Leeds United, America’s Premier League Team, Is Flying
4:10 PM EDT on August 22, 2022
In the 33rd minute of their visit to Elland Road, after half an hour of asserting themselves over Leeds United, Chelsea committed a fatal error: they relaxed. Goalkeeper Édouard Mendy received an innocent back pass with a rabid Brenden Aaronson sprinting at him, and rather than smack the ball away at the first opportunity, Mendy dillydallied. That allowed the USMNT attacker to nick the ball away and dribble it into the net while smiling back at his teammates. That opening goal sent manager Jesse Marsch into a spasm of delight, perhaps because it's the exact sort of out-of-nowhere goal his system is designed to produce.
Marsch had plenty more to celebrate before the day was over. Spanish forward Rodrigo doubled Leeds's lead four minutes later from a set-piece, and then Jack Harrison sealed the 3–0 win with a close-range finish midway through the second half. The home fans urged their side on with ecstatic urgency for 95 minutes, screaming, chanting, singing, and frothing as one as they got to both participate in and bear witness to their side's best full-stadium Premier League performance in decades. A 3–0 win for a side fresh off a narrow escape from relegation, against the ostentatiously wealthy mega-club that won the Champions League 15 months ago is necessarily one to savor. But the pandemic kept Leeds fans away from the stadium for all but one match of their team's stunning 2020–21 campaign, in which they finished ninth. They returned last season but had to watch a 17th-place squad that surrendered 79 goals cling to their spot in the top flight. After 13 seasons in the Championship, three seasons in League One, one unwitnessed ninth-place EPL finish, and another relegation scrap, an outstanding ass-kicking of Chelsea had to feel euphoric.
The Whites now sit second in the Premier League table, with seven points from three games. They surrendered two late goals to draw the one game they best controlled, and have won both of the games in which they had less possession than the opponent. And they've sidled up to Arsenal at the top of the table after selling their best midfielder (Kalvin Phillips) and attacker (Raphinha) to Manchester City and The FC Barcelona Consortium Incorporated LLC Brought To You By Socios.com, respectively. The club replaced Phillips with Marc Roca and USMNT midfielder Tyler Adams, and they replaced Raphinha with Luis Sinisterra—an instant contender for coolest name in the Premier League—and the long-demanded Brenden Aaronson. Adams and Aaronson have had a few nice seasons in various levels of the Red Bull soccer pyramid, though stepping into the void at Leeds represented a fundamentally different challenge. Adams's passing and stature would come under immense scrutiny in the big and fast Premier League, and Aaronson would have to play for a non-dominant side for the first time in his short European career. Both youngsters would have to prove they weren't brought in to satisfy some misguided American fetish of Marsch's, that they could hang against the best players in the world. Hanging in the balance was Leeds's Premier League survival.
So far, the results have been better than even I, an unabashed USMNT homer, could have expected. Aaronson helped set up the equalizer against Wolves, and was as involved in the match-winning own goal as any uncredited attacking player could be. He bothered Chelsea ball-carriers when he was pressing, and gave their supposedly world-class defenders fits both on and off the ball. Aaronson's best skill has always been his extremely intelligent movement, which has thus far been key to enabling the style of play Marsch has implemented. He can also do stuff like this.
Adams, meanwhile, earned Man of the Match honors for his omnipotent performance against Chelsea. Like Aaronson, he's started all three games, and like Aaronson, he's spent those three games covering an inhuman amount of ground. The Chelsea game was his finest performance as a Leeds player. He routinely destroyed Chelsea attacks, generated a hilariously balanced heat map, won the ball back all over the pitch, and kept the ball moving to the right teammates in possession. The last bit is important, as Adams rarely stood out as a passer for Red Bull Leipzig. He isn't being asked to regularly create big chances or smash long diagonal switches of play, but rather to simply help Leeds generate an attack, and he's filling his role superbly.
Under Marsch, Leeds still adheres to the general philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa. Marsch has always demanded a high level of pressing, which is a big reason why Leeds saw him as such a good fit to replace Bielsa in the middle of last season. Through three games, Marsch's team has been just as ferocious as Bielsa's teams—while the proximate cause of the Aaronson goal was Mendy being foolish, his goal was also the system working as intended—though they're playing with more patience in possession. Old Leeds mainly played direct balls to Patrick Bamford, attempted to abruptly stretch defenses as soon as they got the ball back, and consequently got scored on a ton in the extremely open games their style led to. This iteration of Leeds has managed to retain their physical edge while actually attempting to play with the ball at their feet.
Against Chelsea, Leeds ran and snarled and fought, though the visitors were acutely threatening and could have scored a few times. After the match, Thomas Tuchel refused to give Leeds any credit, chalking the loss up to Chelsea's weakness rather than Leeds's strength. He pointed to an own goal (?), a set-piece goal, and a third goal that wasn't determinative, because Chelsea's spirit had already been broken. He's not entirely wrong: had Chelsea taken the lead early with any of their handful of good chances, the game likely would've looked much different. Nevertheless, Chelsea struggled to get the ball into the net because Leeds kept them uncomfortable throughout the game and were able to break Chelsea's will so early because of their relentlessness. And now that the team has reshaped its midfield, stabilized its defense in the absence of captain Liam Cooper, and made space for Rodrigo to step into Bamford's shoes, they are more than simply relentless.