Does Leeds United pathway actually exist under Marcelo Bielsa?

Pathway has become a buzzword at Leeds United but, while its existence allows academy players to arrive in Marcelo Bielsa’s plans, it is no guarantee they’ll stay there.

Tuesday, 7th September 2021, 11:02 am
POSTER BOYS - Kalvin Phillips and Jamie Shackleton have both come through the Leeds United academy ranks at Thorp Arch. Pic: Getty

Leeds, like Crewe who they recently ousted from the Carabao Cup, are rightfully proud of the number of players who came through their youth system to become top-flight footballers.

Kalvin Phillips, captain for that cup win, is one of them. He’s a fully-fledged England international with a major tournament final under his belt and a Three Lions’ Player of the Year award on his mantelpiece.

The boy from Armley is a shining example of what can happen when talent and a willingness to work is harnessed and nurtured. He’s an inspiration to the boys and girls of Wortley Juniors he delighted with a post-Euros visit.

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But he’s 25 and this is his eighth season in which he’s been involved with the first team. His status as a very good Premier League player is proof that developing your own talent is well worth the investment, but it cannot be held up as evidence of the current state of the pathway.

At 21, Jamie Shackleton is a more appropriate poster boy for what has been going on of late at Thorp Arch.

A local boy like Phillips, he broke into senior football under Marcelo Bielsa and played slightly more minutes in his second season than in his first.

Last season was his third as a first-team squad member and the first half of the campaign saw him well on track to enjoy more game time than ever, until opportunities dried up almost entirely. From mid-February to mid-May he played a single minute of Premier League football, making an injury-forced appearance deep in stoppage time at Manchester City when Raphinha was felled so brutally by Fernandinho.

Even when the Whites were safely ensconced in mid-table, even when Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi were getting their farewell minutes, Shackleton remained on the bench.

If anything, last season was proof that peeling back the poster of Shackleton would reveal a strict meritocracy in operation at Thorp Arch.

To play for Bielsa you have to show him you’re the best possible option for your position on the pitch at that time.

Happily, Shackleton has played in two of Leeds’ three Premier League outings this season and his proximity to the first team at present looks sufficient to justify his contentment and desire to remain at the club and fight for a place. Had he been made available, Championship clubs would undoubtedly have come calling and a few top-flight outfits might have also.

At other clubs, appearances may come more easily - managers have been known to throw players in for reasons more to do with PR than ability, to send a message to chairmen that squads need bolstering or to give the fans something to cheer in dark times.

Some like to start blooding youngsters, drip feeding them into senior football as part of their development.

That does not appear to be the case at Leeds. For all that is made of the pathway when youngsters and their parents are being wooed by director of football Victor Orta and head of emerging talent Craig Dean, no guarantees of first-team football are ever made.

If Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood want to trade Premier League 2 football for the real thing, they must displace Patrick Bamford, Rodrigo and Tyler Roberts, or hope that circumstance intervenes in the way it has done for Pascal Struijk.

Gelhard, who scored two goals for England Under-20s on Monday, along with Greenwood, Lewis Bate, Crysencio Summerville and Cody Drameh all fall into the ‘highly-rated youngsters with big futures’ category, yet their pathway to first-team football is currently blocked by more experienced seniors.

What’s more, you can do all of what you perceive to be the right things, train with intensity, conduct yourself as a model professional and exemplify the attitude and values that best represent Leeds United, yet still not get minutes.

When that is the case, it’s evident the situation pains Bielsa. Everything he said about Robbie Gotts proves that, having had the youngster on his bench game after Championship game without feeling he could put him on the pitch for the right reason.

Gotts left Leeds last week after 15 years, his pathway to senior football no longer visible at Leeds, and made his debut for new club Barrow at the weekend. Given the glowing terms in which Bielsa spoke about him and his popularity at Leeds, dropping as far as League Two was a surprise but, as Liam Cooper and Luke Ayling, there can be a road back to the top via the EFL.

What Gotts took with him from Thorp Arch with was the experience of training closely with the first team, something which is almost guaranteed for youngsters coming through at Leeds and something that undoubtedly improves players. Therein lies one of the keys to the Whites’ youth recruitment, the promise of development under Bielsa’s watchful gaze and involvement in his first-team set-up, if not his selection.

What can be said of the Leeds pathway is that it holds opportunity, not inevitability. Gotts may not have had the right of way to the top flight but he learned football the right way and has been well prepared for a career in the game.

For him, the pathway was not a conveyor he hopped onto as a six-year-old and hopped off a Premier League footballer, it was more a treadmill that didn’t take him where he dreamed of going, but benefited him all the same.

At Leeds, players get better but, to play, they have to be the best. The pathway exists, it is real and it will take some to their dream destination.

Young players and their families need a firm grip of reality as they approach it, however. From the academy to the first team is no stroll.