An important moment for Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa as West Ham United and Watford games take on real significance
Big words like ‘need’ and ‘must’ should not be thrown about easily so early in the season - only five games have been played - but the noises around Sheffield United at this stage last season had no real urgency, before they went sleepwalking into disaster.
I felt, towards the end of last season when the going was so good, that Leeds were better placed than the Blades were to avoid ‘second-season syndrome’ because of their 2020 recruitment.
When injuries hit Chris Wilder’s squad - and they did hit hard - the squad depth in terms of quality simply wasn’t there.
Ahead of their first season back in the Premier League, no-one at Bramall Lane made any bones about their recruitment; they were preparing for the top flight with one eye on the worst-case scenario, building a squad that could come back up if they did go down.
Leeds went another way, shopping in the international market for players they felt could turn a top-end Championship squad into an established Premier League outfit.
They went all in for the top-flight dream and, ahead of the 2021 summer window when the expectation was for three further quality additions, it was all very promising indeed. The problem is that injuries have already hit the Whites, arguably harder than they did last season, and, for the trip to Fulham, three of Marcelo Bielsa’s four high-end 2020 signings were unavailable.
Factor in the knocks picked up by stalwarts Luke Ayling and Patrick Bamford, Jack Harrison’s Covid case and the suspension of Pascal Struijk, who plugged gaps so brilliantly last season, and Bielsa is not a million miles away from having to ‘play the kids’ in big, big games.
Adam Forshaw taking two steps forward, after a backwards step through a calf injury, is a big positive but everyone could have done without the sight of Stuart Dallas needing treatment, having taken a couple of whacks in the midweek Carabao Cup game at Fulham.
Were the durable Ulsterman to succumb to injury, it would shed a much harsher light on the club’s inability this summer to find or secure a central midfielder to add depth to that area of the squad.
Relying on Forshaw to not only return but play consistently well in the Premier League has an element of risk, to say the least.
Lewis O’Brien penning a new deal with Huddersfield feels a little more pointed, in a week when Bielsa has been shuffling players around to cover the holes popping up in his team.
The 22-year-old might not have been the answer, of course, but someone could have been. Hindsight, as Sheffield United will attest, is not wonderful at all, it’s painful.
No-one could have foreseen Bielsa all at once being without three of his four senior centre-backs and his fifth-choice central defender Ayling, or having to worry about Raphinha’s hip while Jack Harrison isolates through Covid-19.
Yet Covid-19 has been with us since the Championship. The possibility of cases in the squad is always there, as Mateusz Klich proved by contracting it twice in six months, the second time after being vaccinated. If ever there was a time to err on the side of caution with squad numbers, it is this season.
The feeling at Leeds was that they could get more out of the 2020 signings this time around and they still might. They need to hope that they do, as well.
West Ham, at home, has the same daunting significance that was attached to the February 2020 visit to Brentford. On that occasion, adversity and pressure brought out the best in Bielsa and his players. On this occasion, a repeat of that 1-1 scoreline would be ideal, particularly in the context of the current injury situation, as long as they go on to beat Watford a week later.
Fail to win both and the word premature starts to lose its hold over worries. Arriving winless at the next international break, a void that allows thinking time in which fear only festers, would be a concern. Results change tables dramatically in the season’s early stages so a couple of positive ones will allow everyone to breathe a little easier.
It sounds overly dramatic to say it in September but it is a time for leadership, an opportunity for senior players to step up and take responsibility in the way teenagers Joe Gelhardt and Stuart McKinstry did in the Fulham shootout.
Last season’s injury crisis was the fertilised soil Struijk needed to grow into a truly exciting player. This current crisis might do the same for someone like Charlie Cresswell, so impressive in midweek, but it shouldn’t be left to a youngster. There are senior players in Bielsa’s squad, reliable generals who are yet to show their real ability this season.
Much of the justification for a small squad is rooted in the trust he places in players who, with his guidance, elevated themselves from a mid-table Championship existence.
Repaying that trust by any measure in the next two games will do their head coach, themselves and the entire club a huge favour.
All the talk of a harder second season has to be put to bed and quickly. As Dallas said, it doesn’t have to be true. Leeds United’s 2021/22 fate is unwritten and will not be decided for months but this feels like an important moment.