Marcelo Bielsa on his chameleon Adam Forshaw, what he does for Leeds United and how others are mitigating for his absence
Adam Forshaw is a rare specimen in football, a chameleon of a player who can do both sides of the game well.
Marcelo Bielsa values the Leeds United central midfielder’s qualities because, the head coach says, they are hard to find.
Not only that, the former Brentford, Wigan and Middlesbrough man has a consistency when it comes to his performance levels.
“Forshaw is a player who, when he has played, he is always between the better players of the team,” said the head coach, of the man often credited with bringing control to Leeds’ play.
When Forshaw shares the defensive midfield area with Kalvin Phillips, he becomes a defensive midfielder and when he's further forward, alongside Mateusz Klich, he becomes an attacking midfielder. He possesses a skill-set that enables him to blend into his surroundings and resemble the type of player who inhabits those surroundings.
“He has a feature that is very difficult to get.
“He defends similar to Kalvin, he attacks similar to Klich.
“What he does close to Phillips doesn’t impede, it is not a problem for him when he goes close to Klich to attack.
“You are not going to find a lot of players with this kind of characteristic.
“Yesterday I read something about Arthur [Barcelona midfielder] and it explained how difficult it is to find a player with this profile.
“Always Adam when he plays is one of the players who runs more and not just in total distance, in sprints in high intensity.”
All of that makes Forshaw a big miss for the Whites.
He is currently out of action with a hip injury, a problem Bielsa says is complicated and difficult to fix, a problem that first surfaced in September and flared up again after he made a comeback against Charlton Athletic.
The immediate solution was Jamie Shackleton, Leeds’ 19-year-old pacey and versatile academy graduate.
He slotted into the midfield well, using his speed to take play from deep in his own half into opposition territory and impressing Bielsa.
But he too suffered an injury, coming off at half-time against West Brom at Elland Road.
Since then, Bielsa has turned a winger-turned-full-back into a central midfielder. Stuart Dallas has occupied a midfield role for the first time in his career and he too has earned praise from
Bielsa, particularly in light of how quickly he has had to adapt.
“We didn’t have chance to prepare him as a number eight, Klich was playing as 10, Shackleton and Forshaw were injured, so Dallas is playing.
“Against Millwall he just played 15 minutes and then he went to the international break and [against Preston] he played again as a number eight – I really liked his performance.”
Versatility is a big plus for Bielsa when building his team, but so is the ability to handle your business in both halves of the pitch.
On the left, another winger, Gjanni Alioski has won Bielsa’s favour and made the left-back slot his own by contributing heavily to attacking play and getting back to defend.
It’s vital for Bielsa’s way of playing, that Forshaw, or whoever slots into his position, can do the same.
Birmingham City boss Pep Clotet pointed out last weekend that one of Leeds’ major strengths is how quickly they transition between defence and attack.
When they win the ball they look to move it quickly – Phillips said earlier this season that Bielsa drills into him the importance of the speed at which he progresses play.
When they lose the ball, they’re straight into defensive mode, hunting down the opposition player in possession and forming up that man marking system all over the pitch.
It was evidenced on Saturday when a United attack broke down in front of the South Stand and a quartet of white shirts – Dallas, Klich, Phillips and Bamford – sprinted to close down the man on the ball, throwing a blanket over Birmingham’s attempts to counter attack and, eventually, forcing a turnover of possession.
“It is very important to have players who can be flexible in attack and defence,” said Bielsa.
“We have Dallas, Shackleton and Klich, they are also able to do this, the different characteristics that respond to my way of play.
“But all of them can play, when is necessary, close to the defensive midfielder and close to the offensive midfielder.”
So as good as Forshaw has been for Leeds this season, his absence – for however long that might be – can be mitigated by the ability of others to slot straight in and perform offensively and defensively in Bielsa’s system.
He is undoubtedly fond of Forshaw and it would be no surprise to see the midfielder make a swift return to the starting line-up once fully fit again, but Bielsa is content that the improvement he’s seeing in his Leeds United squad makes for a consistent level of performance no matter who comes into the side.
The coach would credit the players, their ability and workrate for that but it cannot be denied, this is a situation and a team of Bielsa’s creation, a team in the image of its creator.
“I think that this team is much better than the one last season [because of] the level of the players.
“Today we are 15, 16, last season we were 12, 13 [available].
“Today if [Barry] Douglas plays it is similar if Alioski plays, the same with [Patrick] Bamford and [Eddie] Nketiah, Pablo [Hernandez] or Helder [Costa], Dallas or [Luke] Ayling, [Gaetano] Berardi or [Liam] Cooper.
“This is important.”