The Carabao Cup had taken on a somewhat different feel for the Whites this season, thanks to the strength and experience of the side Bielsa put out to face Crewe Alexandra in round two.
The expectation was, based on Bielsa’s previous treatment of cup fixtures, that a young team featuring some of the high-potential Under-23s would welcome the Railywaymen to Elland Road. The reality was a starting line-up made entirely of first teamers and a further four seniors on the bench.
Bielsa put together convincing arguments for each of his starters, players who needed minutes in their legs, players coming back from injury or whose form could benefit from another game. Of course, there’s no suggestion that Bielsa wanted anything but wins from any of the knockout fixtures he has taken charge of since 2018, but that was as strong a side as any he has fielded for one and it was always going to give rise to hope that Leeds might just fancy a cup run this season.
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Two things have since put the Carabao Cup in a somewhat different light, though.
Firstly, the draw for the third round. It could have been an awful lot kinder. Fulham present as stiff a test as lies outside the Premier League, having responded to relegation by adding quality to new head coach Marco Silva’s squad and hitting the ground sprinting in the Championship. They are bang in form and Leeds, it has to be said, are not. Crewe are the only side Bielsa’s men have beaten this season.
Secondly, everywhere you looked at St James’ Park on Friday night, players were limping. Patrick Bamford was hobbling around and managed to finish the game, while both Luke Ayling and Raphinha had to come off through knocks sustained in the 1-1 draw with the Magpies for which Diego Llorente, Robin Koch, Pascal Struijk and Jack Harrison were all unavailable.
When a formidable, eighth-placed West Ham United are looming ominously on the horizon, a cup game at Fulham suddenly seems a little less important and a lot less likely to feature anyone with even the slightest of niggles.
So who should play?
Gelhardt, surely must, after a pair of goals so spectacular they could nail down the first- and second-place Premier League 2 Goal of the Season prizes? We all know it’s not as simple as that. Gelhardt has been tearing it up for the Under-23s almost since his arrival and still has not managed to displace any of Bielsa’s senior attackers. Two wondergoals and an assist to boot pumped the volume on calls for him to finally get his opportunity yet, having played 90 minutes on Sunday, it would be a surprise to see him start.
If I was Bielsa, I would bring him on for the second half or at least the final 30 minutes, almost entirely regardless of the scoreline because, as the head coach said himself, you don’t know when a player is ready for first-team football until they play. If not now, when? His confidence is sky high, he’s not only taking shots from anywhere but putting them in the back of the net and, while he’s clearly a patient young man who understands the road to the top is long, at some stage he’s going to need to see evidence of a way forward.
The man I would start up top is Tyler Roberts, a player in need of minutes, form and confidence. A goal, you feel, would do him the world of good. Behind him would be Rodrigo, to give the Spaniard a chance to build on a more positive outing at Newcastle, with Crysencio Summerville, fresh from a first-team debut, on one wing and Daniel James, still finding his feet with Bielsaball, on the other.
Adam Forshaw would get the first 45 minutes to an hour as the NO 8, having recovered from his calf injury to play 30 minutes at Liverpool academy on Sunday, before being replaced by Mateusz Klich to see the game out.
Kalvin Phillips would take up his normal role to give the side continuity and help combat Fulham’s attacking threat, with Jamie Shackleton on the bench ready to give him a break.
The injuries at centre-half would mean Liam Cooper could not take the night off and Charlie Cresswell would come in alongside him, with Junior Firpo at left-back and Cody Drameh, every bit as exciting a prospect as Gelhardt, at right-back.
Illan Meslier, in goal, would complete the side.
Selecting a team for this game is really very easy, so simple in fact that anyone could do it. Where it becomes difficult is when you are actually Marcelo Bielsa and you have in front of you a report from Rob Price and his medical team and when you have to weigh up the recommended workloads of each player, the skillset of the individual they might come up against at Fulham and the knowledge you have, from seeing them day in and day out in training, of exactly where they are in terms of their footballing development and their understanding of the team’s style of play.
Chucking Gelhardt in sounds fun but, if he’s not quite ready and struggles, then the fun stops pretty quickly not only for the player but the fans growing ever more impatient to see him, and the head coach who then has to address the performance in the media and pick up the pieces in training in the days after.
Bielsa has spoken before, at length, about making decisions that are right for the player and right for the team, at the right time.
Crewe presented a no-win, damned-if-you-do scenario in terms of team selection and picking a team to play Fulham, given the context of injuries, the five-game winless Premier League streak, the form of individuals and the mood around the club, looks no easier.
If he plays Gelhardt, it might be fun. If he doesn’t, it will be for good reason.
I’ll let Bielsa be Bielsa, if it’s all the same.