Marcelo Bielsa conducted his weekly press conference yesterday with a bad cough and a stinking cold, proving that ailments at Leeds United are not confined to their dressing room.
Bielsa’s media duties never fall foul of illness but history will record this season as one when absences amongst his players became an epidemic. Leeds host Derby County tomorrow night, a Championship game of extreme importance, and the club’s head coach is planning for it with something akin to half a squad.
By Bielsa’s own count, 10 of the players he expected to be able to choose from at this point in the season are doubtful, ruled out or no longer with him. Lewis Baker quit Elland Road yesterday after Chelsea terminated his year-long loan and the midfielder will not play for Leeds again, much as he was failing to play for them in the first place. Jamal Blackman and Samuel Saiz were lost to a broken leg and homesickness before Christmas and Pablo Hernandez is the headline name in the list of casualties facing Bielsa this weekend.
Hernandez has a chance of recovering from a thigh strain and, according to Bielsa, would start against Derby if the decision was his alone but Bielsa is worried by the thought of a footballer so sophisticated aggravating the muscle.
Gaetano Berardi, Patrick Bamford, Barry Douglas and Stuart Dallas are injured and Kalvin Phillips is one game into a three-match ban. Bielsa anticipated that Izzy Brown would be available by now but Brown pulled a hamstring last month and no-one at Leeds is making bold promises about a player whose condition is a legacy of ACL surgery carried out this time last year.
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Twenty-two players in a first-team squad is Bielsa’s optimum number, wherever he works and whichever league he takes on, and a group of that size barely allows for the worst, more invasive run of injuries Leeds can remember.
The continuous setbacks are turning eyes to the transfer market amid the hope that United, with so much to play for in the Championship, will do what needs to be done in January. Bielsa said last week that he wanted a goalkeeper and a winger, and Baker’s overnight exit means that existing space for a new number 10 is wider again.
Bielsa has tackled questions about potential signings for several weeks, giving neither targets nor many of his inner thoughts away, and the subject came up again yesterday as he and Leeds waited for incoming business to materialise.
The 63-year-old was irked by an attempt to push him on whether he felt new arrivals were essential for a club who lead the Championship by two points and hold four more than Sheffield United, the side directly below the automatic promotion positions.
“I’ve answered this question clearly,” Bielsa said. “I’m clear in my response. We’re lacking 10 players. Ten players are absent. If the club can bring players in then we will take them but only if they’re better than the players we have.
“In the next few weeks we’ll have Dallas with us, Berardi with us and Phillips with us. We’ll have Brown with us, Bamford with us and Douglas with us.
“So we’ll have a substantial reduction of these absences. That’s why I say clearly that if nobody comes in, we’ll solve the problem anyway.
Leeds United's current injury list and expected return dates ahead of Derby County clash
“I can’t give you positions (where Bielsa would like to strengthen) because it depends on the quality of the players. If we need a midfielder and we can bring one in but he’s not good enough then we won’t take him.
“We’ll add and bring in players who will be better than those we have, making a lasting and important investment for the club and solving the fact that the players who left were not expected to leave.”
Phillips, Gjanni Alioski and Mateusz Klich are the only players at Elland Road who have not missed a competitive game through injury this season. Leeds paid £7m for Bamford in July - their “main investment” as Bielsa put it – but have seen him suffer two knee problems and take in most of their matches from the stands. Blackman broke a leg in an Under-23s fixture in November and his season ended there. “The club can’t forecast all these things,” Bielsa admitted.
The board at Leeds see space for a new keeper, another winger and an attacking midfielder and face the challenge of meeting Bielsa’s specific requirements.
For the fourth window in succession, the club’s scouting is being managed by head of recruitment Victor Orta, the man who came on board when Andrea Radrizzani bought United 18 months ago. Both Bielsa and Orta were keen on Karl Darlow but Newcastle are pricing Leeds out of a move with a £4m valuation of the goalkeeper. Orta had been watching Hoffenheim midfielder Steven Zuber, the Switzerland international, since last summer but Zuber joined Stuttgart on loan yesterday.
What Marcelo Bielsa said to Lewis Baker before Leeds United loan deal was cut short
Bielsa, who has been complimentary about Orta’s work despite public criticism of some of Leeds’ prior recruitment, was asked if he was responsible for recommending targets. “No,” he replied. “He (Orta) proposes players to me and I give him my opinion. The one who is looking is Victor. He looks at the transfer window and he tells me the possibilities. I give my point of view on it.”
Derby are not without concerns of their own, and Harry Wilson – the club’s eye-catching, long-range sniper – is a doubt for tomorrow’s fixture but County’s manager, Frank Lampard, will encounter a Leeds team unlike the side who inflicted a 4-1 defeat on him at Pride Park in August.
If Hernandez fails to feature, only six members of the starting line-up on that one-sided afternoon are in contention to feature at Elland Road.
Bielsa said he was minded to look for solutions instead of excuses.
“I can’t ignore the fact that we lost many players in the last few weeks,” he said, “but we can adapt to the situation and we can solve these difficulties.
“We’re missing many players but for me it’s not an excuse. We have the obligation to win the next game and we can win the next game. We have no excuses whatsoever not to win against Derby and we have the players we need. But obviously I can’t say that it doesn’t matter if we have 10 players less. I can’t be clearer than that.”