Championship: Leeds United vs Stoke City – Lineups, Preview and Prediction

Marcelo Bielsa takes charge of his first competitive game for Leeds United against a Stoke side who are early favourites for promotion.

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 Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

16:30 BST, Sunday 5th August (Elland Road, Leeds), Sky Sports Football

On Sunday, Marcelo Bielsa will take his place on the touchline at Elland Road for the first competitive game of his tenure at Leeds United.

After a long saga in the summer, many speculated that Bielsa would emulate his brief tenure at Lazio and quit before the season even started, not least because Leeds have been infamously volatile with a frequent turnover of managers. However, on the eve of the start of the season, he’s still in West Yorkshire, looking relaxed and comfortable at Friday’s press conference. 

It took time but he’s been backed in the transfer market with Leeds providing him with their most expensive signing since Robbie Fowler 17 years ago: Patrick Bamford. 

Elsewhere, Barry Douglas, the Championship’s standout left back, has filled a gap that desperately needed filling. Lewis Baker, Jamal Blackman and Jack Harrison are all promising youngsters on loan from big Premier League clubs. 

For Stoke, this is their first second-tier match in ten years. Over the summer, they have taken a different approach to coach recruitment to Leeds: Gary Rowett is an experienced head with a good track record in the division.

A slew of high profile — for the Championship at any rate — signings has followed and Stoke can now boast a squad which includes World Cup star Peter Etebo, striker Benik Afobe, goalkeeper Adam Federici, controversial midfielder James McClean, perennially impressive but never quite impressive enough Tom Ince and, most recently, Ashley Williams on loan from Everton.

There is a certain amount of expectation that Stoke will be at the top of the Championship by the time the season draws to a close. This match should give a good indication of how well-founded these expectations are. 

Last Time Out

Leeds United 1-0 Las Palmas (Pre-season friendly)

When Las Palmas visited West Yorkshire, the resulting game of football was not the most dramatic. Kemar Roofe’s late strike, opening space with fancy footwork, settled the game and ensured Bielsa’s side ended pre-season on a high.

The side from the Canary Islands, relegated from La Liga last season, looked organised in defence and troubled Leeds on a couple of occasions from long distance. In the end, though Leeds were ultimately good value for the win. 

There were early hints of what the new coach is looking to instil. The positional play was intelligent as Leeds looked to play the ball out from the back with Kalvin Phillips recalibrating from his usual role, dropping deeper to play as a ball-playing centre-half.

FC St Pauli 2-0 Stoke City (Pre-season friendly)

The Potters travelled to Hamburg to play everyone’s favourite left-leaning hipster football club but came away defeated. 

In the course of the game, Ryan Shawcross and Bruno Martins Indi were shaky at the back and, were it not for Jack Butland, the deficit might have been worse. 

Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

When Stoke did have the ball, everything went through Joe Allen, which could be a recurring theme this season. 

Mame Biram Diouf added a new entry to his ever-growing highlights reel of calamitous misses, while Saido Berahino and Tom Ince were both denied goals from tight officiating decisions. 

Stoke fans will hope to see the team less toothless come Sunday. 

Leeds United Lineup

Bielsa stated in his pre-match press conference that Pontus Jansson would be unlikely to feature. The Swede has only just returned to pre-season training and it’s only been five weeks since his country exited the World Cup at the hands of England at the quarter-final stage. 

The lack of available centre-halves might mean Bielsa deviates from his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation but that didn’t stop him in pre-season. If the 3-3-1-3 isn’t used, expect the more conventional 4-3-3 formation which was also experimented with in pre-season. 

Adam Forshaw will miss the next six to eight weeks through ankle ligament injury. Bielsa also confirmed that Bailey Peacock-Farrell has been given the nod as goalkeeper ahead of Blackman, who will probably come in later. 

Douglas, Harrison and Bamford will all be available, although it’s unlikely all three will start.

Stoke City Lineup

There will be several new faces in the Stoke City side, with Tom Ince, James McClean and Oghenekaro Etebo — who was excellent for Nigeria at the World Cup — all likely to feature. 

Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross and Joe Allen should be certainties. Erik Pieters is battling to be fit. 

There’s a number of options Rowett could choose as a striker and there will be a temptation to use Peter Crouch given the lack of height in Leeds defence. Given his veteran status, it’s more likely he’ll be used as a substitute. 

Benik Afobe, Stoke’s most high-profile summer arrival, should lead the line. 

Key Battle: Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United) vs Benik Afobe (Stoke City)

Local boy Phillips looked comfortable in possession against Las Palmas but in a competitive environment against one of the strongest sides in the Championship, this will be a different test. 

Rowett will likely instruct his striker, as well as McClean and Ince, to hassle and harry the Leeds United defence as they look to play it out from the back. 

That’s in possession. Out of possession, as Stoke look to attack, players such as Allen, McClean and Etobo will look to exploit a system that is still relatively new and unfamiliar to the opposition. 

If Phillips is to be deployed in a back three, his positional understanding is of paramount importance. 

Talking Points

Bielsa in the Championship is actually happening.

A God to football anoraks and tactical obsessives all over, the “high priest of the high press,” muse to Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola, will be taking charge in the second tier of English football. 

This promises to be a clash of cultures, as Bielsa looks to take “juego de posicion” and his revolutionary 3-3-1-3 to Rotherham, Ipswich, Bolton and Wigan. 

This will be the first taste of a fascinating chapter in Football League history and, fittingly, it’s against Stoke, so often the byword for up-and-at-’em no-nonsense English football. 

Will it work? Let’s find out. Either way, it’s certainly not going to be boring. 

Allen to stand out in this league

After an exemplary Euro 2016, Joe Allen had an exceptional start to life at Stoke, scoring often as he made the shortlist for the UEFA team of the year.

A vital cog in Stoke’s midfield ever since, a move was mooted back to the Premier League, but he has committed his future to the Staffordshire club and clearly believes in their ability to bounce straight back up.

It’s likely that he’ll be one of the league’s most outstanding individuals but it will be interesting to see if his more cultured playmaking style works in a league known for its physicality, whereby such players are rarely afforded the time and space to thrive. 

Bielsa’s Leeds will certainly look to press him in possession and nullify his ability to spread the ball. How will he fare?

Prediction: Leeds United 1 – 1 Stoke City

With key signings yet to gel with the team, Leeds United will be far from the finished product and fans will be lucky to see an inchoate version of the memorable football Bielsa instilled at Marseille and Athletic Club of Bilbao.

However, there are quality individuals in the side and Stoke will also be finding their feet as they look to integrate new signings. 

The wingbacks Douglas and Luke Ayling will be central to Leeds offensive play, while Afobe and Ince will cause the makeshift back three problems. 

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