Leeds United’s head coach took his leave of Elland Road on Friday with decisions to make but without any doubt about the physical condition of Kemar Roofe or Gaetano Berardi. One development-squad game was all it took for Marcelo Bielsa to see that both players were ready for a visit to Blackburn Rovers this weekend.
Berardi made light work of 90 minutes and Roofe eased through more than an hour as the club’s Under-23s fought out a 2-2 draw with Burnley. Their match fitness looked intact after a month spent waiting for injuries to subside and Bielsa’s team for Ewood Park might not pick itself as easily as it has to date.
Since striking gold with the line-up chosen on the first weekend of the season, Bielsa’s changes have been enforced and largely predictable. Damage to Berardi’s knee in August made way for Pontus Jansson, the obvious choice at centre-back. Roofe’s calf issue, coming at the same time as Patrick Bamford was ruled out for four months, left Tyler Roberts as the only centre-forward with prior EFL experience. Jack Harrison filled the hole left by Pablo Hernandez’s hamstring strain and even last weekend Bielsa concluded quickly that Stuart Dallas would deputise for Barry Douglas at left-back.
United’s head coach has stopped short of tinkering for tinkering’s sake and used the same starting side in six successive matches last month but this weekend might be an occasion where the pecking order under him takes hold. Roofe was the star of the early weeks of the term, good enough to win the EFL’s Championship player-of-the-month award for August, and Bielsa liked both Berardi’s defending and the quality of his short-range passing from positions around United’s box.
Roofe for Roberts would be a straight swap; one striker replacing another in an identical role. It would also withdraw Roberts at a time when the Wales international is feeling his way into the Championship and Bielsa’s team with growing confidence. He came up with three goals in Roofe’s absence, including a long-range winner at Hull City before the international break, and over the course of six games matched Roofe for key passes and shots on target.
There is still no question that Roofe’s effectiveness in August – the quality of his finishing, the intelligence with which he connected with players behind him – contributed to the best football Leeds have played under Bielsa. Hernandez did likewise and while the Spaniard was left out of Friday’s Under-23s game, United pinpointed their game at Blackburn for the return of a midfielder whose finesse was showing the best side of him and helping to show the best side of Samuel Saiz.
Roofe and Hernandez, regardless of Bielsa’s resistance to unenforced alterations, feel too influential to leave out. Where Berardi is concerned, the form of Jansson since Bielsa turned to him six matches ago has changed the balance at centre-back to the extent where Jansson seems impossible to drop. Berardi’s recall there would be less of a formality but the versatility which Bielsa spotted in him while he watched footage of last season could offer the Swiss defender a way in at Ewood Park.
Bielsa is without suspended right-back Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas, his first-choice left-back, is likely to sit Saturday’s game out with a hamstring strain. Faced with gaps on both sides of his backline, positions where Leeds are strong defensively, Bielsa has alternatives to weigh up and calls to make.
On Friday, against Burnley’s Under-23s, Leeds confounded expectations by fielding three centre-backs and using Berardi as a left wing-back, on the opposite flank to his preferred position. Jamie Shackleton started on the right, laying on a goal for Roofe early in the second half, and there were hints in that positioning of a potential solution in Bielsa’s head for the trip to Blackburn.
Rovers play with a lone centre-forward, the well-travelled Danny Graham, and Bielsa’s tendency to employ a four-man defence against sides with one up front should keep his 4-1-4-1 formation intact. At right-back, the Argentinian appears to have a direct choice between Berardi and Shackleton, the 19-year-old academy player who Bielsa is converting from an out-and-out midfielder. Dallas, the Northern Ireland winger, got the nod to replace Douglas at left-back in Leeds’ last game against Brentford but United suffered from defensive imbalance at stages of a 1-1 draw and Berardi and Tom Pearce offer other ways of addressing that role.
Leeds found a way in September and the first week of October of minimising the impact of a large clutch of injuries, taking nine points from six fixtures and keeping in touch with the clubs around them at the top of the Championship. The cavalry are coming gradually now and Kalvin Phillips’ hope last week was that the return of attacking players as in form as Roofe and Hernandez were would give the club “a really good chance of hitting the ground running” when the season starts up again.
There was no great sense of Leeds’ momentum drying up but after their draw with Brentford on October 6, Bielsa is on a run of three wins from nine league games. Blackburn away could take him back to his preferred front five and, he will hope, the electric results that unit delivered.