There was a multitude of factors that aided Leeds United’s seamless return to life in the top-flight in the 2020/21 season after a 16-year absence. An enigmatic manager in Marcelo Bielsa who employed equally mystical tactics and a group of players who formed a team in every sense of the word, to name a couple.
While it was their strength as a collective that impressed – amounting to the most points by a newly promoted team since 2001 with 59 – there were a set of individuals that led the charge.
Sought-after winger Raphinha and now injury-laden Patrick Bamford did so literally, at the head of the pitch. However, it was the spine of the team that allowed for Bielsa’s now-notorious high-pressing style of play.
Manchester City-bound Kalvin Phillips acted as a gatekeeper in the heart of the midfield protecting a back four including inspirational captain Liam Cooper.
Adding further fortification and arguably the Lilywhites’ most underrated performer was goalkeeper Illan Meslier.
🧤️ Illan Meslier recorded the most saves in 2021/22
— Fantasy Premier League (@OfficialFPL) May 26, 2022
Illan Meslier’s Leeds United journey
A delayed addition to Leeds’ promotion securing campaign, the French native took advantage of former number ‘1’ Kiko Casilla’s ill-fitness to finish the season as the first-choice option between the sticks.
He was previously on loan from hometown club Lorient but made the move permanent after his temporary employers’ return to the big time.
In his first season in the Premier League, the then 19-year-old finished the season as one of the most impressive occupants of his position.
Perhaps expectedly considering his side’s propensity to leave themselves vulnerable to attacks, Meslier finished fourth for saves made. Although to debunk those that may diminish his achievements as such, he also finished level fifth for clean sheets (11).
2021/22 a learning curve Leeds United and Meslier
A transitional season in many ways, 2021/22 acted as a stark reminder of the speed at which fortunes can shift at the highest level.
Despite again ranking high for saves made – first in fact with 143 – Illan Meslier cannoned down the clean sheets ranking to 17th with just five shutouts.
A change in leadership didn’t help matters, with Marcelo Bielsa departing for former RB Leipzig manager Jesse Marsch. The latter curbed Leeds’ exposure to conceding but was unable to look beyond the sole aim of avoiding relegation.
They achieved safety on the final day and ensured Marsch would be allowed to impart his philosophy in the Premier League in 2022/23.
Illan Meslier on the radar in France
The 22-year-old’s rise since crossing the channel has unsurprisingly caught the gaze of scouts far and wide, with his ball-playing ability a particularly attractive trait.
That being said, the focus of interest appears to lead back to France with Ligue 1 outfit OGC Nice.
French outlet Media Foot, as quoted by Sport Witness, claim the club are looking to replace departing goalkeeper Walter Benitez who is set to join PSV Eindhoven after the conclusion of his contract.
Nice manager Lucien Favre is said to view Meslier as a candidate to be Benitez’s successor and higher-ups believe he could leave Leeds United.
Considering Meslier’s contract, signed in August 2021, which runs until the summer of 2026, this line of thought may be misinformed.
Kalvin Phillips has recently departed for £45m including add-ons and a fee in the region of £60m is set to be accrued for Raphinha, therefore emphasising the fee the Yorkshire club would demand for Meslier.
A transfer away from Elland Road appears unlikely at this point in time with Meslier undoubtedly in Marsch’s plans for next season. The supposed interest is perhaps a taste of what’s to come in future windows, however.