Three Premier League Players with A Point to Prove This Season

Dele Alli

The Englishmen took the league by storm as he contributed to 40 goals before turning 21, the same as Lampard, Gerrard and Beckham combined. Since, injuries have hampered him which was highlighted by his five goals and three assists in 25 appearances during 2018/19. His mini revival under Mourinho saw him contribute to 12 in 25.

However, he is averaging less shots and passes than at any time in his career whilst creating less chances for his teammates, only 0.9 per 90, half of his average in 2017/18. His Portuguese boss has even called him lazy and the Spurs fans are losing patience with the former wonderkid. If he doesn’t step it up this season, Tottenham will look to cut their losses.

Takumi Minamino

The Japanese star joined Liverpool after the Reds activated his £7.25 million release clause last January. He made 14 Premier League appearances last season and contributed to zero goals and assists, a huge drop off from his 108 from 199 games for Salzburg. He is only creating 0.4 chances a game, less than 34-year-old James Milner.

The 25-year-old will have to push on this season, or the Reds may look to move him on in the summer. He came off the bench to score the equaliser against Arsenal in the community Shield final, his first goal for the club, Liverpool fans will hope this is a sign of things to come this season from Minamino.

Dan James

At only 22, this may be a little harsh on the Welsh winger. When he joined after only making 33 appearances for the Swans, no one expected him to be a regular starter however, due to injuries and a lack of signings, James started 18 of Man United’s first 20 Premier League games. In those games he supplied an impressive nine goal involvements.

2020 has been different. James is yet to score or assist this calendar year which has seen the former Shrewsbury loanee lose his place in the starting line-up to Greenwood. James’ pace has meant he’s been able to show how lethal he can be in a counter attacking side but has struggled against low blocks. The fans’ perspective of him is that he’s an energetic winger with no end product, like a young Zaha, and especially if Sancho is signed, James’ chances will be limited meaning he will have to make the most of them.

Liverpool Vs Leeds United Tactical Preview

The opening round of Premier League fixtures sees the Premier League champions host the Championship champions with two of the world’s best coaches going head to head. Jürgen Klopp and Marcelo Bielsa both like their teams to press and play attacking football, but they are both very different.

Klopp has previously stated that counter-pressing is the best playmaker whilst Bielsa demands his side both press and counter-press.

Bielsa’s system is high energy, like Klopp’s. However, Bielsa’s is more possession orientated and requires a lot of man marking. One or two players go to close down the player in possession whilst other players man mark possible passing options. This limits passing options but also puts the player receiving the ball under pressure straight away, giving Leeds the upper hand and increasing the chance of winning the ball back.

In defence, Bielsa likes a ‘+1’ approach. This means his side will have a spare central defender to act as a sweeper. Whilst in attack it is a ‘-1’ approach. The player(s) leading Bielsa’s press from the front will be outnumbered either one to two or two to three. This approach means his side remains balanced and are less likely to be caught out defensively.

Klopp’s pressing has changed from his time in Germany. His side would use a space-orientated counter-press meaning when they lost the ball, as many players as possible would swarm the player in possession, surrounding them. Now they are less aggressive but still press high.

Instead of aggressively going to the player in possession, only one player goes to them. The others will cut off passing lanes, forcing the player to try and dribble forwards or play it long.

These two pressing systems saw Liverpool fourth for passes per defensive action and second for high turn overs in the Premier League last season whilst Leeds were second and first respectively in the Championship. In fact, Leeds averaged 8 passes per defensive action which would’ve been first in the Premier League by 1.5 and ahead of Liverpool by 2.3.

Bielsa won’t change this approach. He will make his side press with intent and they will be aggressive. Klopp is known for his “heavy metal” approach but against a Bielsa disciple, Pep Guardiola, his approach changed. They looked more to counterattack and hope Man City made a mistake, but Pep had also changed his approach to be more defensive which saw the 0-0 draw at Anfield in October 2018.

The Argentine tweaks his system depending on the opponent whilst Liverpool have their one effective system.

The two sides will press high and look to attack. On paper, it looks to be a great game.

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds’ Promotion Story

They say Bielsa picks football clubs, they don’t pick him. This goes hand in hand with his love of football as he has to have things very particular for him to operate, this is alluded to later. Discounting his time between jobs, Bielsa has only taken one brake away from football which was a three-year hiatus after winning Olympic gold with Argentina in 2004. Despite all this, he doesn’t seek out jobs but instead rejects a lot of offers. For him a job offer is binary, it is either right or it is wrong.

A 2-0 home win over QPR on the 6th May 2018 capped off a long campaign for the Whites as they finished 13th. It was a disappointing season especially after the bright start under Thomas Christiansen but ended with just four wins in the last 16 matches with Paul Heckingbottom at the helm. Chairmen Andrea Radrizzani and director of football Victor Orta left the game together in a car and started talking. Andrea asked Orta who his dream manager for the project would be and without hesitation the Spaniard replied with “Bielsa”, he quickly followed this up saying it was a crazy idea and it was unrealistic.

Radrizzani however would back Victor and gave him the green light to contact him. Victor Orta called Marcelo but he didn’t pick up. The next day, the Argentinian returned the call, having already analysed seven of Leeds’ games from 2017/18, he agreed to meet Orta and chief executive Angus Kinnear in Buenos Aires. Victor, Angus and Marcelo spoke all day and late into the evening and its then that Bielsa’s imagination was captured. Many fail at this hurdle as there is a big difference between Bielsa’s interest in a job and his desire to take it. Although the meeting went well, Kinnear and Orta were frustrated. Every time the Leeds men tried to talk about the details of his contract, Bielsa would go back to talking about football.

Just as they were Angus and Victor were leaving, Marcelo Bielsa handed them a list of demands which included changes to Thorp Arch. Some of these demands included sleeping pods for the players in case he needed them to sleep over, boot marks being cleaned off the wall as he perceived them as a sign of disrespect and a plug socket being moved 3cm so it was in the centre of a wall. Somehow Bielsa has acquired land registry documents to Leeds’ training ground. The demands he has for the board and the players along with his meticulous work and attention to deal are some of the reasons he is labelled ‘El Loco’. “Do all that and I’m in”, Leeds were tantalizingly close to the dream candidate to take the reins at Elland Road.

There was one last stumbling block, the work permit. Due to Bielsa not working for three years apart from a short stint with Lille in France and him not having specific UEFA qualifications, it was difficult for him to get a work permit. He had only worked for 23 months over the five years prior meaning it was going to be a very big challenge, this meant his application required supporting references that would have to be very compelling. Then Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino provided one of the references for his long-time mentor and former Newell’s Old Boys and Argentina coach.

June 14th, 2018, Bielsa put pen to paper. The former Bilbao coach had signed for the Yorkshire giants. The project to get Leeds back where they belong had never looked better. This meant Orta had to fly to Greece to sack Heckingbottom before they could make the official announcement. Despite being sacked whilst taking his family on holiday and being a legend in Barnsley folklore, Heckingbottom was often seen at Elland Road supporting his former employers.

Pre-season was a mixed bag. The Whites didn’t play any of Europe’s elite, the biggest club they played was arguably Las Palmas, however, the results were mixed. Leeds won three, drew two and lost one which was a 4-3 defeat to Oxford. In these games, Bielsa’s ideas were clear as they dominated but struggled to take their chances, a tell-tale sign for things to come.

Despite the loss of Ronaldo Vieira, only two major signings were brought in. Douglas and Bamford arrived at Elland Road however, Douglas spent a lot of the campaign injured so it was pretty much the same squad the finished 13th the previous campaign. Kiko Casilla did come in after 27 matches had been played but his impact was limited.

2018/19 started well for Bielsa’s side, having won five of the first eight which included an emphatic 4-1 win over Lampard’s side at Pride Park. The season had its ups and downs, but Leeds did spend 18 weeks in first place with a further 15 weeks occupying the other automatic promotion spot. This along with xG dictating Leeds should have won the league by seven points was a tough pill to swallow for all involved at Leeds however, the biggest talking point happened in January.

‘Spygate’ as it was dubbed. A Leeds United member of staff was spotted at Derby’s training ground ‘acting suspiciously’. Bielsa admitted to sending the spy to check on any late injuries just to settle his nerves, Lampard complained in the media, at the time people sided with him but since joining Chelsea he has been labelled ‘moany Frank’. This threw Bielsa’s future in the air and he called a press conference.

The press conference lasted for around 70 minutes. This press conference was to dispute claims he uses spies to scout, he showed all the research he did for each side. After going through Lampard’s Derby tactics for over an hour, he thanked the journalists the came and left. Derby had the last laugh in 2019/20 as they beat Leeds in the play offs. In the four matches they played against each other that season, Leeds dominated seven halves, but Derby performed better in the last quarter which ended up making the difference.

After this crushing defeat, Bielsa’s team talk was short. He addressed the defeat, thanked the players for the commitment they had given him then picked up his bag and left. This made many unsure on his future which was emphasised when his “iron circle” of staff were seen clearing out their desks the next morning.

Bielsa stayed and took onus for the failure of the season just gone.

Before signing the new contract ‘El Loco’ travelled to London for a meeting. The meeting was with Kinnear, Orta and Radrizzani. Marcelo packed his presentation with analysis and statistics of his first year in charge. It really emphasised how well the squad performed and how big of an opportunity they had missed. He also went through how they could improve on the third-placed finish to win automatic promotion. The main three places he highlighted as priorities were better finishing of the chances they were creating, few injuries and better loans.

Bielsa ended the meeting with “and we need more luck. We cannot be this unlucky again.” This puts emphasis on the fact that statistically they were the best side in the league. Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear left the meeting and said the same thing to each other, “he’s going to get us up”, they must have been the calmest club in the Championship knowing they had Bielsa as manager.

The Argentine’s confidence in the club and its players was infectious. The club re-committed to its multi-million-pound contract for Marcelo Bielsa and his backroom staff. He was confident he could squeeze a bit more out of every player apart from Mateusz Klich. The Polish international has started each of the 48 Championship matches in 2018/19 showing how much the new coach trusted him.

On May 28th, 2019, Bielsa put pen to paper again. Quickly, the pain was forgotten, and Leeds got back. During pre-season, Marcelo had them doing four training sessions a day whilst most clubs were doing two. This extra work really paid off.

Despite selling key players like Pontus Jansson, Kemar Roofe, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Jack Clarke, Leeds looked better. The performances somehow topped those of previous campaign however, the problem of taking chances was still evident. This is highlighted by Bamford scoring 16 league goals from an xG of 31 and him missing the most ‘big chances’ in the league.

Leeds finished on an expected points (xP) of 116, 10 more than the Championship points record, 15 ahead of Brentford and 26 ahead of West Brom who were second and third in this table respectively. Leeds fans won’t mind this as they’ve ended their 16-year absence from the Premier League and returned in style after much heart break. The club have overcome bad owners such Ken Bates and GFH, losing stars like Robert Snodgrass and Jermaine Beckford along with a bias against them from the FA and referees which saw the West Yorkshire side not be awarded a penalty for 5862 minutes. This streak ended on the 8th December 2018 after 65 league matches with no penalty, in that time 11 had been awarded against Leeds.

From the moment he has joined the club, Bielsa has embraced the Whites and any challenge he has been thrown. This has seen the fans instantly love him and even after the play-off defeat to Derby, the fans and club were desperate for him to stay on. Not only from the impact he’s had on the pitch which has been more than evident as he took the side from midtable to playing as the best side within a few weeks but also off the pitch.

One of the first things the Argentine did at Leeds United was he made the players pick up rubbish outside Thorp Arch for a few hours. He made them do it for the length of time a worker would have to work before they could afford a ticket, this was to show the players how hard the fans had to work to watch them. From always being happy to take photos with fans to shopping in the town centre, Bielsa has captured the hearts of the Yorkshire faithful by just being himself. Another way he showed his down to earth personality was when he moved out of the nicest hotel in Leeds that the club were paying for and moved into a one bedroom ‘nan flat’ that was above a sweet shop. Since he did this very early in his Leeds career, he’s been seen supporting local businesses, walking to work and even buying sweets from the shop for the local kids, almost in a Willy Wonka fashion.

He loves his flat in Wetherby and loves mixing with the locals. Leeds is a working-class city and thanks to Don Revie, it is devoted to football. People in Argentina who know him well say he found it easy to relate to the city. This could be one of the reasons West Ham failed to sign him in 2015 as he was being asked to join a much bigger city with less of a community feel to it. One of the main reasons he turned down their advancements was he has serious doubts about their owners.

All his goodwill, reconnecting the club to the fans and excellent performances and results on the pitch have seen him likened to Don Revie and it’s easy to see why. However, he has very much wrote his own story at Elland Road. Bielsa has become the most defining managerial appointment at the club since Howard Wilkinson in 1988 and the most influential signing since Gordon Strachan from Man United for a reported £200,000 the following year.

Due to some of his erratic behaviour, such as leaving Lazio after two days after the board broke promises, the club were prudent and had plans in place if Bielsa left. The club identified Slaviša Jokanović and Aitor Karanka, both of whom had won promotion to the Premier League in recent years and Orta was part of Karanka gaining promotion with Middlesbrough in 2016. They had no desire to stop the Bielsa project but knew he might leave at any point so put these contingencies in place. This showed sensible thinking and smart planning at the club, something the club had lacked for many years.

Victor Orta has been a crucial member of the board at the club since the summer of 2017, around the same time Andrea Radrizzani bought the remaining 50% of the club from Massimo Cellino. From singing “we’re top of the league” at the top of his lungs in the corridors during a Patrick Bamford press conference to bringing binoculars to Pride Park in the penultimate match of the 2019/20 season, Victor Orta is known for his antics.

One of the Spaniard’s trademarks at Leeds away from the business side is the monthly payday ritual. When Cellino was owner, he had the corridors redesigned to look like football pitches, this helped Orta come up the “halfway-line game” for the staff. Whoever rolls a ball closest to the halfway line from a set distance would win a £100 voucher from Victor Orta. The voucher was for one of two local restaurants, Ibérica or Fazenda.

However, over time the staff got very good at the game so Orta changed the game completely. He changed it to a pub quiz, and they were split into teams. It was the same prize for each member of the winning team, but they were told to go together for the meal. This helps the staff relax and get to know each other outside of the office.

Despite all the fun antics, Orta has key characteristics: passionate, tightly wound and devoted to the job. He has helped keep the Bielsa era at Elland Road by managing the demands of the coaches. Orta was a key figure in getting Bielsa to Leeds and keeping him there.

However, they have been known to clash. Some have heard Orta and Bielsa argue so furiously to the point that some think they’ll never speak to each other again. But when the dust settles, they forgive and forget and move on. Despite this, Orta does respects the coach’s personal space.

Victor doesn’t have an office at Thorp Arch and tends to visit the training ground around once every fortnight. Orta has learnt from his mentor, Monchi, who is known as one of the best Directors of Football in the world. This has led Victor to say, “never offer a coach advice unless he asks for it” and this applies more than ever to Marcelo Bielsa.

Not many managers are worth observing for their methods and personal touches but once again, Bielsa is the exception. His methodology has been evident from the very start. Before his first pre-season friendly against League Two Forest Green Rovers, he asked for full videos of the three games the Green Devils had played against non-league opposition. Forest Green Rovers manager Mark Cooper couldn’t believe the request for those matches or for the request for Leeds to film the match at the The New Lawn.

This is a clear example of Bielsa and his methodology. He is professional, respectful but doesn’t compromise. If players don’t hit his required running stats, they don’t play. If players don’t hit his daily weight targets, they don’t play If they can’t cope with ‘murderball’, they won’t play. If they can’t or won’t conform to his ways and everything, he asks of them, they won’t play and the club will actively try to rid themselves of the player.

This has seen him put players into groups when he joins a new club. He has the players he definitely wants to keep, the players he definitely wants gone and players he is unsure of. Leeds were no exception, but players can move between the groups. Mateusz Klich and Yosuke Ideguchi are the best examples of movement within the groups as they both started in the middle group and got their chance in the pre-season friendly against York. Although Klich seized his chance and became ever present in the first team, Ideguchi was loaned out to German side Greuther Fürth.

However, there are no exceptions to these standards, Pontus Jansson knows all too well. Despite ranking seventh for minutes played in Bielsa’s first year and the coach even going on to say Jansson was the Player of the Season that year. This didn’t matter though as the Swede complained about the return date from international duty, this saw Pontus get sold to Championship rivals Brentford for a cut price.

With the fitness, there is only one player who gets any leeway. Pablo Hernández, 35, is the only member of the squad that gets the leeway. Despite this he played the 11th most minutes in 19/20 and third the season prior.

But these standards can come at a cost. After averaging around five absentees per game in 19/20, Leeds were slightly more pragmatic in a 3-0 home win over promotion rivals Fulham. Pablo ‘El Magico’ Hernández featured in that game. He came on at half time for Bielsa’s pet Patrick Bamford, the Spaniard provided an assist before being taken off late on in the match as he was returning from a strained hamstring injury.

There are times when Bielsa’s lack of pragmatism can cause issues as witnessed in January 2020. The Whites had lost loanee Eddie Nketiah due to Arsenal recalling the English striker and were under pressure to bring in another striker. A move for Southampton’s Che Adams fell through so the club offered the Argentine other options however, he turned down Billy Sharp and Glenn Murray, two strikers who were Championship prove. The club brought the manager’s attention to RB Leipzig’s Jean-Kévin Augustin and Marcelo gave them the green light to get the deal done. The two clubs agreed a loan with an initial fee of £1.8 million and an obligation to but set at around £18.6 million if Leeds got promoted.

The deal was done just before the deadline, but issues started. After only a handful of appearances whilst on loan at Monaco for the half of the season, Augustin’s body struggled. The Frenchman couldn’t cope with the high demands the former Bilbao coach put him under.

Jean-Kévin pulled up a hamstring in February and recovered thanks to the halt in football. From the limited clips and pictures, he looked in great physical shape however, towards the end of the COVID-19 lockdown the hamstring problem came back.

Despite Bielsa being a fan of the player when he is fully fit, his fitness along with his Champions League weekly wages which sit around £90,000 means Leeds are trying to get out of the deal. The West Yorkshire giants are looking in the small print in the legal contractual agreement to see if there’s a way out of signing Augustin on the permanent deal. Despite the big fee and monumental wages, it is reported even if they do have to sign him, it won’t affect the club’s finances in the summer 2020 transfer window.

Although the Augustin deal seems like a disaster from the outside, it has helped the club. It’s meant the club have been able to think if mid-season signings work for Bielsa. This is mainly down to how difficult it is to get up to speed and adapt to the new regime, no player is allowed to fall by the wayside. Even Ben White, who joined on loan in the summer of 2019, had to change in the under-23’s dressing room on his first day. Although Ben White went on to be one of Leeds’ best and most important players that season it really emphasizes a simple fact, respect from Marcelo Bielsa must be earned.

He is not only fastidious with the players but about Thorp Arch too. Every time Leeds have had to negotiate a contract with him, he has made it clear what he wants done around the training ground. Even during the break in football, Bielsa was seen walking around Thorp Arch with a pen and clipboard, around half an hour after he left, all the staff and board members had an email off him with jobs that needed to be done around the ground.

Most of these jobs are small like repainting the fences or cleaning boot marks off a wall as it shows a lack of respect. He’s previously talked with the ground staff about moving the sheds and seeding the banks just to improve the aesthetics. Most of the jobs are about keeping the maintaining the facility in every way like cleaning the patio. Some of these requests can be bigger though.

When he first joined, he requested that a running track was installed. The running track became very useful during the coronavirus lockdown, even Angus Kinnear starting using it. When negotiating the contract in 2018, Bielsa’s requests were implemented and they’ve really paid off. The players now have sleeping dorms, specific areas to relax with games and each age group has their own. The club also has a functioning swimming pool after Massimo Cellino shut it down in 2014 as a cost-cutting measure. Bielsa even took issue with the parking. The Argentine had said the morning chaos was causing stress to the players and this was a bad way to start the day. He convinced the club to create more parking spaces.

Before Bielsa’s appointment, the club didn’t have any intentions to raise the classification of the academy from category two to category one. The club thought it made no sense until their new £25 million training ground in the middle of Leeds was built. The changes with Bielsa there changed their mind and in early July it was announced. After a lot of investment, Leeds were awarded category one status for their academy by the Premier League.

His work ethic is infectious to his staff, highlighted by the amount of analysis his coaches and analysts produce. People around the club were surprised to find a report on a Championship club that was low down the league contained an eight-page report on their third-choice goalkeeper who hadn’t played a single minute of football that season.

Marcelo Bielsa loves analysis so much he has external employees, none of whom are funded by the club, carrying out projects for him. One project was about a goalkeeper in the HPYBET 2.liga, Austria’s second division, who plays as a centre-back when his side are in possession. Over lockdown he spent 19 hours watching Alfie McCalmont, a 20-year-old midfielder in Leeds’ academy. This was to grade his potential properly.

The players only see this side to him, the hard-working football enthusiast. He refrains from speaking to them on a personal level, this has seen very few have contact with him via mobile, but he does employ someone to speak to them if there are issues. He has previously said why he does this, “The more they get to know me, the less they’ll like me.”

To him, football is a business and he’s there to work. However, he is known for being a nice man, not only always making time for the fans. He runs Christmas raffles at Thorp Arch for the all the staff and players from every group. He gives the club money to go buy the prizes which include cars, widescreen TVs, laptops and new phones.

But like Don Revie, he treats everyone at the club with the same amount of respect. When the coronavirus lockdown ended, he insisted that Bella, the club’s long-serving chef, was the first to be brought out of furlough. During the lockdown, she brought him soup and left it in a container outside his door.

There are so many stories of Bielsa, and each show his characteristics and his thinking. There is a story of a player practising free kicks after training before Marcelo Bielsa dragged him back into the building. “I just wanted to do a bit extra,” the player protested but the player was told “If you’re able to do a bit extra, then you haven’t done training to the maximum.”

This is Marcelo Bielsa; He can go from charming to intense in a matter of moments and will challenge the player. Bielsa sets the highest standards within football, he has previously said “Football is about bringing joy to those who find joy hard to find.” And that’s who he serves the most, the fans.

But how do you play against a Bielsa side? How do you beat his Leeds side? How do you set up to stifle the movement, rotations, possession and hunger to press? How can you prevent the smart interplay and the moments of brilliance?

Quite simply, it requires luck. Bielsa has hours of analysis meaning he’s planned for everything. To beat his side, it requires his side to miss chances and your side to take any chance that come their way.

In 2018/19, Leeds beat Rotherham United home and away. Paul Warne, the Rotherham manager, said “The biggest thing about Leeds if their work off the ball.” He followed it up with “People talk all the time about how good they are on the ball, and I’m not saying otherwise, but the reason they control possession so much is that they press you so hard out of possession.

“You get the ball back and they’re on you immediately, forcing a mistake. Before long, it starts to get into your head, and it starts to tire you out. If the ball runs to your full-back, he either has to be sure to pick the perfect pass there and then or Leeds nick it back and they’re on top of you again. It becomes exhausting. You don’t get time to breath.

“Every team has pressing patterns and so on but their desire to win the ball is scary. What’s even worse is that you’re in the dugout and you’ve got (Marcelo) Bielsa next to you, sat on his bucket, like the calmest person in the stadium. You’d never see anyone else do that and he reminds me of a rugby union coach. By Saturday, his work’s done. Everything’s been prepared so meticulously through the week that he’s got the confidence to sit there and let his team play.

“It’s like going on The X Factor and being backstage next to Elvis Presley with his collar turned up. You’re wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and, psychologically, you fear the worst. That sounds awful, but it’s also a reality. He’s a lovely man though and was very polite to me when we met.

“I usually try to go for a bit of comedy before kick-off, a little joke to lighten the mood before it all gets serious, but because of him I was thinking, ‘Is a joke really appropriate?’ I’m not ashamed to say I was a bit starstruck. He is something special and I like his principles. The best thing for Leeds is that whenever he goes, he’ll be leaving a proper-legacy.”

Paul Warne is not the only manager to heap praise onto Bielsa. Marcelo is seen as a football godfather as he has been influential in modern day football with analysis, tactics and other coaches. Pep Guardiola has called him the best coach in the world, Mauricio Pochettino has said “He is like my football father” and when talking about influential coaches, Diego Simeone said “Bielsa taught me the most.” Numerous of players such as Alexis Sánchez Javi Martínez have praise him but some other big names have also spoken highly about him.

At the 2010 World Cup, Johan Cruyff said “Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile played the most attractive football at this World Cup,” high praise especially from someone famed on their style of football. Fellow Argentinian legend Diego Maradona has said “For me what Bielsa has done is worthier than what Simeone has. Marcelo made a team out of nothing.”

The Argentine has a win rate of 56% from his 100 games in charge at Leeds United, the excluding Neil Redfearn’s four games in charge in 2014, nearly 3% better than Revie. The 3-0 home win over Fulham on the 27th of June was his 50th win as Leeds manager, a feat he managed in just 93 games. No other Leeds managed has hit that landmark in fewer games in the club’s 100-year history.

With the club paying around £3 million a season in wages for the coach, it has proven to be a great use of money. Radrizzani and Orta’s decision to spend money on a top-class manager has paid dividends. The change of spending money on a lot of players under Cellino and the first year of Radrizzani has been crucial in not only come to fruition on the pitch but changed the whole culture of the club.

After that underwhelming season in 2017/18 where the club had reportedly spent over £25 million in player transfers on 30 players compared to under £15 million on just seven players. 2017/18 was similar to the years prior with a “scattergun” approach to transfers where to club would take a lot of risks and go for quantity over quality. This led to many lost seasons, failed managers, failed players and failed regimes.

Leeds’ local rivals Huddersfield beating West Brom 2-1 on the 17th July 2020 confirmed Leeds United’s return to the Premier League. The Whites spent 16 years in the EFL which included a few years in League One. On the 18th July 2020, Brentford’s 1-0 loss away at Stoke confirmed Leeds as champions.

Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera had done it. He immortalised himself in Leeds United history and the 65-year-old has reinvigorated the club. The Whites have returned to where they belong. A club of that stature, fan base and history should be in the topflight.

Although at the time of writing, Bielsa hasn’t signed a new contract, everyone at the club is confident. They’ve said they knew it would take long due to the complications, but money is never an issue for the former Chile coach.

Reliable reports say he is very happy at Leeds. His happiness is down to a many things, but the main ones are that no promises have been broken by the board and he loves the fans and city. He’s embraced the club and city and is loving his time at Elland Road. If he completes his third season, it will be the longest time he’s spent at a club and is only 12 games off his most games managed at a club, 112 at Athletic Bilbao.

The Bielsas have traditionally been architects and politicians. Marcelo’s sister, María Eugenia Bielsa, was the architect for the Newell’s Old Boys training ground Marcelo funded in 2018. Last December she was even appointed as Argentina’s housing minister. Their brother, Rafael Bielsa, is currently Argentina’s ambassador to Chile and is a former government minister in Chile.

Marcelo has always been different. He played as a defender from 1975-1980 for three different clubs in Argentina. He realised he wasn’t going to be a footballer at the top level so retired at the age of 25 and turned his attention to coaching. In 1980 he became Newell’s Old Boys youth coach until he was given the head coach role for the first team in 1990. His family are very proud of him and Rafael will always try to watch Leeds United.

Despite living in West Yorkshire, he is very close to his family, but Wetherby has become a very comfortable second home for him. Marcelo spent less than a week in Rosario, his home city, last summer.

There are times when Marcelo seeks guidance or advice but that is only to confirm a decision that deep down, he has already made. When it comes to something such as the approach from Leeds, he leans towards one option in “absolute solitude”, as someone close to him said. His overall evaluation of the offer plays more of a role than emotion.

However, emotion was a contributing factor is Bielsa opting to give Leeds a second season. He was destroyed by the loss in the play-offs. Even though he wouldn’t say it openly, he convinced that squad that they were the best in the Championship that season, he felt as if he had failed. He also wondered if Leeds would want to change direction due to the failure, but he was far from mentally beaten and finished, unlike his decision to leave Newell’s Old Boys in 1992 when he was mentally finished.

The negotiations for a new contract are well underway. Despite what many believe, there were hints throughout the season that if they didn’t achieve promotion in 2019/20, Bielsa was open to a third season in the Championship. The reduced wages wouldn’t have been a worry for him but if the club wanted him to stay, he would have done.

The club don’t have to think about that anymore due to the fantastic work Marcelo Bielsa and the players have done. After the 1-0 win over Barnsley in July, Marcelo quickly disappeared from view. He wanted to evade attention and didn’t want to risk emotions overflowing as the club were so close to securing automatic promotion. It was at that moment many realised, Bielsa’s story in England had only been half told.

The rollercoaster first two years are a window of what to come in the Premier League. In the company of someone of the world’s best managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and José Mourinho and the club will be able to welcome supporters back into Elland Road. The supporters who won’t know how to thank Bielsa properly.

When following a football club, there are often narratives, more often than not a romantic one will come to fruition. Bielsa has been a key role in the love story here, the love story belongs to him and Leeds United. His interest in Leeds quickly became desire, and that became love.

He has made many dreams come true and done what many have failed to do. To Leeds United fans and staff, he is a hero. To football fans, he is the godfather and a pioneer that changed the game and inspired many coaches who became his disciples. He lives and breathes football; he is almost impossible to not love.

The bottom line is clear: Marcelo Bielsa and his bucket will be leading Leeds United in the Premier League.

How Arsenal Can Return to The Top 4

Since Mikel Arteta’s appointment in December 2019, the 38-year-old has overseen highs and lows. The highs include beating the likes of Liverpool and Man City in the same week, but the lows include the struggles at Brighton and losing to bitter rivals Tottenham. With finances stretched, this summer will not only have to be focussing on the short term but also setting the foundations for long term success.

Both Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira are clearly not in Arteta’s plans and at 21 and 24 respectively. Together, they could raise upwards of £60 million as well as make room on the wage bill however, they are undeniably talented and should tried to be used in the first team. Mesut Özil is another player Arteta doesn’t favour and as he is on £350k a week, he is surely a priority to move on despite Arsenal being unlikely to get more than £10 million for the 31-year-old. Mohamed Elneny is another one the Gunners are likely to move on from as the Egyptian has had an underwhelming loan spell at Beskitas whilst Henrikh Mkhitaryan wants Roma to make his loan deal permanent. However, these is another midfielder that splits opinions, Granit Xhaka.

Although Granit Xhaka has undeniably improved under the Spaniard’s tenure, his deficiencies mean Arsenal can only go so far with the Swiss in their midfield. Xhaka only averages 2.2 defensive actions per 90 but that has never been his main skill. He is renowned for his passing which is highlighted in his 88.1% pass accuracy and 2.3 key passes per 90 in the Europa League however, he is very easy to press. When put under pressure, he often struggles to sort his feet out and his reliance on his left foot (only 14% of his passes are completed with his right foot) makes him an easy target.

Xhaka could be replaced by Manuel Locatelli. At 22-years-old, the Italian will be a starter at the Emirates for a long time. The 6’1” midfielder has been crucial to Sassuolo’s eighth placed finish as only Caputo and Consigli have played more minutes than him, the latter is a goalkeeper. The former AC Milan player averages a huge 4.1 tackles and interceptions per 90. He couples his hard work off the ball with flair on it as his 7.4 passes into the final third is more than anyone in the current Arsenal squad and his 2 key passes per 90 has seen him get five assists, around half of what Arsenal’s current midfield got in 2019/20. However, he is also an elite ball progressor through dribbling as his 1.8 per game successful dribbles and a success rate of 78% make him among the best midfielders in Europe.

The Gunners should also look to make Dani Ceballos’ loan permanent especially due to the 23-year-old’s resurgence under Mikel Arteta. As well as this, they should look to not sign Thomas Partey. The Ghanaian is clearly a talented player but would cost £45 million, most of Arsenal’s budget. Partey is also 27 meaning once Arsenal’s young crop of talent are coming into their prime, Thomas will need replacing as he will be in his 30s.

Since Arteta’s appointment, only four Premier League sides have conceded more goals. This means that the defence is good, but when the club have eight natural centre backs, they could do with moving a few on. Sokratis and Mustafi would be many Arsenal fans first picks, if they were to go this would mean Arsenal would be likely to sell Chambers or loan Mavropanos out again and bring in another centre back.

The creativity is arguably a bigger problem at the Emirates, as emphasised by the draw to Leicester and loss to Tottenham. This has become a bigger problem as they tend to line up in a 3-4-3, this means creativity would come from the wide players or deep central midfielders. According to Scott Willis, Arsenal’s midfield four create a combined 0.9 chances per game. The wingers Arteta has at his disposal are Saka, Aubameyang and Pépé. One is a teenager, another is a striker who wants to get on the end of chances and the last is a player who likes to dribble into tight spaces. This means Arsenal need an all-round forward; someone who can create, score, dribble and press. One day, this could be Emile Smith-Rowe however many think he isn’t ready just yet.

Saïd Benrahma could be a viable option. The Algerian has been linked with the Gunners, Chelsea and Leeds United and it is clear to see why. The 24-year-old has been labelled as the Championship’s best player for a while, especially since Thomas Frank has taken the reigns at Brentford as he has got over 25 direct goal involvements for the second consecutive season. The Algerian creates 2.4 chances per 90, more than anyone at Arsenal which he couples with 3.9 shots however 2.2 are from outside the area. Players like Emi Buendia and James Madison have been recent examples of players who can transition quickly from the Championship to the Premier League.

By getting rid of the deadwood and using that money to invest smartly into the weakest areas, Arteta could have the Gunners challenging for the top 4 within 12 months. He may not be able to get them playing the most attractive football, but Arsenal fans just want results at the moment.

NFL Season Preview – AFC East

Last year the Patriots won the division again. Their 12-4 record shows their dominance over the AFC East. Before New England signed Cam Newton in late June, the AFC East had a lot of uncertainty for the first time in two decades. Despite their weak offense, maybe the Jets could take control. Last year they finished 7-9 and their quarterback missed a large part of the season due to mono.

Or maybe it was open for the Buffalo Bills. They made the playoffs last year and their development of quarterback Josh Allen was ahead of schedule.

However, the Miami Dolphins shouldn’t be slept on. Coach Brian Flores has taken the ideas and roster back to basics. Last year he tore everything up to put in place the foundations needed in order to succeed, this has been highlighted by the faith put in rookie Tua Tagovailoa.

This was all before Bill Belichick and the Patriots made the power move the NFL feared. New England’s signing of 2015 MVP Newton who is known as one of the most difficult players to defend against in the modern era. The 31-year-old sign a one-year contract but comes with a point to prove after the Panthers cut him and the rest of the league didn’t make a move despite him bringing the Super Bowl to Carolina five years ago.

Newton’s ability coupled with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will strike fear into any opponents. If McDaniels can bring the best out of Newton’s generational talent as he combines powerful running with downfield throwing, New England could afford to save their best for the playoffs.

Could Newton be exactly what New England need to maintain their dominance despite Brady’s departure? What could stop the Patriots from taking their 12th consecutive title and 18th in 20 years?

It does depend a lot on Newton’s fitness. He injured his throwing shoulder in 2018 and also missed 14 matches last year with a Lisfranc injury which required surgery on his left foot. These problems are the reason why every other team passed him up, but New England saw it as a risk worth taking.

Another wildcard for Belchick is Jarrett Stidham. Stidham was a fourth-round pick in 2019 and is meant to be Brady’s successor. The defence will keep the team competitive, if the offense clicks, the Patriots could look back to their best.

Buffalo’s defence still looks strong and although the Jet’s big news was trading Jamal Adams to Seattle for two first-round picks, they also remade their offence. Both sides have young quarterbacks who are in the critical phase of development. It is time for Allen and Sam Darnold to set up.

Then there’s the young quarterback who everyone is talking about, Tagovailoa. After right hip dislocation and posterior wall fracture last November, he fell from shoo-in first-round pick to fifth. If he can get on the field, the Dolphins could make the AFC East interesting.

New England Patriots

Predicted Record: 11-5

After completing a non-competitive and uneventful regular season, the Patriots’ playoffs could go one of two ways. If Newton hits form, their attack could be the scariest they’ve had in a decade and as teams focus on him, it leaves more space for receiving corps such as N’Keal Harry who can show why he was a first-round pick in 2019.

If Newton doesn’t hit form or even doesn’t recover fully from his injury issues, the Patriots could look a bit stilted. Their attack could look quite easy to contain which would lead to another disappointing playoffs season for New England.

Buffalo Bills

Predicted Record: 10-6

This could be the year Allen grows from a player who needs to be schemed for to one who dictates the scheme. His throwing could remind people of Ben Roethlisberger, this coupled with their defence could see the Bills look like a dark horse.

However, if Allen follows Mark Sanchez’s career curve, the Bills could flop hard. And there feels like this year is all or nothing after the acquisition of Stefon Diggs. Instead of the wide receiver helping Allen flourish, he could instead highlight his decencies.

New York Jets

Predicted Record: 7-9

With a lot of animosity growing around Adam Gase reportedly, the New York Jets could implode on the field. However due to his links to General Manager Joe Douglas and the reported backing of the ownership, Gase could stay but the Jets are known to react quickly especially if the loses pile up.

On the other hand, they could come out of this season with long term answers in a few positions such as quarterback. The fans may not accept .500 especially as Gase seems to split the fans but he did achieve seven wins last year despite the flawed squad.

Miami Dolphins

Predicted Record: 6-10

The Dolphins require a rebuild and that needs time. If the ownership pulls the plug on this project to early, Flores needs time. If they fire him, he could go back to New England and strengthen them further.

Their defence could be a saving factor this season, if that stays consistent, anything could happen. Ryan Fitzpatrick is an inconsistent quarterback, but his occasional moments could win games, or it could see Tagovailoa takeover from him halfway through the season.

NFL Season Preview – Buffalo Bills

The Bills are coming off a second placed finish. Their 10-6 record wasn’t enough to get ahead of the Patriots. Despite New England losing Brady, the Bills still don’t look good enough to topple New England.

Teams that have invested a majority of their capital on the defensive side of the ball can still succeed when they have great offensive coordinators, capable offensive lines and a quarterback who can make plays with his legs. Despite the optimism in upstate New York surrounding Josh Allen, he looks functional at best right now but that still looks good enough. The Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane regime has not only produced some quality draftees but the ability to maximize many of the veteran players they’ve taken from other rosters. Now, they come into 2020 taking their most significant swings yet at turning a team from accidental playoff contender to perennial playoff contender. Last year, the Buffalo Bills made the play offs with a 10-6 record so any progress on that and a run in the playoffs would show good progress.

Offense

The brilliant design of Buffalo’s offense, and the acquisition of receivers who were more tailored to Josh Allen’s skillset, allowed the Bills to have one of their best seasons in recent memory in 2019. Cole Beasley caught as many passes as Mike Evans last year during Jameis Winston’s 30-30 season. John Brown had a better statistical season than Odell Beckham. Now, you add into the fold Stefon Diggs, a legitimate No. 1 NFL wide receiver who can further diversify what the Bills are able to offer opposing defences on a given down. In a lot of ways, this feels like both a lifeline for Allen and a direct challenge. The former first-round pick out of Wyoming had one of the worst plus-minus ratings on his expected completion percentage in the NFL last year, meaning that he was hitting receivers about 4% less than he should have while, on the other hand, Ryan Tannehill was hitting almost 10% of passes that he statistically should not have.

Should Allen rise to the occasion, it gives Buffalo a tremendous advantage in their ability to plan for the next five years around an ascending quarterback. Should Allen continue to hover around replacement level (for reference, Football Outsiders had Allen as one of seven qualifying starting quarterbacks last year who posted a negative Defensive Yards Above Replacement rating, meaning that they performed below the rate of your average player) then we might have a Mitch Trubisky-type situation on our hands. As we’ll get into later, the defence is playoff-calibre and likely will be for another year or two. Will the Bills throw that away in order to dig their heels in on legitimizing Allen? We will see.

Defence

In theory, this team is good enough to challenge the Patriots for the best defence in the division. New England’s defence was on pace for best of all time through the beginning of 2019, so that’s important to keep in perspective. Having lost several key players this offseason, there is some levelling off that might inevitably take place.

There aren’t many weaknesses for opponents to exploit in Sean McDermott’s defence. Their linebackers are vulnerable in coverage situations, which puts Buffalo in the same hole as nearly every other team in the league save for a lucky few. When viewed as a unit, their combination of top two cornerbacks and safeties might be among the best in football; a group that is only deepening in their familiarity with a solid scheme. Up front, a stable of pass rushers should benefit from the rise of second-year defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a player who should not have dropped as low as he did in the 2019 draft to begin with. Last year, Oliver posted five sacks and eight quarterback hits, along with 12 pressures. He missed just three tackles. These numbers should grow in 2020 despite some significant offseason losses the Bills sustained across the defensive line.

Predicted Record: 10-6

When looking at the schedule in totality, it’s hard to be too confident. An overly optimistic look at the divisional slate has the Bills splitting with both the Patriots and Dolphins and sweeping the Jets. That leaves you at 4-2 with out-of-conference games against the Steelers, 49ers, Chargers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Chiefs, Titans, Raiders and Rams. They can grab a few wins but not rack them up.

NFL Season Preview – Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins finished last year in last place of the AFC East. A 5-11 record was a huge disappointment and changes had to be made.

After a massive roster overhaul that brought in upgrades at just about every position, the Miami Dolphins will head into the 2020 season with a realistic chance to compete. It’s a big step forward from last year when the Dolphins were in full rebuild mode after sending away several high-profile players to accumulate cap and draft capital.

Brian Flores heads into his second season as Dolphins head coach after somehow managing to help the team squeeze five victories out of what could only be described as a talent-deficient roster. The five victories came in the final nine weeks of the season and included an incredible 27-24 come-from-behind shocker at Gillette Stadium in the finale that robbed the New England Patriots of the second seed in the AFC playoffs and changed the balance of power in the conference.

The list of newcomers is highlighted by the Dolphins’ three first-round picks in the 2020 NFL draft: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, offensive tackle Austin Jackson and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene.

Offense

The biggest priority for the Dolphins in the offseason was upgrading an offensive line that dragged down the offense in 2019.

This is was why the Dolphins used free agency to bring in guard Ereck Flowers from Washington and Centre Ted Karras from New England before they selected three O-Linemen in the draft: Jackson, second-round guard/tackle Robert Hunt and fourth-round guard Solomon Kindley.

The focus on offense will be centred around Tua Tagovailoa, the prized first-round pick from the University of Alabama. The Dolphins are hoping he’ll be the one to finally end their search for a franchise quarterback, a search that has been going on since Dan Marino retired in the spring of 2000. Tagovailoa has answered questions about the status of his right hip, which he famously injured last November, with the way he moved around during practices open to the media and appeared ready for a full season.

It’s still in doubt of when he will take over as the starting quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick looks to be the starter for the opener at New England.

The running game will have a new look with the arrival of Jordan Howard via free agency and Matt Breida via a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. The Dolphins have a pair of tall and talented wide receivers in DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, to go along with emerging tight end Mike Gesicki. Parker is coming off a breakout season during which he led all AFC wide receivers in yards (1,202) and touchdowns (9), while Williams has looked good in his comeback from a torn ACL that cut short an impressive rookie season after eight games.

Long-time coach Chan Gailey came out of retirement to take over as offensive coordinator for the Dolphins for a second time, after first serving in that role in 2000-01.

Defence

Flores was the defensive coordinator in New England in 2018 when the Patriots won the Super Bowl thanks to an elite defence powered by its secondary, and that appears to be the setup he’s using with the Dolphins.

Miami will go into the 2020 season with two of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL after Byron Jones was signed as a free agent in the offseason to join fellow 2018 Pro Bowl selection Xavien Howard. For added depth the Dolphins added Igbinoghene with the 30-overall selection in the draft.

The Dolphins also added two former New England linebackers to help bolster a defence that was among the worst in the NFL in 2019, including versatile Kyle Van Noy, who at only 29 years old is the second-oldest player on the roster behind Fitzpatrick. 

After finishing last in the NFL in sacks with only 23, the Dolphins signed veteran pass rushers Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah in the offseason and they both should play prominent roles on defence. The Dolphins also are hoping for bigger contributions from defensive linemen Davon Godchaux and Christian Wilkins, their 2019 first-round pick from Clemson. Rookie second-round pick Raekwon Davis from Alabama could end up playing a key role up front as well.

Third-year linebacker, Jerome Baker, returns after playing 97 percent of the defensive snaps last season and he looks to play a prominent role once again and former New England cornerback Eric Rowe is preparing for his first full season at safety after making a successful position switch last October.

Josh Boyer will be in his first year as an NFL defensive coordinator after being promoted from defensive pass game coordinator/cornerbacks’ coach, but the multiple-look scheme doesn’t figure to change much.

Predicted Record: 7-9

The Dolphins clearly have a lot more talent than they did last season, but there still are question marks in a lot of different areas. This is a team heading in the right direction, but it probably will be at least another year before the Dolphins should be considered legitimate contenders.

NFL Season Preview – New England Patriots

The Patriots won the AFC East again with a 12-4 record. Their dominance is clear but there isn’t much more adversity that could have been thrown in the New England Patriots’ way this year. 

First, Tom Brady departed during free agency along with some key defensive pieces like Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, which stunted the pre-draft process for NFL teams and forced the entire league to go about their offseason programs on a virtual landscape. 

Minicamps and Organised Team Activities were cancelled, which completely eliminated any team-oriented activities happening in a physical location this offseason. And the final blow came when player opt outs began to happen, with New England having a league-high eight players opt out of the 2020 season. 

So here we are, with a very different looking Patriots team compared to last year’s squad, which didn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. But just because it’s a very different looking team doesn’t mean the standards should be any different, right? Bill Belichick is still running the show in New England, and the roster still has tons of talent on it, so things could be a lot worse for the Patriots.

Offense

In case you haven’t heard already, there’s a quarterback competition underway in New England. The Patriots signed veteran Cam Newton in late June, and he’s battling it out with second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer to be the team’s Week 1 starting quarterback. 

Newton, because of his experience and skill set, is in the driver’s seat to be the team’s Week 1 starter based on how the first couple weeks of training camp have played out for all three quarterbacks. The 2015 MVP has earned praise from Patriots players and coaches for his work ethic and ability to grasp the playbook so quickly, so at this point, the Week 1 starting job is his to lose. 

New England’s offensive line is welcoming back centre David Andrews, who missed the entire 2019 season due to blood clots in his lungs. However, the offensive line won’t be fully in-tact; veteran right tackle Marcus Cannon opted out of the 2020 season, so the team is currently looking for a replacement for the long-time starter. Options there include rookie Justin Herron, Jermaine Eluemunor, Korey Cunningham and Joe Thuney. 

The Patriots’ backfield is dealing with injuries early on; 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel has once again begun training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, and is joined by veteran Lamar Miller, who the team signed in early August. If neither player is able to return in time for Week 1, second-year back Damien Harris, who has gained a lot of praise so far in training camp, would likely take a lot of the early-down work in the backfield, with Rex Burkhead taking some of that work as well. James White will maintain his role as the team’s third-down, pass-catching back. 

Tight end is one of the weakest positions on the team entering the season. With Matt LaCosse also opting out of the 2020 season, that leaves Ryan Izzo and rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene to shoulder the workload moving forward. Asiasi and Keene – who were both drafted in the third round – are expected to take most of the snaps at tight end. However, Izzo, due to his experience in the system, will see the field a lot early in the regular season. But expect his role to dwindle as the season progresses.

The receiver position welcomes back five players from last year: Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Mohamed Sanu, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. The hope is that the progression made by Harry, Sanu, Meyers and Olszewski in their first full offseason with the team will help turn around a receiver position this year that was thin and stricken with injuries last year. Damiere Byrd, who joined the Patriots this offseason, could also add a speed element to New England’s receiver room. 

With James Develin retiring and offseason addition Dan Vitale opting out, the Patriots’ fullback depth chart currently has one player on it: Jakob Johnson. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be the only one utilized at that spot. Keene can play an H-back role in New England’s offense, and tight end Paul Quessenberry, who the team signed on the 23rd of August, could also play fullback, if he makes the 53-man roster. 

Defence

Options out weren’t just limited for New England’s offense.

The biggest weakness of New England’s defence this year will undoubtedly be the linebackers. The departure of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts left some big holes to fill, but Dont’a Hightower opting out means rookies like Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Cassh Maluia will be thrust into larger roles as opposed to being groomed early in their careers. Third year linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley is now one of the veterans in the linebacker room, and he’s expected to wear the green dot for the defence and be an impact defender. Chase Winovich, who had 5.5 sacks his rookie season, will be looked upon to improve on his numbers from his outstanding rookie year, which compared to only the likes of Chandler Jones when he started his career in New England.

The defensive line sees the return of Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, John Simon and Deatrich Wise. Those players will be relied upon a bit more to generate a pass rush, as that department thrived last year thanks to the linebackers on the roster that specialized in getting to the quarterback. 

The cornerback room is easily the strongest unit on the team. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore returns with J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty, Jonathan Jones and Joejuan Williams. Those five players should be a part of what is once again one of the best defensive backfields in the entire NFL. 

Safety, which was an aging unit on the Patriots in 2019, added some youth and talent this offseason. They signed Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis while also adding Kyle Dugger via the draft. Those players were projected to have roles in 2020, but veteran Patrick Chung opting out means that Dugger and Phillips will both have an uptick in playing time compared to if Chung was present in the line-up. The unit’s versatility will be utilized to confuse opposing quarterbacks and dominate matchups. 

Predicted Record: 11-5

Despite the numerous questions that still have to be answered in training camp, I believe the Patriots will finish the 2020 regular season with a 11-5 record. New England is still in the AFC East and still has the best head coach in football. With Cam Newton under centre, a strong offensive line and run game, and a defence with elite talent, yes, there are several strong opponents like the Chiefs, 49ers, Ravens and Texans on their schedule, but that won’t be enough to keep Belichick under double-digit wins in 2020. 

NFL Season Preview – New York Jets

The Jets finished third in the AFC East with a 7-9 record. It was clear that if they wanted to get into the playoffs or even dethrone the Patriots, things had to change, they were a team that very obviously needed a rebuild. This offseason they have done so at the very least, a start on one. A pragmatic if somewhat understated rebuild should see the Jets an improved team even if the record may not indicate as much.

The Jets came into the offseason with a bit of momentum, always a dangerous word for NFL teams. A 6-2 close to the season was helped by a weak backend schedule but there is still the sense that the Jets turned the corner after winning just one of their first eight games. The strong close to the season helped silence the criticism around a first-year head coach in Adam Gase, who was an unpopular hire at the time and still splits opinion.

But the finish to 2019 was a positive sign for an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010 and has had just one winning record since then. The Jets seem to be turning the corner, albeit slowly.

Part of the reason for the optimism is the emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold. Over the second half of the season, the quarterback did a tremendous job of settling into a new offense. Turnovers were cut back, he learned to throw the ball away and his comfort in the huddle and at the line was apparent. A team without a franchise quarterback since Joe Namath appears to have found a foundational piece, a cornerstone, for their rebuild.

And while the offseason wasn’t glamorous, it did address needs. In what was his first, full offseason with the Jets, general manager Joe Douglas beefed up the offensive line, an area of neglect over the past few years. Four new starters emerged, with three key pieces coming in free agency and the selection of left tackle Mekhi Becton at No. 11 overall in the NFL Draft. Becton, an All-ACC selection, will be expected to protect the blindside of their franchise quarterback.

Offense

The offense will only go as far as Darnold takes them. And Darnold could only take the offense so far given the state of the offensive line a season ago.

Constantly under pressure, Darnold’s high turnover rate in the first half of the year was the result of this terrible protection. The patchwork group improved in the second half of the season but still needed an overhaul.

If the line is improved and is adequate (which would be an improvement), then the Jets offense could be serviceable and competent. Darnold has the requisite arm strength which is now coupled with an increased comfort in the playbook. Le’Veon Bell, disappointed last year after signing a four-year $52.5 million contract that offseason, averaging a career low 3.2 yards per rushing attempt. He is back, in improved shape and the All-Pro running back could be dangerous if the line play is improved.

And while the Jets lost Robby Anderson in free agency, the Jets replaced their second-best wide receiver in 2019 with the speedy Breshad Perriman and added Denzel Mims in the second round of the NFL Draft. Returning tight end Chris Herndon, who was solid as a rookie in 2018, returns after playing just one game a year ago.

While the offense won’t be prolific, there is the chance for things to be improved. The Jets should be able to move the ball with some confidence. If the line is indeed better, the offense should be improved.

Defence

Last season, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was nothing short of remarkable. Given the injuries to his unit, the fact that the Jets were as solid defensively as they were was a real testament to the coaching done by Williams

The defence certainly isn’t star-laden but is young, athletic and has depth. The loss of two key players, however, will test their depth and the ability of Williams to game plan to his strengths.

In late July, the Jets traded All-Pro safety Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks. Bradley McDougald, part of the net the Jets obtained in return, is a solid safety but Adams was an elite athlete and a versatile defender. A couple weeks after losing Adams in a trade, the Jets saw linebacker C.J. Mosley, the only other All-Pro on their defence, opt-out of the season.

The good news, though, is the young talent and versatility that was emerging at points last year. Nose tackle Quinnen Williams was unfairly slagged on for a quiet rookie season when he in fact was very effective and disruptive. Bless Austin, a Day 3 pick out of Rutgers last year, showed potential at cornerback and has great length to press.

If Williams and Austin can take a step forward, the defence can withstand the loss of Adams and the opt-out of Mosley. But the Jets still need an effective edge rusher. One of the worst teams in the NFL at getting to the quarterback a season ago, the one demerit for Douglas this offseason was the failure of a true pass rusher being added to the defence.

Rookie Jabari Zuniga has potential, but this defence is screaming for an end who can get to the quarterback effectively.

Predicted Record: 7-9

It might seem like no progress but given a more difficult schedule, this would be another solid year in terms of development for the Jets. If Darnold progresses and takes another step forward and the offensive line can come together, then even another losing record would be seen as a positive.

This year is all about 2021. The Jets can use this as a developmental year, have a solid free agency and draft and become playoff contenders sooner rather than later.

NFL Season Preview – AFC North

The Ravens’ 2019 season hinted at long-term dominance, most importantly a young star emerged at quarterback which helped them to their 14-2 record. A relentless defence developed its identity. An offensive coordinator found his creative groove, pounding team after team into clock-draining submission. So why would anyone hesitate to hand the division title right back to Baltimore in 2020?

Maybe it’s just the nature of the division itself. The AFC North, especially during the Bengals’ more capable years, has usually been a dogfight. The same can be expected this year, except with the more functional Browns replacing Cincinnati while the Bengals are in full rebuild mode, hoping to create something entirely new with coach Zac Taylor and top pick quarterback Joe Burrow, instead of running off the fumes of Marvin Lewis–Andy Dalton heyday.

The biggest news is that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has recovered from his right elbow injury, meaning that a Steelers team that finished 8–8 with his missing 14 games but nearly backed into the playoffs on the strength of a reborn defence, is better positioned to make a run. In Cleveland, Baker Mayfield will have better protection, and more two-tight-end sets will take the pressure off star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. And, while this is no reflection on Lamar Jackson’s abilities, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the Ravens’ QB to replicate an MVP season in which he rushed for more than 80 yards per game while somehow staying healthy.

It’s important not to write off what Baltimore achieved in 2019 as gimmicky, or to classify the 23-year-old Jackson as a one-hit wonder if the Ravens stumble a bit this year. Their 14–2 regular season was the culmination of so many pinpoint decisions made by management, including a keen ability to identify undervalued assets, especially Jackson, snared with the last pick of the first round in 2018, and their cadre of versatile tight ends and a commitment to building a stifling defence.

However, the Steelers bring more than their share of intrigue to the race. Roethlisberger, who got hurt in Week 2, was a top-five QB in both 2017 and ’18. Then there’s a defence that didn’t get the recognition it deserved last year because it was paired with floundering offense but is full of rising stars such as outside linebacker T.J. Watt and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Watt methodically piled up 14 1/2 sacks last season, logging 59 total pressures and 19 quarterback knockdowns. Fitzpatrick posted an opposing QB rating of 46.0—that’s elite for his position—after coming over from the Dolphins in mid-September, and he also had five interceptions for the Steelers. Pittsburgh finished third in Football Outsiders’ defence-adjusted value over average rankings, behind just the 49ers and the Patriots.

It’s been difficult to quantify Roethlisberger’s value to the good-to-great Steeler teams of recent years, but 2020 provides a wonderful opportunity to do so. He was the one major factor absent last year while Jackson, guided by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, took over the division. What will it mean for the balance of power now that Big Ben is back?

Baltimore Ravens

Predicted Record: 11-5

The Ravens look ready to build on their success from 2019 while updating their offense to make it less predictable to opponents who have been studying last season’s film. Plenty of teams try to copy the Titans’ game plan, built around attacking the line, from their 28–12 playoff upset.

However, as happened to the Rams last year, a postseason loss could provide a successful blueprint for opposing defences. The offense relies too much on Jackson’s rare escapability, and he wears down. Jackson is a tough runner, but he has such an incredible separation that his dashes rarely seemed like a high-wire act. The Ravens could have a bit of a surprise drop off this year if their attack relies too much on Jackson’s runs.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Predicted Record: 9-7

A player who missed 2019 due to injury and, before that, mused about retiring, comes back in 2020 rejuvenated and explosive at age 38 will be key to Pittsburgh’s season. Roethlisberger can elevate all parts of the offense, including its group of receivers and its relatively inexperienced backfield. New tight end Eric Ebron can also rack up the red zone touchdowns.

However, relying so heavily on Roethlisberger could go horribly wrong and the Steelers’ could have another nightmare season. Last year was bad but thanks to coach Mike Tomlin, they nearly crept into the playoffs anyway. Thankfully unless Roethlisberger shows meaningful signs of decline because, as was evident last year the Steelers’ rock bottom isn’t too bad

Cleveland Browns

Predicted Record: 9-7

If new coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense is more streamlined this will benefit Mayfield. An improved line gives Mayfield more time in the pocket, and with new tight end Austin Hooper working underneath, the field opens up for Beckham, whose performances could match the expectations that greeted his 2019 arrival.
However, some believe Cleveland truly is built on some kind of cursed land so the Browns could find new ways to divide and devour themselves. This is arguably the most talented roster Cleveland has seen since its reboot in 1999, even more so than last year’s. Last year Cleveland were the hot pick of so many pundits and it would be a shame to see all that talent go to waste, but an internal blow-up is a possibility.

Cincinnati Bengals

Predicted Record: 3-13

At the end of the season, some may say it’s clear that Cincinnati hired the wrong Sean McVay disciple as coach last year and then selected the wrong quarterback. Joe Burrow will surely be compared with fellow first-round picks Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert for the rest of his career, but he may not be as good as them.

However, despite the record the Bengals can come out of this year believing that they have both the coach and quarterback to move forward comfortably, which would be a massive win. Taylor’s unimpressive 2019 is understood as a necessary bedding in period for this year, when he showcases what his offense can do with healthy wideouts and the right quarterback. If the Bengals show some positives especially at quarterback, it won’t be a disaster.

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