Much has been hypothosised about what a Marcelo Bielsa Leeds side might look like. We know the tactical system is most likely to be his favoured one but we know very little about the squad he’s intending to use. Messages have been really varied too. Initially he said that there wouldn’t be much change, then cited the squad as being 15 players too large and in desperate need of 5-6 new additions. A smaller number (circa 6, we’re told) have been informed of their lack of a future at Leeds United – though there’s been no official announcement of who that may be.
We can guess with a fair degree of accuracy, but given how many fans have thrown their opinion onto the Internet I’m electing to leave that subject alone for now; it’d just be conjecture anyway. I’m instead choosing to focus on something more known – the importance of youth to Leeds’ future and more crucially at this point – for what Bielsa will want to do.
We know that Leeds need to drizzle quality through the squad – the poor Argentine elected to watch 51 Leeds games on video before accepting the role – so he’ll know as well as we do where fragility needs to be addressed and where we simply don’t have enough quality. But one of the long-running jokes Bielsa is how his tactics are too intense to work across an entire season. This is doubly relevant for a season as long and gruelling as the Championship. The fact he even had 51 games to review speaks for how weary the players can get if not rotated and rested sufficiently.
It’s here where I suddenly disagree with a large number of fans. Notably those insisting that Phillips and/or Vieira are moved on for simply not being good enough. Not only would I contest the “quality” argument there, but if we’re to play a high-tempo, high-pressing tactical system across a long season then we’ll need young legs. Fit as he may be, I can’t see Pablo Hernandez’ legs lasting for 51 games when wrecked by triple-training sessions and other notoriously intense things employed by our new head coach.
If we’re to remain competitive for the duration of the season (and that’s a big IF) we’re going to need something you can’t necessarily buy in a player – youth. Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips are perfect for the revised Leeds United. They’re young and malleable – so they can learn from the coaching system employed by Bielsa. They’re blessed with younger bodies meaning they recover faster and have a greater ability to maintain fitness. Those closer to 30 (or beyond, as I can personally vouch for) break easier and take longer to mend. If we’re going to be playing an intense, fluid system focusing on quick-transitions, heavy pressing and box-to-box movement then players like Phillips and Vieira are crucial.
Not that I’m labelling them as constant first-teamers; one would expect that we’ll need extra bodies to make this work (hence the addition of Lewis Baker on loan from Chelsea – another pair of younger legs). But one must imagine that Ronaldo Vieira is as good a candidate to be ever-present in this Leeds midfield as anyone.
Simply because the player isn’t currently ready for instant Premier League action doesn’t mean they should be moved on. It’s unfair, too, to criticise the younger players for not developing as perhaps you’d have hoped given the incredible volatility of their coaching in recent years. From Cellino’s austerity and head-coach merry-go-round (with the frankly appalling treatment of deservedly loved figures like Lucy Ward and Neil Redfearn), to the constant shift in personnel under Radrizzani.
Take Phillips for example. He became a regular (and strong performer) under Neil Redfearn’s stint as head coach. He then barely featured under Uwe Rosler or Steve Evans. Garry Monk took a shine to the lad and used him more and Thomas Christiansen (and Paul Heckingbottom) did too – though Phillips featured less after the arrival of Adam Forshaw. So in little over 3 years of first-team activity, Kalvin is now training under his 7th head coach. Consistency is key and it’s understandable why so few Academy players have truly found their groove at Leeds in recent years.
But I’m a big believer in the Leeds Academy and think players like Phillips, Vieira, Edmondson, Clarke, O’Connor, BPF and Pearce will all be important figures moving forwards. Some may have loan spells before that moment comes, others will get rolled into this long and combative season. But you can bet your mortgage on us needing young blood to keep up with the demands of what Bielsa will implement.
Don’t write off good Academy prospects. I thought we’d learned that by now?