A turbulent two weeks was capped off admirably over the weekend, with Bruce’s patched up Mags finding a way to earn a massive three points over a West Brom.
It was a win that sent us well clear of the bottom three and instead on the cusp of the top 10 ahead of winnable games against Leeds and Fulham.
First up is Bielsa’s newly promoted Leeds – an expansive, high-energy side who are brave, bold, yet naive at the back.
For all their attractive football and entertaining encounters, they sit below us in the table and with just one win in their last six – meanwhile we’ve lost just once away from home all season.
Recent form suggests we could do a job on them, but one thing that’s stuck with me is how much we struggled to compete with Southampton’s intensity and pressing a few weeks ago.
To emerge victorious here we’ll have to match their effort levels and make the most of the space they often give you on the counter.
Steve Bruce has confirmed that Federico Fernandez and Ryan Fraser are set to return, with the former overcoming Covid and the latter “fully fit” after a recent hamstring injury.
The gaffer has also hinted at least two or three changes due to fatigue, so it remains to be seen if Isaac Hayden will be able to play again after his heroics in the win over West Brom.
Elsewhere, Allan Saint-Maximin, Jamaal Lascelles, Fabian Schar and Javier Manquillo have also been ruled out, while Mark Gillespie, Martin Dubravka and Paul Dummett seem likely to be sidelined again after failing to feature in any of the club’s training photos.
Predicted line up
Predicted NUFC XI (5-3-1-1): Darlow – Murphy, Hayden, Fernandez, Clark, Ritchie – Hendrick, S Longstaff, Almiron – Joelinton – Gayle.
This would require a host of changes and Bruce dropping the four-man defence he promised to stick with, but hear me out.
To begin with, I think he may just opt for a five-man defence given the attacking overload Leeds tend to come with. Not only that, Lewis and Krafth both struggled last weekend, and those capable of replacing them while Manquillo remains out (Murphy and Ritchie) are far more suited to playing at wing-back than they are in a flat back four while
So, I can see Fernandez returning now he’s back from Covid and think Hayden should be just about fit enough to continue in defence alongside Clark. Bruce said Hayden has been struggling with fatigue this week, but he won’t need to run too much in this role and will be needed given how good he was against West Brom.
In midfield, I think Sean Longstaff’s energy will be deemed key against such a high-intensity side, but reckon Shelvey may be rested for that exact reason. We’d miss his passing range, but I think Bruce may protect him ahead of crucial games against Fulham and Brentford in the next 6 days, not to mention the fact he may struggle to last the pace.
With that in mind, I can see Hendrick returning and Almiron playing in that slightly deeper role that saw his energy and pace be put to good use in recent results against Wolves and Everton. It’s not his preferred position, but his work rate defensively and frightening pace at the other end could cause Leeds problems.
At the top end of the pitch, I’ve gone with no Wilson. In an ideal world he’s start – of course he would – but can Bruce really start him FOUR times in 11 days after that recent hamstring injury? With Gayle back with a bang last weekend and having a brilliant record against Leeds, I think he’ll start.
As for Joelinton, he could play in that free role in between a three-man midfield and Gayle, allowing him to drive from deep and support Gayle on the counter.
Here’s a few ones to watch in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side:
Patrick Bamford – Anyone who regularly watches Championship football would’ve said he’d struggle to cut it at Premier League level, yet he’s scored more than our very own Callum Wilson so far. It’s worth noting that just one of his 8 this season have come at Elland Road, but no player has had more shots in the box than him this season, highlighting how many good chances Leeds often create.
Kalvin Phillips – Their best player for me and the man who often pull the strings from deep. Has a brilliant range of passing for a holding midfielder but is also strong defensively. Give him too much time on the ball and his cross-field passes could cause all sorts of bother!
Raphinha – The Brazilian winger completed a £17m move from Rennes over the summer and is starting to find his feet at Leeds. He’s skilful, quick and scored a brilliant goal in their win at Everton a few weeks ago.
Predicted Leeds XI: (4-4-1-1): Meslier – Dallas, Ayling, Cooper, Alioksi – Raphinha, Phillips, Klich, Harrison – Rodrigo – Bamford.
I’ve got a bad feeling about this one, despite the fact we’re the side in form.
The West Brom win was a brilliant effort from all involved, but we tired badly in the second half and are now coming up against a high-energy side who can tear teams apart if they’re allowed to.
They are naive defensively and could be punished if we set up with pace in attack, however I fear they’ll click into gear and outwork us as Southampton did a few weeks ago.
Prediction: Leeds 2-0 Newcastle