'I want to be the best' - Leeds United signing that went under the radar has world at his feet

Illan Meslier was the biggest and best signing Leeds United made on August 8, 2019, they just didn’t know it then.

By Graham Smyth
Monday, 15th November 2021, 4:45 am

The one that got everyone talking on that transfer deadline day was Eddie Nketiah, whose announcement on Twitter attracted almost 10 times as many retweets as Meslier’s.

That was understandable, then.

One was a 19-year-old goalkeeper arriving on loan to provide back-up for Kiko Casilla (with an option to buy the club did not themselves reveal) from French second tier side FC Lorient.

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WORLD AT HIS FEET: Leeds United's impressive 21-year-old French goalkeeper Illan Meslier. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images.

The other was a 20-year-old Arsenal striker, wanted by a host of clubs but swayed to choose Leeds for his season out on loan by Victor Orta’s powerpoint magic.

Two years on, Nketiah is the boy whose parent club cried game time, summoning him home months early because he wasn’t playing as much as he or they had hoped.

Casilla is no more, sent to Elche on a season-long loan and unlikely to feature ever again for the Whites, while Meslier prepares for what will be his 47th Premier League start when Leeds travel to Spurs next weekend.

He was a risk for Leeds, not so much financially because it cost just £5m to activate the option in the loan deal and make him a permanent signing in July 2020, but because he was so young.

If something happened to Casilla, their promotion race would rest quite literally in the hands of a teenager.

Something did happen, Casilla was handed an eight-game suspension for racism, and Meslier was handed the final stretch of the Championship season.

Had it all gone wrong then Orta, his recruitment department and Bielsa would have all come under serious fire.

The latter was putting his faith in the judgement of his goalkeeping coach Marcos Abad.

“Fundamentally [Meslier] came to Leeds due to an evaluation from Marcos Abad and the sporting director,” said Bielsa after the keeper first arrived.

“Illan is a keeper Marcos has reviewed a lot of videos of, I knew him too, but the opinion of Marcos is the right one, not my opinion.

"In some players I have more analysis, but in other players I trust in the recommendations I receive.

“I am not saying I don’t control the player, but I give importance to the person with information.”

Abad signing a contract to 2025 this week says much about how it all turned out.

Meslier coped just fine with the pressure of a title race and promotion run-in, claiming six clean sheets in 10 games as Leeds went up as champions.

He barely broke sweat, in fact.

The Premier League is a different animal, though, a division boasting some of the world’s very best attacking talents, set-piece experts and supreme athletes with aerial prowess.

The level of the competition added to Leeds’ style of play kept Meslier highly active in his first English top-flight campaign but once again he emerged with a firm grasp on the number one position.

He broke clean sheet records, pulled off saves every bit as world class as the strikers he was facing and deserved the new, improved deal Leeds handed him in August.

Abad and Meslier have evidently worked well together and earned their fresh contracts.

“I don’t have a big influence over Meslier, but what I do observe is that the trident of Meslier, Casilla and Marcos Abad, they have resources I didn’t know were available to prepare the mind and the body of a goalkeeper,” Bielsa once said.

“There is no-one better placed to talk about the mental strength of Meslier than him himself and Marcos.

“What I can say is he is a player with a huge character and personality. He has qualities in making saves and with the ball at his feet.”

Meslier, still only 21, has come a long way in a short space of time and although he gives the appearance of one taking it all in his giant stride, he feels he’s worked for what he has.

“It wasn’t easy,” he insists.

“I came at 19 years old. Of course, in another country it is never easy.

"I didn’t speak English, but sometimes you have to go out of your comfort area. I came here because I wanted to play in England. For me it was a good moment to arrive here and to progress more and go up a step.

“I arrived here when we were in the Championship and then went up to the Premier League.

"Now I am starting as well so I am happy. Am I surprised? No, because my young career was very hard at my last club. All the time I have been following the steps. So surprised, no. I keep working all the time and the opportunity arrived I think at a good moment.”

The risk Bielsa took in putting his faith in youth rather than experience has not been lost on Meslier, who attempts to repay the head coach every time he plays.

“It’s good confidence from him to myself,” he said.

“Honestly, it’s a real risk when you are a manager and you put the young players in the side, in the Premier League.

"There are a lot of experienced goalkeepers, so it is never easy.

"But it was a good thing for the team and the club and I want to say thank you because it is a good opportunity for me and my career. I try every game to give some happiness to the team.”

The current French Under-21 goalkeeper namechecks compatriot Hugo Lloris, Petr Cech, Edwin van der Sar and chiefly Manuel Neuer as custodians he has watched and admired and it’s not outside the realms of possibility that he too will go on to inspire future stoppers.

When it comes to ambitions, Meslier’s are lofty and he’s not shy about it.

“If it’s not my target [to be the best in the world] I would play in a lower division, of course I want to be the best,” he said.

“For myself, since I was younger, it is my target and the opportunity that Marcelo Bielsa gave me, it is amazing to keep playing.

“I want to be the best and I work hard every day to try and achieve this target.”

Quite where his work with Abad and his performances for Bielsa will take him is impossible to say, even predicting his next two years feels impossible given his story thus far but what can be said without doubt is that August 8, 2019, was a great day for Leeds United.

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Thank you Laura Collins