Leeds United

Leeds United


The Champions League chasing side Leeds United could have had if Marcelo Bielsa landed his top targets

Marcelo Bielsa and a potential Leeds lineup

Bielsa spotted some incredible targets during his reign as Leeds manager

Back when Marcelo Bielsa was manager for Leeds United there were many ambitious moves made by the club and the board. Some moves paid off, most didn’t.

During his time at Leeds, Bielsa played some amazing football and often did so with a squad similar to the one he inherited. He was such an amazing coach that managed to get the best out of players and developed them all into much better players.

But it begs the question, just how good could Leeds United have been if they got all their targets?

There are some big names on here, this starting XI alone looks like one of a Champions League chasing team.

Goalkeeper – Emiliano Martinez (Aston Villa)

When German international keeper and Arsenal’s number one Bernd Leno got injured in a 2-1 defeat to Brighton, long-time Arsenal backup Emiliano Martinez was given a chance.

For years he’d been loaned out to Oxford United, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United, Wolves, Getafe and Reading, spending eight years at the club and only making 15 appearances.

Martinez would then go on to be the hero for Arsenal in the FA Cup final against Chelsea and also in the Community Shield the following season against Liverpool where he saved penalties to help win Arsenal the game.

Martinez wanted to leave Arsenal in search of a starting spot for a team and Bielsa’s Leeds were one of the clubs interested. Martinez was one of many Argentines Bielsa wanted to bring to the club and failed to do so as Martinez ended up at Aston Villa where he’s obviously still their starting keeper.

Since then, Martinez has gone on to win the Copa America and World Cup for Argentina. Currently, Martinez is fourth in the Premier League with Aston Villa and they have an upcoming Europa Conference League quarter-final against Lille too, but maybe this could’ve all happened in a Leeds United shirt in another universe.

Right-Back – Juan Foyth (Villarreal)

The next Argentine on the list is the former Tottenham right-back/centre-back hybrid Juan Foyth. Foyth was another who Bielsa wanted the year when Leeds were promoted back to the Premier League and they were continually linked with him every window after.

Since then, he’s been a regular for Villarreal playing under managers like Unai Emery where he won the Europa League in 2020/21. Foyth covered right-back, centre-back and defensive-midfield positions for Villarreal and there’s a lot of similarities between him and former Leeds defender Ben White so the links always made sense. Foyth was also a part of the Copa America and World Cup winning Argentina squads.

Right Centre-Back – Ben White (Arsenal)

Ben White played 49 times for Leeds

The first on the list to actually play for Leeds is Arsenal’s starting right-back Ben White. The England international joined Leeds as a replacement for then club captain Pontus Jansson on loan from Brighton. There were doubts at the time when he was signed that he would be able to fill the big boots of fan favourite Jansson.

But from early it was clear Bielsa had signed a real gem. White went on to become an essential player for Leeds playing every game in their title winning team. White played at the heart of their defence at centre-back but also covered for Kalvin Phillips at times as a defensive midfielder.

Leeds actually bid three times to re-sign White since their promotion. The bids were at £18.5m, £22m and £25m and Brighton rejected all three, then White stayed at the club under Graham Potter for the season.

In the end, the summer after in 2021 he signed for Arsenal for £50m where he became a starter and hasn’t been dropped since as he’s one of their most consistent performers. But even to this day White credits Bielsa a lot for his development and Bielsa has always spoken so highly of White and his attitude and willingness to learn.

Left Centre-Back – Josko Gvardiol (Manchester City)

Croatian defender Josko Gvardiol is one Leeds almost signed early on and it would’ve been a real coup if they did. In fact, they agreed personal terms with Gvardiol, and a deal was close for around £18m from Dinamo Zagreb but collapsed in the end.

Gvardiol instead went on to join RB Leipzig. Gvardiol won the German Cup two times at Leipzig and later became a key player in Croatia’s defence. Gvardiol’s stocks raised after he had some great performances for Croatia at the 2022 World Cup and in the following summer of 2023 signed for Manchester City for a whopping £77.6m.

Josko Gvardiol quote on joining Leeds

Left-Back – Facundo Medina (RC Lens)

Another Argentine target was Lens’ Facundo Medina. Bielsa looked at Medina the year Leeds got promoted and if he signed, Medina could’ve played either as a left centre-back or left-back. At Lens he then became more of a regular and is now a key player for the French side. Medina plays as a left centre-back in a back three, but in this role he’s extremely progressive carrying the ball out of the defence and passing through the lines. This type of ball playing ability and progression would’ve made him a quality signing for Bielsa and he possibly would’ve played as a left-back.

Medina was a key player for Franck Haise’s Lens side who went on to finish second in Ligue 1 last season and qualify for the Champions League.

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Defensive-Midfielder – Kalvin Phillips (West Ham United – On Loan From Manchester City)

The Yorkshire Pirlo himself Kalvin Phillips was the star man for Leeds as they won the Championship under Bielsa, spraying passes around the pitch with so much composure and class. Having someone play at such a high level who is one of your own is what every fan wants and Bielsa turned Phillips into such a complete player – so much so that Kalvin even got into the England squad forming a formidable partnership with then West Ham midfielder Declan Rice.

Phillips actually was awarded England player of the year for the 2020-21 season. Since then, he went on to join Manchester City for £45m in 2022 but he’s struggled for form and with injuries too. Phillips is now on loan at West Ham looking to turn around his form and get in the England squad for the 2024 Euros.

Right Centre-Midfielder – Rodrigo De Paul (Atletico Madrid)

Rodrigo de Paul, Italy v Argentina June 2022

Now this was one you would hear about every single transfer window. Rodrigo De Paul. Every window he was linked, especially during his time at Udinese.

The Argentine was close to moving to the club the summer after Leeds were promoted to the Premier League. An all-action midfielder capable of dictating the tempo of the game with his metronomic passing, De Paul would’ve fit in perfectly at Leeds under Bielsa.

Instead, he stayed at Udinese for a year and then signed for Atletico Madrid for around £30m and has become one of their most important players. De Paul is another Argentine who has since been in the squads that won the Copa America and the World Cup. De Paul wasn’t just in the squad though; he was the first name in the midfield, either playing as the deepest midfielder or an all-action #8. Bielsa was clearly onto something.

Left Centre-Midfield – Teun Koopmeiners (Atalanta)

Teun Koopmeiners is one of the most versatile, complete technical midfielders in Europe right now. For Atalanta he’s played centre-midfield, defensive-midfield, attacking-midfield, second-striker, right-wing, left centre-back. Literally all over the pitch.

His best position is definitely as a centre-midfielder where his technical abilities can shine most. This season he’s moved into a more advanced midfield role under manager Gian Piero Gasperini where he’s been very impressive. The Dutchman has scored 10 goals in 25 games from midfield and is arguably their most important player.

But before joining Atalanta from AZ Alkmaar, Leeds almost signed him back in 2021. Koopmeiners has everything a Bielsa midfielder needs: athleticism and technical ability. He’d have been perfect at Leeds.

Right-Winger – Raphinha (Barcelona)

The biggest success story on the list is the signing Bielsa made back in 2020 when they were promoted to the Premier League, Raphinha from Stade Rennais for £17m. The deal came late in the summer window but would end up becoming Bielsa’s most influential signing.

For many Leeds fans, especially younger ones, they say Raphinha is the best or most technical player they’ve seen at the club. Rightly so too. Raphinha was exceptional at Leeds and at times carried them through games.

He had the technical ability and flair you’d associate with Brazilians and also the tenacity off the ball. Raphinha was the type of player for Leeds to grab the game by the scruff of its neck and just win it for you.

A lot of the names on this list would’ve had a similar level of impact as Raphinha as they were a similar level player but the Brazilian winger is the one who they did actually manage to get. It only begs the question, just how good would Leeds have been if they got all these players?

Raphinha later was the star man for Leeds keeping them up in the league and got his dream move to Barcelona for £55m after a bidding war between the Spanish giants, and both Arsenal and Chelsea.

Striker – Matheus Cunha (Wolves)

During his time at Hertha Berlin, Brazilian forward Matheus Cunha was tracked by Leeds United for years. Cunha was one of their main targets for a while and in the end a move obviously didn’t materialise, but the quality was clear to see.

Cunha is another ex-Leeds target who ended up at Atletico Madrid instead where he failed to make a big impact and then moved to Wolves initially on a loan and later permanently. Cunha has been outstanding for Wolves this season, even scoring a hat-trick against Chelsea in a 4-2 win. The Brazilian has scored 11 goals and got seven assists in 28 games for Wolves this season.

A high-energy pressing attacker who loves to dribble and take on players, Cunha certainly suited Bielsa’s pressing philosophy with the technical ability to create for those around him and himself.

Left-Wing – Noa Lang (PSV Eindhoven)

During his time at Club Brugge, Noa Lang would get linked to Bielsa’s Leeds every window. Initially it was before Raphinha signed but the links didn’t die down after the Brazilian signed which makes it clear that Bielsa would’ve looked to play the two together.

Lang is very similar to Raphinha in his play style in the way he’s a tricky, skilful player who loves to take on players and also cut inside onto his stronger foot to shoot from distance. Lang also drew comparisons to Neymar due to his level of flair and confidence on the ball.

Since a move to Leeds failed to happen, Lang has moved to PSV last summer (2023) for a club record €15m fee.

Honourable Mention – Erling Haaland (Manchester City)

Another honourable mention is none other than Erling Haaland, yes Haaland. The Norwegian striker was one who visited the training ground and was so close to signing for Leeds back when Thomas Christiansen was the manager. So this was prior to Bielsa being at the club, hence him not making the list.

Haaland was born in Leeds whilst his dad Alf-Inge Haaland played for Leeds United. In fact, when Erling visited the training ground when he was in talks to sign from Molde, his dad Alf-Inge was there too. At that time, Haaland would’ve cost around £4m but the fee was deemed ‘too much’ for an unproven talent and he later went on to join RB Salzburg for £7m, a small fee considering he went on to sign for Manchester City for £51.5m from Borussia Dortmund.

In his debut season at City, Haaland beat the Premier League top scorer record getting 36 goals helping City to a record treble win, including their first ever Champions League trophy and scoring 52 goals in 53 games in all competitions in the process. Not a bad debut season.

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