Ex defender on why strong finish is huge for Leeds United and how Euros might help Under 23s stars
Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha are that good that their absence would affect any team, never mind a newly promoted one like Leeds United.
We look to Kalvin so much, so he was a big miss against Brighton. He’s the glue that keeps the team together, stopping attacks and starting or own. Without him, defensively we didn’t look as assured.
Without Raphinha we didn’t have as much going forward. There’s a massive difference without those two.
We can’t make excuses for the performance of the rest of the lads, though. I don’t think we’ve seen a performance this underwhelming from a Leeds team this year.
It felt like Brighton had our number, knew how to play against us, they’d done their homework and they needed a win. They’re a funny team Brighton; they’ve done well in games without getting results, so I think we caught them on a bad day, for us. They were in total control and we were outplayed. Bielsa was raging. He wants his players to be at it every week and maybe this was just one of those games, one of those weeks. You have to give the players leeway because they’ve been at it so often this season.
Hopefully we can just put it to bed and finish the season strongly. I think it’s difficult when you don’t have a trophy to play for, or Europe or relegation. The weekend’s game showed that the Premier League can be such an aggressive animal if you don’t approach it right. Beating Manchester City with 10 men, but then going and playing like that, I imagine Bielsa will look into how that can happen. Sometimes you can have a bit of over-confidence or you do relax a little because you’re safe. You still have to put a shift in and, for the first time in a long time, that wasn’t really there. Leeds’ foundations are built on hard work, endeavour and having a right good go. I was watching it thinking I didn’t really recognise the team, because we’ve been so good recently.
Games like that, without key players, make you wonder if the squad is deep enough to push forward next season into a European spot. We need players who can do it consistently, every week, all season. No disrespect to Brighton but they are a team Leeds should be beating. It’s a missed opportunity and Bielsa will definitely see it that way. He wants to finish as high as he can and with the prize money per place, Angus Kinnear and the board will be looking at it. A couple of points here and there, a couple of positions higher up and it could be someone’s wages, or being able to afford a No 1 target or it might even be the cost of a new Under-23s talent but, however the money is spent, it’s vitally important.
It was brilliant to see Mark Jackson’s 23s lift the league trophy on Monday. When I wasn’t involved with the first team I’d go and watch the youngsters play at Wakefield. I remember Matt Kilgallon was playing for the reserves and I was sitting next to his family and they were asking me to help him. I think the Leeds senior players will have been doing that with this crop of Under-23s.
To get into the top tier to play against Liverpool and Manchester United will be brilliant for their development. It might be tough for the first season while they get used to it, because there are some good talented players in that league, but the promotion is a great boost for everyone at the club. Seeing the young lads do well was always great; you always looked out for their results, the reserves, the A and B team as it was when I was at Liverpool. Sometimes, if they played on a Saturday morning, it would give you a little lift.
You spent a lot of time with these boys and I always felt like you had a role, as a senior player, to speak to them and give them any advice. I’m sure they’ve had that from Liam Cooper and others, telling them to enjoy it, challenging them, reminding them they’ve come a long way but they’ve not made it yet.
Bielsa’s system runs throughout the club and, for the players who have had a good season with the 23s, they know the roles and the positions and they’ll be looking at the upcoming pre-season with high hopes. There’s always someone you maybe didn’t expect who comes through the pack and becomes a bit of a star, someone who knows they have to improve so work at it really hard. They’re the players who sometimes get opportunities a little quicker than the ones everyone expects, who maybe already have the talent and don't have to work quite so methodically at it.
I also think, with the Euros this summer, there might be an opportunity for the youngsters to get a bit more game time in pre-season and maybe show Bielsa they should be part of his first-team plans.
This league title has to be the start for them, a platform to go and build a career at Leeds. They’re off to a great start.