Areas to improve with some urgency as 'wise' and experienced youngster continues to show glimpses for Leeds United
A year has passed since Tyler Roberts finished off a quintessential Bielsaball goal for Leeds United at Hull City and announced himself as a potential alternative to Patrick Bamford.
At 21, he had already shown glimpses of the talent that prompted Leeds to buy him from West Brom on January 31 2018.
Injuries had prevented him from showing more than that, however and his 2019/20 season had been a stop-start affair until Leeds travelled the short distance to Hull.
The Whites were in good form going into the game and already coasting to victory, 2-0 up by the time Roberts stepped off the bench to replace Bamford on 67 minutes.
His impact was electric, playing a part in the build-up to a quick, slick attacking move that bore all the hallmarks of Bielsa’s style of play.
There was tigerish pressing to win the ball back near their own penalty area, a risky but perfect one-two, men running off the ball to create space and then a pass into the feet of Roberts in the centre circle, who introduced width by finding Helder Costa. The winger had five players up in support by the time he neared the Hull box, picked out the free man Mateusz Klich and he touched it back for Roberts to hammer home. It might not have won Goal of the Season but it was the best team goal they scored in their promotion season.
Three minutes later, Klich curled the ball to the back post and Roberts steered a header into the far corner of the net.
As cameos go, it was as clinical as any and led to discussion over the younger’s suitability for a centre-forward role held by a Bielsa favourite.
At that time, Bamford was not showing the ruthless finishing that has lit up the Premier League. The longest he has gone without a goal this season is four games but that Hull clash made it a seven-game barren run and he had scored in just one of his previous 11.
“Clearly it is an option,” Bielsa said. “Tyler can play in this position. He can be an option for Patrick and he also can be an option for Klich or Pablo as a playmaker. When a striker scores of course that has a high value and after that the manager considers it.”
Bamford retained Bielsa’s trust and his place, scoring in the next game and contributing five in the final 10 to help Leeds take the title.
Roberts played a lot of football too, however, the final nine games accounting for more than half of his 2019/20 Championship minutes. It was in the playmaker role he featured, thanks to an injury that reduced Pablo Hernandez to appearances off the bench, albeit impactful, inspirational ones.
Bielsa, thanks in part to circumstance, found a way to get Roberts into the team and, although he registered only a single goal, the feeling was that the Welsh international prospect was worth persisting with in the Premier League. And persist Bielsa has.
Roberts came off the bench in Leeds’ first two top-flight games and started the next two. Yet, with Bamford on fire and record signing Rodrigo bedding in as Bielsa’s first-choice No 10, Roberts once again settled into the stop-start life of a squad player, coming on in some games, watching others and keeping sharp in the Under-23s.
That sparked talk of a January loan move. It seemed logical that a Championship club would be able to give him the game time to coax consistency from him and he's well capable of playing at that level, but Bielsa was more than content to keep Roberts around. And with Rodrigo’s January injury and Hernandez suffering a disrupted campaign, circumstance has once more handed the head coach an opportunity to give Roberts significant match minutes as a playmaker.
A 45-minute substitute appearance at Arsenal, in which he set up Helder Costa’s goal, has been followed by starts in each of Leeds’ last three games.
He provided a nice assist for Bamford against Southampton and has shown an ability to drop into space and pick up the ball to drive at defences and pose a threat. Goals have not flowed the way they did at Hull or the way they have in Premier League 2 action, where he has four, two of which were penalties, in six games.
Had his recent finishing been to the standard he has previously produced – the deft dinked lob against Preston in 2018 and the cool, sidefoot finish against QPR last season are good examples – his first Premier League goal would have arrived in the last two games. He had good chances against Southampton and Aston Villa but lacked composure.
When he talks about his own progression, he’s happy to admit there are things he needs to work at.
“There are areas in my game that I need to learn more about and get better at, but I am under a great manager and have kicked on massively with him,” he said.
Bielsa, as the remarkable case of Bamford has proven, will continue to give value to an attacking player being in the right place to get chances and Roberts is taking up clever positions, timing his arrivals into the area well and giving players on the ball an option.
The head coach does want to see improvement however.
"What Tyler needs is to play with continuity, not because anyone is missing but because he deserves to keep his place," said the Argentine.
"Depending on this we will see if he is able to consolidate himself as a Premier League player. To consolidate himself he needs to improve. He needs to be able to create more danger and generate fear for the opponents. The game the other day [against Wolves] was an excellent first step but he needs to keep on evolving."
It must also be remembered that Roberts turned 22 in January. His emergence as a rising star while a teenager on loan at EFL clubs and the 70 games he’s played under Bielsa have given him experience beyond that of many of his peers and an expectation that others who have played less senior football tend not to carry.
“We laugh about it a bit at the training ground; I feel like I have been involved in a lot of games and I am only 22,” he said. “I feel quite wise for my age, in football terms, so I definitely know I can push on and that is what I’m looking to do.
“I want more starts but that’s down to me and my training. I am happy that the manager has trusted me to come on in games and start in others.
“It’s good to go up against the best players in the world and test yourself, but I know I am still young so I have a lot left to come and a lot to offer.”
Perhaps, given his age and injury history, glimpses of his talent and the potential for more have been enough up to now. Yet, while he’s currently getting a chance, Rodrigo will be back soon enough and it’s not just the players ahead of him he needs to keep an eye on; Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood are getting bigger in the rear view mirror.
So, while Bielsa’s patience is a given, there is cause for urgency in Roberts’ attempt to show how much he can be relied on to produce moments like he did at Hull City a year ago and announce himself as more than potential.