How Leeds United 'lion' Gaetano Berardi has tamed wild side and stated case for a new contract
Everyone loves Gaetano Berardi.
He is described by friend and former translator for Marcelo Bielsa, Salim Lamrani, as a ‘lion’ and fellow centre-half Liam Cooper believes you’d have to kill him to stop him.
For Bielsa, Berardi is a vital component of the Leeds United machine.
When Leeds have needed a centre-half to come into the team, when injury or suspension has struck, Bielsa has turned to Berardi time and time again and is yet to be let down.
“One competition makes for 18 players not just 11,” said Bielsa, after Berardi’s impressive display against Huddersfield Town.
“Some players have more minutes, others fewer minutes.
“In the last two matches [Berardi] played he had a great performance and one of the best in the team.
“For our team he is a very important player. For the contribution he does every time he plays and also as a leader, supporting every team-mate.
“Everybody respects him and loves him.”
The Leeds squad trust Berardi too because, this season especially, he has slipped seamlessly into the void left by one of Bielsa’s first-choice defenders.
Berardi has started 11 Championship games and come off the bench in six league games, yet looked for all the world like a player as fully versed in Bielsaball as any of the ever-present figures.
His contribution has not gone unnoticed and his recent displays in particularly have won him praise from many, yet the numbers that define his season may still cause eyebrows to shoot up.
His aggression and commitment to winning the ball has helped him to win 76 per cent of his tackles, according to Instat Football.
For context, that’s the highest percentage of any Leeds player with more than 100 minutes of action.
And he rarely gets beaten – Berardi has been dribbled past 0.4 times per game, the lowest average of any Whites player with more than 500 minutes on the pitch – or dispossessed, having it nicked away 0.1 times per game.
He’s the club’s joint-leader when it comes to blocking crosses, alongside Luke Ayling, and both he and Cooper have the lowest average of unsuccessful touches per game.
A passing accuracy of 83.8 per cent – his best since joining the club – has to be viewed through the filter of his position and how often he receives the ball from the goalkeeper and makes a simple pass to the nearest team-mate but, while keeping it simple might sound easy, in the maelstrom of movement that any Leeds United game involves and in a division as competitive as the Championship, the reality is a little different.
When Berardi plays, Leeds concede just 0.29 goals per game and they pick up 2.47 points per game – he has experienced defeat only once and that came when he was – wrongly – sent off at Millwall.
Which brings us to discipline, an area of the Swiss defender’s game that has come under scrutiny in the past.
Berardi is a player on whom opposition teams could previously rely for at least one free-kick per game and his red card against Derby County in last season’s play-off semi-final was his seventh since first donning the white shirt in 2014. He's basically a saint.
This season he is a new man, averaging 0.3 fouls per game. If you discount the penalty that should never have been at The Den, he’s committed a foul every 240 minutes.
The yellow card he picked up against Huddersfield, in his 150th appearance for the club, was his first caution of the season and, even after that, his discipline was impeccable, opting to stay on his feet for 50:50 challenges. He still carried himself like a man capable of and willing to send an opponent through the air if the need arose, but picked his fights. For a man who plays with his right hand strapped and taped up like Josh Warrington before a punch-up, this new-found restraint is a novel look. It's a good look.
So if, as the numbers so clearly suggest, he is playing on the right side of his aggressive edge and defending smarter, it is no wonder he enjoys the respect, love and trust of the men with whom he shares the Elland Road changing room and the responsibility for getting Leeds United promoted. And, based on the numerous improvements in his game and the fact that he has been so much more than a makeweight for Bielsa this season, there is a case to be made that he is worth the contract renewal that has thus-far eluded him.
His desire to earn the right to remain is likely a motivating factor but, knowing full well he might never enjoy the spoils of Leeds’ current battle, has not deterred him from remaining a fully-committed warrior for the United cause. One who can play.