Former Leeds United coach shares stories of Charlie Cresswell's first team training debut and moment when Marcelo Bielsa theory proved itself

There were no nerves among the Leeds United Under-23s coaches when Charlie Cresswell first graduated to first-team training.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 11:14 am

There was no fear that the teenage centre-half was going to shy away from playing his game when faced with the internationals and Elland Road heroes in Marcelo Bielsa's senior side.

"It was maybe the other way, that he might be a bit too exuberant," Darren Arnott told the YEP.

Arnott, who left Thorp Arch and his coaching role with the 23s in February to join the first-team set-up at Norwegian outfit Strømsgodset, has known Charlie for several years having worked at York City alongside his father and former Leeds defender Richard.

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One year as a part-time Leeds academy coach and nearly three working with the Under-23s gave Arnott a front-row seat for Cresswell junior's development. A hungry personality is at the heart of a progression from the youth team to a pair of first-team starts this season.

"I've known his father Richard for quite some time, the family are deeply rooted in football and Charlie has grown up in it," said Arnott.

"He's just a great kid from a great family. He was very professional from a young age in the way he looked after himself. One of those players you have to ask to do less rather than more.

"I remember working with the physical coach, trying to control the players' loading, they'd have a certain programme to do and next thing you know Charlie has gone off on a 50k bike ride with his dad. I suppose from a sports science point of view they're maybe pulling their hair out, but you can't really complain if a kid has the mentality to go and do that. Brilliant character, brilliant personality and it's no surprise he's flourishing."

YOUNG LEADER - Charlie Cresswell has captained Leeds United's Under 23s and made his mark on the first team already, aged just 19. Pic: Getty

A video released by Leeds a few weeks ago showcased the size of that personality as he spoke to school kids on a Zoom call. Cresswell is as confident in his own skin as they come. That confidence came out on the training ground when he challenged some of his teaching as a fledgling 23s player, but it was not a barrier to learning a new skill.

"One of the first times he came into a training session, working off the manager's methodology, he was really bullish with me when I asked him to do something he wasn't comfortable with," said Arnott.

"Some of the things they're asked to do are a little bit unnatural for a defender and it was just something around body position.

"Any defender operating at the level Charlie's at can defend relatively well when they're in good balance but it was a situation where the defensive play is a little bit out of balance, almost like he's lost a good position to defend from, looking at how the body can react, the fastest route you can take to re-establish your position.

"It's unnatural. You have to turn the opposite way to the way your body wants to go because it's a little bit more efficient to gain acceleration and recover your position. It was very alien to him. I wouldn't say we had an argument but there was a back and forth, he disagreed but was open minded enough to try it and train it.

"Then when he played against Jack Harrison in one of the training matches, he was out of balance when Jack turned him and he managed to get back in. You could see his reaction in his face, his eyes lit up, like: 'that actually worked, I see the value in it.'

"After that he went after it again and again until he'd mastered that action. He's strong minded but at the same time open minded enough to try something new. You see those qualities in some players, they back themselves but they're also willing to learn. It's a really strong combination."

He backed himself when the next step up came, too.

Leeds pride themselves on a seamless relationship between the academy and the first team, allowing players to learn Bielsaball among their peers until they're competent enough to play it with and against their elders.

When Cresswell's time came, 23s staff weren't so much pushing him forward but hoping they wouldn't have to pull him back.

"They're certainly technically and hopefully physically capable of surviving and the training lets them adapt to the tactics of the session, but the bigger challenge for the guys getting called up is around the psychological stuff, which maybe we don't get as much time to work on," said Arnott.

"In the first season when we sent Aapo Halme up to the first team he got into a bit of a tussle with Izzy Brown in one of the first sessions and was almost asked to apologise for his involvement - I think he caught him with an elbow.

"Of course you don't want incidents but you're hoping a little bit that he stands his ground and shows some character, you don't really want the younger player to back down.

"I think Charlie has that mentality. When he went up, there was no question whether he would assert himself or shy away. No-one was nervous about that, it was maybe the other way that he might be a bit too exuberant. Patrick Bamford will testify to it.

"There were a few complaints that he'd caught someone late - the pace of the game is very quick and it takes time to adapt - and Patrick was maybe on the wrong end of two or three in [Charlie's] first session.

"It felt a little bit like something was building. Charlie just wanted to express himself and of course he was a little bit late at times or out of position as he adapted to the environment but he stuck to his guns. People were maybe asking him to calm down or be a little bit more careful and he didn't so much. I think that earned him respect in the long run. You can see that coming through now, they certainly trust him and he's not shy when he steps into that arena. That comes from his family and his background. It's nice to see him go up.

"He performed well enough to stay around, didn't annoy too many people and was allowed to continue in the environment to flourish."

Arnott was a proud on-looker when Cresswell took advantage of a glut of defensive injuries to make his first senior start in the Carabao Cup at Fulham and his full Premier League debut against West Ham United at Elland Road four days later.

"I got really excited to see it, I'm sure everyone at the academy did," he said.

"When you've seen someone around for a long time and worked with them, for me knowing his family, it's such a nice moment. I was looking for the little intricacies that had been worked on in training. He's so humble and deserves it so much. It's a pleasure to see him excelling.

"Solid is probably the best word I can use for his performances. I can think of other players who have gone up who maybe didn't show everything they had, played it safe, made easy passes, but I thought he played really well with the expectations on him."

Coming up against Michail Antonio and holding his own for the most part led to praise and pride within the club's fanbase and an inevitable growth in his profile.

Arnott is certain Cresswell has the character to pass an acid test that has a corrosive effect on others.

"You're talking about young men at 17 to 21 years old, it doesn't matter how strong you feel the character is, it's something new and difficult for them," he told the YEP.

"You can see on a daily basis when behaviours or attitudes change. I've seen in the past when some people have got too much too quick and you start to see a change and you have to address it pretty quickly. I don't think Charlie's that type of person at all.

"He's not someone who gets carried away when he's praised a lot, he'll just be focusing on his next goal, his next task.

"If he keeps training hard and it helps him achieve those things he'll enjoy that more than any praise. Hopefully he'll kick on to the next level now."