to seal all three points.
That result saw Leeds claim back-to-back Premier League victories for the first time in 2021-22 and moved them two points clear of the relegation zone.
After a gruelling, injury-hit campaign which saw their Premier League survival hopes go right down to the wire, there was a huge sense of relief from the Leeds supporters and players when the full-time whistle blew at the Brentford Community Stadium.
Marsch's men were on the cusp of survival when Jack Harrison scored a stoppage-time winner, and when news came through that Burnley had lost at Turf Moor, the Whites fans created pandemonium behind the goal as they knew that Premier League football would definitely return to Elland Road for a third successive season.
The aforementioned 3-2 win at Wolves, Joe Gelhardt's 94th-minute winner at home to Norwich and Pascal Struijk's 92nd-minute equaliser against Brighton are also worthy mentions, but sealing survival on the final day was the moment when Leeds fans could finally relax and celebrate all the hard work carried out to maintain their top-flight status.
TOP PRIORITY FOR SUMMER
If Leeds are to avoid another relegation scrap and challenge towards to the top end of the table in years to come, then bolstering their squad should be a major priority for them this summer.
The Whites have suffered with several injury problems throughout this season, which forced both Bielsa and Marsch to call upon their academy players to make up the numbers on matchdays. The likes of Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood have taken their chances in the first team, but Leeds cannot rely too heavily on these youngsters if they wish to climb the table.
The addition of at least one new striker, to provide competition for Bamford and Gelhardt, and upgrades in defence and centre-midfield would improve the spine of the starting lineup.
Leeds' transfer business could depend on whether they can keep hold of star players Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips, who have both been heavily linked with moves away from Elland Road. While both players would be sorely missed if they were to leave, the Whites would likely recoup huge transfer fees for the pair, providing funds for Marsch to target fresh faces.
Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Brenden Aaronson is believed to be one of Leeds' primary targets; the American has previously worked with compatriot Marsch during their time together at the Austrian outfit, and a move to West Yorkshire could tempt the 21-year-old now that Leeds have survived.
Leeds supporters would not have expected their side to have faced such a challenging 2021-22 campaign off the back of their ninth-place finish the year before, but the fact that they have avoided demotion to the Championship must be taken as a huge positive by everyone associated with the club.
The emotional departure of beloved boss Marcelo Bielsa was something that Leeds fans could not have expected either, but a new era now begins under Jesse Marsch, a passionate coach who has already fallen in love with the city and its supporters and who is excited by the potential the club has going forward.
Injuries certainly had a major impact on their season as they may have had enough quality to avoid slipping into a relegation scrap had they been at full strength for more sustained periods. Nevertheless, improvements need to be made this summer and if Marsch recruits the right players who share the same desire as him to succeed, then Leeds can look forward to a less stressful and more hopeful campaign in 2022-23.
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