A Championship season is defined by how a team handles the big occasions, the big tests. In the second half of last season Albion failed to handle them; Sheffield United at home, Villa in the playoffs and spectacularly Leeds away. Leeds -Bielsa’s Leeds- away is the test these days the second tier, the benchmark, if you like. This is not to say they will win the league, nor is it to say they are unbeatable, but if you ask any Championship fan if they would ‘take a point’ at Elland Road almost every single one would say yes. That speaks volumes about the animal that Bielsa has created in his first 16 months in English football. Coming through games against Derby, Fulham and QPR unscathed has been a good barometer of Albion’s realistic ambitions this season, but Slaven Biliç would have had this Leeds game circled on the calendar from the moment the fixtures were announced. With Albion unbeaten and sitting pretty at the top of the tree and Leeds still huge favourites for the title, games don’t usually come this big less than a quarter of the way through a season.
1 – Bielsa vs Biliç
Loco Bielsa vs the Rockstar. If I told you that two managers with experience of managing at major international tournaments were locking horns on a Tuesday night you would be forgiven for assuming it was a Champions League game. That says all you need to know about the quality and magnitude of the Championship nowadays. Gone are the days when success in the Championship was attributed exclusively to British managers and long-ball football is now far more difficult to find at Championship grounds. Bielsa and Biliç embody the shift in culture in the division in the same way that Farke, Nuno Espirito Santo and Jokanovic have in the past. Both will be hoping that next year’s fixture list will pit them against one another in the Premier League and it is a distinct possibility.
2 – The best is yet to come
There is a feeling that although the table makes for excellent reading from an Albion point of view, there is still room for improvement in terms of performance levels. Conversely, while Leeds have posted (comfortably) the best underlying numbers in the division, they have failed to convert their dominance into points, particularly in recent losses to Swansea and Charlton. Both teams are still finding their feet in the context of this season; I have no doubt that they will both improve and they will look to this game to kick-start that. A win for either side would be a statement win, the kind of victory on which good form can be built (see Albion post-Leeds 4-1 last season).
3– They can’t both have the ball
The hallmark of both of these sides has been to keep the ball and dictate the pattern of play. It goes without saying though, that something has to give when they come up against one another. The midfield battle will be fascinating, with Romaine Sawyers facing what will be his toughest test yet in terms of finding time and space to dictate the game the way he usually does. But the Albion fan turned Albion hero can take confidence from the fact Leeds themselves were reportedly so impressed with his displays for Brentford last season that they tried to sign him in the summer. Albion fans will have breathed a collective sigh of relief upon hearing that Pablo Hernandez, the man who scored inside the first minute in this fixture last season, has been ruled out by injury. That said, regardless of personnel, Leeds will move the ball quicker than any side in the division and that could expose a midfield two of Sawyers and Livermore, even if the latter does look noticeably more mobile this season. This will put an onus on Matheus Pereira to work hard defensively, something that isn’t one of his primary attributes.
4- Come of age test for Fergie
It’s no secret that Marcelo Bielsa leaves no stone unturned when scouting the opposition, which ruffled a few feathers during his first season in the Championship, to say the least. He won’t have to turn many stones to find one particular aspect of this Albion team he will be looking to exploit. We have an 18 year old centre-back, turned right-back, turned left-back playing week in week out on Sky Sports. Despite being mightily impressive, you can fully expect this to be Nathan Ferguson’s toughest test yet in an Albion shirt, up against Helder Costa and Stuart Dallas down the Leeds right hand side. While a strong performance against Leeds may be a coming of age moment for him, this game certainly isn’t make or break for the young defender – far from it – with Ferguson being possibly the standout performer for Albion this season. However if he repeats his recent performance levels he can add Bielsa to his ever-growing list of admirers. Fergie made a rare journey towards the opposition penalty area against QPR on Saturday, scoring his first Albion goal in doing so, but he may find himself having to exclusively show his defensive skills, which have been immaculate thus far, on Tuesday night.
5 – Just as big for Leeds
Leeds might be the benchmark for the division and Tuesday night will be the acid test for Albion’s automatic ambitions, but this game is huge for the hosts. Leeds have hit a mini-slump in form, with one win in their last 4 games. Leeds made a habit of losing in bursts last season, which ultimately cost them automatic promotion. The West Yorkshire outfit lost 4 in 7 games in early 2019 and then 5 of their last 9 to limp towards third place. The obsessive Bielsa will be fully aware of this and will look to nip it in the bud this season. In addition, the Argentine will want a performance that backs up the numbers and acclaim Leeds have received this season. Leeds United haven’t won any of the 3 matches they’ve played against the current top 6 this season, so they will be desperate to show how good they truly are against the league leaders.
While the 10th game of a 46 game season decides almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, Tuesday night will be a spectacle. The best the EFL has to offer. Led by two renowned coaches. Under the lights. It’s not quite worth £39 a ticket (I had to mention it) but it’s not far off to be fair. It’s difficult to see one team running away with it like Albion did last November and Leeds did in March, so I’ll predict 1-1, which I think most fans of both teams would settle for.