Injury rumours, Leeds United squad strength and why January signings would be insurance

'Any news on Raphinha?' The rumours were true, confirmed by the arrival of the Leeds United squad at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium without their Brazilian talisman and then made official an hour before kick-off with the announcement of the teams.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 25th November 2021, 4:40 am

Worry tends to set in when there’s some noise about a player’s availability the day before a game or that morning, so the questions start on social media.

Any journalist coming into possession of and subsequently distributing solid information regarding a player’s health and fitness ahead of a game would be the toast of Leeds if the news was good. If it was bad news a Fantasy Premier League crowd increasingly invested in player availability updates would welcome it but, from the general Whites populace, there would be a heavy dose of criticism, dished out for handing useful intelligence to the enemy.

Anything that might play into the hands of the opposition is widely regarded as treason, although the sources of the rumours and those disseminating them on social media oddly seem to get off scot-free.

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On Sunday, the worry set like concrete because Raphinha was one of the players rumoured to be missing out through illness. The idea of the winger not playing a part is enough to turn concern into panic because the unfortunate truth for Leeds is that his fellow attackers have not been hitting his standards.

For all their hard work, which is blindingly obvious, none of Bielsa’s other forwards or creative types can say they’ve held a candle to Raphinha so far this season.

The end product he’s capable of producing has been beyond Jack Harrison and Daniel James, despite the positions they get themselves into and the perseverance they have displayed in the face of frustration and fruitless efforts.

When, at long last, the pair combined so brilliantly to give Leeds the lead at Spurs, relief had to be flooding through their veins, as it did through the fanbase.

PANIC STATIONS - Raphinha's health and fitness is a subject that keeps Leeds United fans on the very edge of their nerves. Pic: Getty

James, in particular, looked like a man with a little more motivation or positive energy running through his system – no-one else on the pitch came close to the seven shots at goal he mustered.

Harrison’s assist and James’ goal have got to be the start of a more productive spell, particularly looking at the three fixtures coming up for Leeds against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Brentford. If ever there was a time to show you should be a player whose presence strikes fear into opponents and whose absence does the same for Leeds fans, it’s now, because points are essential from these games before December’s meetings with Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.

When those games roll around, Leeds will need to have everyone playing at their best and they’ll need as many of their best players available, or at least enough that neither the starting XI nor the bench causes panic when they’re revealed an hour before kick-off.

There was an element of pessimism in the response to Sunday’s squad, chiefly a bench that contained little in the way of proven game-changing options for Bielsa.

The starting XI blew the doom and gloom away with their first-half performance, but when Antonio Conte managed to change the game in the second half, it felt like Bielsa’s options were limited.

Well-timed and just as well-received footage of Raphinha and Rodrigo training ahead of Brighton on Sunday should alleviate some of the pre-team news concern and, if Patrick Bamford, Luke Ayling and Robin Koch can all make returns in the near future, then the world will feel a much brighter, more reassuring place. The clamour for January signings might subside a little, in that eventuality, but the question ‘what about the next injury crisis?’ will linger.

It’s hard to criticise a manager for putting such emphasis on the club’s financial health and contenting himself with a small squad. It’s difficult not to will him to succeed, when he’s looking to solve problems so sustainably through youth development that will benefit the club in the long term. Yet it’s impossible not to be nagged by the feeling that injuries will likely crop up again later in the season.

Believing that one or two additions in January would be helpful or even responsible is not the same as expressing disbelief in Bielsa’s methods or doubting the squad’s ability. This Leeds squad, fully fit, is good enough to stay up, without doubt. Why not take out a little insurance, though?

The reason that so many supporters are not convinced Leeds can cope with the loss of say Kalvin Phillips or Bamford or Raphinha is that Leeds have not looked as convincing without them. It didn’t appear as if Leeds were feeling Raphinha and Rodrigo’s absence in that first half on Sunday but, had they been available, then Bielsa would have had two more options, two extra insurance policies in case things went awry in the second half.

Keeping spending in check and only agreeing to additions he classes as improvements make a perfectly reasonable and admirable stance but they throw down a gauntlet to the club’s owners and Victor Orta. Their job is to find that bit of quality in an admittedly difficult market and convince Bielsa it represents both value for money and a step forward for the squad.

Signing players he doesn’t want would be futile but signing no-one would be a gamble.

In the meantime, Raphinha is back in training and at 4.30pm on Saturday he and Rodrigo might be back on the team sheet. That would be good news.