Tony Pulis is readying his troops for what could be an early title decider when they head to Elland Road to face Leeds on Friday night. Both teams have started the season in magnificent form and sit first and second in the table, with 13 points apiece. Leeds are above Boro by virtue of goal difference, and they have been sensational under new coach Marcelo Bielsa. This provides an intriguing opportunity for Pulis, a seasoned, wily old tactician, to pit his wits against one of the most revered coaches in world football.
Leading lights such as Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino come over somewhat evangelical when they speak about Bielsa. The Argentine manager is nickmamed El Loco and described as a combustible genius, referring to his innovative coaching methods and also his eccentric personality and ferocious temper. He is a strong man manager and seen by many as the founder of the hard-pressing, high-energy game that has proved so successful for teams like Man City, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool and Tottenham of late.
Bielsa has certainly had a positive impact on Leeds Utd. They have been playing football straight out of the top draw, banging in 14 goals in five games, many of them strikes for the highlights reel. Read a Bet365 review and find market leading odds from a respected bookmaker and you will see that Leeds are now the 7/2 favourites to win the Championship title this season.
Their passing has been fantastic, the movement superb and the intensity a sight to behold. Whether they can maintain it over the course of a season is another matter entirely. Reports are emerging from of 12-hour training sessions and players being banned from going home at night. They may burn out before long, but right now they are blazing a trail of destruction through the Championship, and they will be surging with confidence after beating Norwich 3-0 at Carrow Road on Saturday.
Yet the visit of Middlesbrough represents Bielsa’s sternest test in England so far. This will be the true gauge of just how formidable his Leeds side really are, because Pulis is a veteran of the English game and he will not fear Bielsa’s reputation one jot. This is a man that regularly outfoxed Arsene Wenger and other esteemed coaches in establishing Stoke as a Premier League mainstay, and he had plenty of joy with the likes of Crystal Palace and West Brom too.
Alarm bells may have started ringing this summer, when the club sanctioned the £40 million departures of Adama Traore, Ben Gibson and Patrick Bamford. That threatened to rip the heart out of the team, but Pulis rolled with the punches, snapped up Aden Flint and brought Martin Braithwaite back into the fold, and Boro have emerged resurgent. Last season’s playoff semi-finalists remain unbeaten, with four wins and a draw. They may have scored five goals fewer than Leeds, but they have only conceded two to Leeds’ four. This is the hallmark of a Pulis team – defensive discipline and rigidity are at the core of his methods – and he has now had enough time to mould the squad into his vision. They have won their last four games to nil and they are looking extremely strong.
The meeting between Leeds and Boro could therefore be described as a case of the unstoppable force meets the immoveable object. Who will prevail? The draw looks interesting, and that would be a strong result for Pulis. Boro are the 9/2 second favourites for the title, well ahead of West Brom, Aston Villa and Brentford in the bookies’ estimations, and they will be taken really seriously if they get a result at Elland Road on Friday. There is every reason to think they are capable of doing just that.