After a barnstorming return to the Premier League, the start of the 2021/22 season has been hard going for Leeds. Consistent injuries have decimated their squad, including time out for key players such as Patrick Bamford and Kalvin Phillips.
It has left the club languishing in 16th place, eight points ahead of the relegation spots as they look to secure a third successive season of top-flight football.
Despite the situation at times seeming untenable, injuries have allowed Marcelo Bielsa to promote younger players into his squad. The likes of Sam Greenwood, Crysencio Summerville and Charlie Cresswell have all made their debuts this season.
But it is two of his younger talents in Tyler Roberts and Joe Gelhardt who have given Bielsa, as well as Leeds fans, hope for the future in both the short and long term.
Speaking to Sky Sports ahead of the Super Sunday trip to West Ham, Bielsa said: “There are two messages that I’ve received – why don’t we buy players to solve those absences and why is the squad so small?
“There’s no way to make a squad bigger if the five centre-forwards are injured at the same time. The same if there are four players injured of the six players who resolved their problem in one position. So there’s not an error in the planning, you can’t plan for something so unusual.
“They ask ‘why don’t we buy a centre-back or a centre-forward?’, and there’s the engineering economically of how to compete in this league. We brought in Gelhardt, Roberts, Greenwood – then at a low level of investment – but we also bought Rodrigo and Bamford so you’ve mortgaged a future if you buy good players at their place.
“I Imagine if we had more players than we do, one little space there would be for the development of the youngsters. You also have to interpret the feelings of those in the public.
“When Roberts was injured and Gelhardt came on, Tyler had played the first half as one of the best he had played at Leeds at a level and intensity that was very high. He was in conditions to finish the game two or three times and he didn’t get it, like so many players like Bamford, who went through with missing goals until he scored 17 in 20 games in the Premier League.
It’s a fight that is deserved, the one they are taking forward. They are a team that has variants for each position and they’ve adapted to the absences they’ve had. They’re a team of power offensively with a very solid structure.
“So Tyler played that first half and it filled me with hope, but when he came off and Gelhardt came on, the stadium exploded. The influence of the fans multiplied due to him coming on. Gelhardt filled the fans with hope.
“Also in this moment when it’s difficult to not deserve criticism, it’s natural to be criticised and we deserve to be criticised, I take the advantage to talk about things that influence our decisions.
“I describe it by saying those things could have been avoided. But there are sometimes things that are linked to luck.”
Bielsa wanted Drameh stay | ‘Young players want to leave Leeds’
One young player who has already made a loan move in the January transfer window is Cody Drameh, who joined Sky Bet Championship side Cardiff for the remainder of the season.
But given the injuries in Bielsa’s squad, the manager admitted he would have liked the 20-year-old to have stayed at Leeds and revealed Drameh is not the only youngster looking for a move elsewhere.
He told his pre-match press conference: “I didn’t think he [Drameh] needed to play games elsewhere. He was a player that is necessary with all the absences we’ve had, but he preferred to go and play outside of Leeds. In a situation where there are opportunities for the youngsters, which has increased clearly and, in this case, Drameh would prefer to experiment outside our team.
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“I consider that position valid and it doesn’t make sense to oppose him for what I imagine is a great opportunity. He imagined it in a different way and it’s more important what he thinks than what I think. I don’t think it’s convenient to impose where a player does or doesn’t want to belong.
“Evidently, what I proposed to them [the younger players] is not what they desire so I don’t criticise or condemn it.
“It doesn’t disappoint me, but clearly I’ve calculated things incorrectly because what I consider and a great opportunity – there are very few Premier League teams that have had so many youngsters in their squad – but those who are benefitted from that position, they prefer to abandon the club, looking for another type of competition.
“Evidently what I view as a great possibility, they don’t. But all of that in football at the moment, it’s impossible to decipher because the reasons that are made, footballers make the fewest decisions over the management of their careers.
“Perhaps I overvalue the fact that you’re in a 20-man squad in the best league in the world… For me, I live that as a failure because what we do is for each player to triumph and not to leave.
“I have evaluated a lot the role they have occupied in the last two or three months, taking on spaces within the squad that normally in the other teams are taken on my players that are 25 or older. I’m grateful for this, I value it, and I give recognition. But at the same time, it’s not enough to satisfy the expectations personally.”
Analysis: Meslier as Leeds’ ever-present
But for all of Leeds’ injuries, one player who has been an ever-present for Bielsa is goalkeeper Illan Meslier – still only 21 himself.
He has started in every domestic game for Leeds this season across the Premier League, Carabao Cup and FA Cup, including last weekend’s defeat to West Ham.
Meslier ranks in the Premier League’s top three for saves and passes attempted with no errors leading to shots so far this season.
He also ranks top for goalkeepers under the age of 22 who have played the most Premier League games, currently ahead of Joe Hart, Scott Carson and David de Gea.
Although there are still areas of improvement, Leeds will be relieved they have had a steady presence in between the sticks as they look to climb up the Premier League table.
For Meslier, he ranks among some legends of the game in the Premier League appearance table. With goalkeepers like Ben Foster still playing at the age of 38, the France U21 international will surely be aiming for the same in his career.
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