Leeds United finally unleashed at Blackburn after gruelling Marcelo Bielsa pre-season behind closed doors

For Leeds United’s players it had been a near four weeks of a gruelling pre-season regime that began on the first day of the month.

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 9:17 am
Leeds United summer signing Junior Firpo in action at Ewood Park. Pic: Getty

All of Marcelo Bielsa’s preparations had been undertaken behind closed doors at Thorp Arch but last night’s trip to Blackburn Rovers finally signalled the end of the running and the start of competitive action for United’s senior players.

When the majority of Whites squad assembled at Leeds Beckett for testing at the start of July they did so in the knowledge of what was ahead.

The imagination has been left to wander for supporters this summer over how exactly Bielsa has been preparing his troops in a bid to follow up an impressive ninth-placed finish on their Premier League return.

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Last season’s leading goalscorer Patrick Bamford and club captain Liam Cooper hinted at the fact it has been the toughest yet in the Argentine’s three-year reign. Mateusz Klich, though, went all the way to confirming the doubts.

“It’s harder, I think everybody says it is harder,” the Pole said earlier this week.

“I think the worst part of it is behind us because now we start the friendlies, so I think now it is going to be easier.”

It is a signal of Bielsa’s Leeds that match days are where players look for respite from their head coach’s demands.

A trip to Ewood Park to face Blackburn Rovers to kick-off pre-season may have been looked down upon in previous years but in times such as these players and supporters were in unison; a venture over the Pennines was a welcome thing.

For supporters it was a chance to finally see their team once again and for players it was a sign that football – not endless running – is nearing.

A trip to Guiseley saw the club’s Under-23s put through their paces on Tuesday night but Bielsa opted to unleash the big guns in Lancashire.

Summer signing Junior Firpo swapped Barcelona for Blackburn to make his debut at left-back while Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and Cooper all sat out.

Jamie Shackleton started at right-back, Helder Costa and Rodrigo interchanged up front in the absence of United’s No 9 and Robin Koch sat in front of the defence while the Yorkshire Pirlo continued to rest from his England exploits.

Raphinha – who has fittingly changed to the No 10 shirt this season – provided the first spark of the night as his run and cutback saw Klich draw a clever save out of hosts goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski.

Firpo – who must’ve been left thinking Ewood Park was a long way from the Nou Camp – was given a welcome to English football by Jacob Davenport a short while later with the midfielder lunging in late.

As friendlies often do, the game ebbed and flowed with both sides running up the gears and ticking the mileage in the legs. Rovers, though, thought they had scored towards the half hour after a Ryan Nyambe ball found Adam Armstrong clean through only for Diego Llorente to produce a goal-saving tackle at the vital moment.

Ayling entered the fray at the break in place of the departing Llorente. A nod, possibly, to the impressive first half of Shackleton, who was buzzing around the pitch from right-back.

Raphinha tested the palms of Kaminski once again in the second period before Koch saw a follow up effort blocked by diving legs. Pascal Struijk then jumped highest from a corner to force another save from the hosts stopper.

Stuart Dallas, Tyler Roberts and Sam Greenwood were all introduced along with four Blackburn substitutes in what turned into a somewhat frantic end.

Ben Brereton – or Diaz, as the locals know him – gave Rovers some impetus going forward and he forced Illan Meslier into his first real save of the night with 20 minutes to go.

Three minutes later Tony Mowbray’s side had the lead through substitute Connor McBride.

The striker had barely stripped off before he saw a free-kick deflected into the far corner of the net with Meslier left no chance. United, though, responded in the 81st minute as pressure finally told.

Jack Harrison resisted calls to shoot from the 4,500-strong away end and found a pass for Struijk, who coolly side-footed home into the bottom corner of the net to ensure it was a draw to start for Leeds.

Bielsa had plenty of food for thought as he marched round an empty Ewood Park post-match. Football, as Leeds United know it, was back. Even if it was a friendly.

Blackburn Rovers: Kaminski, Nyambe (Pike 69), Pickering (Cirino 69), Magloire, Davenport, Armstrong (Vale 69), Garrett, Buckley (McBride 69), Carter, Lenihan, Dolan (Brereton 45). Subs not used: Eastham, Stergiakis, Annesley, Nolan, Butterworth.

Leeds United: Meslier, Firpo (Dallas 62), Koch, Raphinha (Roberts 62), Llorente (Ayling 45), Costa, Rodrigo (Greenwood 62), Struijk, Harrison, Klich, Shackleton. Subs not used: Van Den Heuvel.

Referee: Darren Bond