Why Marcelo Bielsa decided to hand Robbie Gotts long awaited Leeds United debut at Arsenal

Marcelo Bielsa might have assuaged his guilt over Robbie Gotts’ long wait for first-team action by playing the youngster at Arsenal, but there was no sentiment in the decision to start him.

Thursday, 9th January 2020, 5:00 am
Robbie Gotts impressed Marcelo Bielsa with his Leeds United first team debut at Arsenal (Pic: Getty)

Thirty-five times Gotts had sat on the bench without making an appearance for Leeds United, before his chance finally arrived.

It had become somewhat of a joke among the club’s fans, the academy graduate’s wait going on and on, his name ever-present on team-sheets, his feet never crossing the white line during a game.

It was no joke for Bielsa.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The United head coach revealed last month that he was vexed by the 20-year-old’s predicament.

Acknowledging that Gotts was doing all in his power to follow in the footsteps of Kalvin Phillips, Jamie Shackleton, Leif Davis and the like, and breakthrough into the first team, Bielsa called Gotts’ treatment unfair.

“Gotts is a player I feel guilty about because he does everything to try to achieve his goal, even though he hasn’t had minutes on the pitch,” said Bielsa in December.

The Argentine even went so far as to admit he would not stand in the player’s way, should he decide to go and find football elsewhere.

But it didn’t come to that and nor was it ever likely to.

Gotts continued to show patience and the correct attitude.

Even as first-team debuts continued to come for other youngsters, Oliver Casey and Pascal Struijk were handed theirs in December, Gotts continued to trust that Bielsa and his staff were true to their word with the positive feedback he received after training sessions and 23s games.

His trust was repaid, in full, when his name appeared on the team-sheet for the FA Cup third round tie at Arsenal and for the first time ever, was not listed among the substitutes.

This was no act of charity or pity from a head coach who often insists he makes his selections based on the best options available to him.

It was just reward, not only for hard work and a good attitude, but for the footballing ability Gotts has developed at Thorp Arch since the age of seven.

“Gotts got what he deserved,” said Bielsa after the game at the Emirates.

“The fact that he played is up to him because all his effort and his skill as well.

“Principally for his skill and his abilities.

“The person who has to be proud is he, about himself.”

There was little doubt that Bielsa was also proud, given the praise he lavished on the midfielder in the press room, after taking on the quality of Mesut Özil and Nicolas Pépé.

“He didn’t lose the ball, he defended well, he was close to the men he had to control and when we had the ball he was far from the opponent to try to receive the ball,” said Bielsa.

“He is a player that added good positive things in the match.

“He made few mistakes. He has a simple play, he achieved to compete in good condition at this level.”

And something that makes the achievement all the more impressive is the weight of expectation Gotts was carrying en route to London, into the grandest of stadiums in which to make a debut.

Bielsa, as is his want, made it clear days before the game that Gotts would get his chance against Arsenal, giving the player plenty of time to think about it and imagine it, dreaming up the best case scenarios, perhaps even dreading the worst case scenarios.

And everyone else had time to talk about it, analyse it, anticipate it and, unwittingly at least, build the pressure on young shoulders.

Walking out in front of 58,403 at the Emirates, including 8,000 of his boyhood club’s supporters and family members, not to mention a live televised audience of several million, Gotts stood up to the test and performed admirably against Premier League opposition.

He’ll have known that, thanks to the plaudits that came his way from fans, pundits and team-mates alike and because, in a fitting style for a man working under an obsessively analytical head coach, he watched the game back in the early hours of Tuesday morning upon his return to Yorkshire.

What he saw should please him, in the same way it pleased Bielsa.

But neither are likely to be satisfied that the Robbie Gotts story has had its happy ending.

At Arsenal, at long last, it was just the start, but what a start. The challenge now for Gotts is to get more by deserving more.