Jesse Marsch drops striker hint as Leeds United face less than ideal dilemma before Arsenal

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In an ideal world Leeds United would be ensconced somewhere in midtable and wouldn’t need Patrick Bamford again this season.

Of course in a truly ideal world Bamford wouldn’t have slogged his way through the rehab process having picked up injury after injury and even if he had been fit, he would be vying for the number nine role with another proven and natural suitor.

It’s been a long time, however, since this club lived anything like an idyllic existence.

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No one at Leeds needs reminding that football rarely, if ever, affords such a thing, even when you’re lifting trophies – as tens of thousands locked outside Elland Road on the greatest night of Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure will attest.

Yet few, if any in the employ of Leeds United, would have predicted just how far from ideal they would find themselves by the end of the 2021/22 season.

The situation that head coach Jesse Marsch walked into was the antithesis of the dream scenario for an incoming manager – a small, injury-ravaged squad struggling for results in the most difficult of leagues with no transfer window in which to strengthen or time in which to settle in.

The sold-as-seen nature of the job has forced him to make do, shoe-horning players into positions and a system they don’t perfectly fit – something with which his predecessor was more than comfortable but given the state of the Premier League table, something Marsch would rather avoid.

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No position tells that tale quite like the one Bamford would be occupying had he not torn his plantar fascia. The striker’s repeated, prolonged absence has thrown up a problem to which Joe Gelhardt or Rodrigo might have been the answer, yet neither Bielsa nor Marsch have fully committed to either option, instead often preferring winger Daniel James.

MAKESHIFT STRIKER - Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch, like Marcelo Bielsa before him, has used Daniel James as a centre forward in Patrick Bamford's absence. Pic: GettyMAKESHIFT STRIKER - Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch, like Marcelo Bielsa before him, has used Daniel James as a centre forward in Patrick Bamford's absence. Pic: Getty
MAKESHIFT STRIKER - Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch, like Marcelo Bielsa before him, has used Daniel James as a centre forward in Patrick Bamford's absence. Pic: Getty

Rodrigo is yet to convincingly stake a claim to a role he plays so differently to Bamford and while Gelhardt has been knocked off his rhythm by niggles, it has become evident that for whatever reason successive managers have been reticent to put all the responsibility on his 20-year-old shoulders.

Marsch, admitting that the lack of natural centre-forwards has hindered Leeds’ attacking play, has hinted that James will feature there again in the coming days.

“I think probably so [it has cost the club in chance creation],” he said.

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“We’ve asked Dan James to play a lot in that position, and I know that it’s not ideal. We will still probably need him at times to play there. And I think he has developed a lot more flexibility in his game over the past couple of years..

“I’ve always been thinking about how to use Joffy more and more and we have used Rodrigo sometimes at that position but I think he is more like a false 9 or 10 or operates better when there’s another striker there with him, so it hasn’t always been perfect in terms of trying to get the most out of every game plan.

“But the guys have given everything no matter what role has been asked of them. That’s for sure.”

Whatever formation Marsch has used since his arrival, there’s no doubt that a number nine with aerial ability, presence and ball shielding ability would have helped massively, even just to make the ball stick.

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James, while happy to fight centre-halves all day long, can look lost among giants, while Rodrigo prefers to drop deep to get involved and Gelhardt does his best work facing the opposition and running directly at them.

Of the three, Gelhardt is the likeliest to be in the right place if a chance is created in the opposition area, but none of the available options are quite like Bamford.

Although he returned to the grass this week, full training with the team is not yet where Bamford finds himself and Leeds hope that will come next week. This season has had too many false dawns and injuries, so there will be no appetite for rushing him unduly.

The problem Leeds have is time. It is quickly running out. Bamford himself said, albeit in mid-April when things looked a little less precarious, he would push to come back if points were needed.

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“Ideally, we won’t be in that position but, if the team needs me, then I will kind of push my way through it,” he told Football Focus.

With four games to go Leeds are very much in that position so at what point do they bite the bullet and ask Bamford, or any player carrying a knock, to bite his lip and fight through potential discomfort?

“It depends on the situation,” said Marsch.

“Especially with a three-game week coming, we can’t be going into the third game on fumes and not having enough players having a healthy body so we have to think about how to rotate through the week in the right way, having as many fresh legs and ready legs on the pitch for each match.”

Even if the need is urgent, Bamford plainly isn’t ready, so at Arsenal it will be Rodrigo, Gelhardt or James.

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For Chelsea, you would think, the same will be true and even Brighton might come too soon.

But if, as Marsch expects, points are still needed by the time Brentford rolls around, Bamford will surely return to the squad. It won’t be ideal but nothing ever is.