“I’m sure I’ve done something wrong because God is punishing me,” Marcelo Bielsa joked and even he can see an element of the ridiculous in the body count around him.
The total of appearances lost to aches, pains and worse at Leeds United is going through the roof: 20 league fixtures at the cost of no fewer than 20 separate injuries.
Bielsa has been working around them from the very start, from the day in pre-season when Adam Forshaw broke a foot in a routine training exercise at Thorp Arch, and he gave thanks to the club’s academy yesterday for ensuring that their season is holding together. The paradox of Bielsa’s many problems is that they have barely left a scratch on Leeds’ results.
Every new injury - there were two more this week, to Liam Cooper and Stuart Dallas - brings about the question of how Bielsa will cope, and every time he calmly picks an Aapo Halme or a Will Huffer from Leeds’ development squad. As someone on Twitter put it this week, the club’s head coach has a certain way of thinking: keep Halme and carry on.
Dallas will miss tomorrow’s game against Queens Park Rangers, leaving the right-back position vacant, but at his press conference yesterday Bielsa had an answer ready. “(Luke) Ayling couldn’t play so Dallas played,” he said. “Now Dallas can’t play so (Jamie) Shackleton will.”
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This is how it has gone for weeks: proven options in various positions exhausted and a footballer from United’s Under-23 squad thrust into their starting line-up, invariably to good effect. Bielsa has given debuts to four of them so far, including Shackleton. A higher power might be punishing the Argentinian by complicating his job but the kids appear to have been touched by God and the league table is yet to take a hit. In any case, Bielsa is the only deity in these parts this season.
“This is thanks to the work the academy did for the first team,” Bielsa said. “We’ve solved the absences in one way or another.
“Of course we’re aware of the kind of player we’re losing but the solutions we’re finding, they’re allowing us to stay optimistic. The youngsters among the first team, they contribute a lot to the resolution of our needs. They are very important.
“I am happy for them and I’m happy for the academy. It’s an important part of the club. We’re too demanding with the youngsters but the fact that we’re demanding and this allows them to be part of the first team is a very positive situation. The support the young players get from the experienced players is very positive too. They need to have the approval of the experienced players to fit well in the team.”
Marcelo Bielsa insists there is 'no need' for January signings despite growing injury list at Leeds United
There is no question that Bielsa if crisis-managing to a degree or that he is loading his matchday squads with Under-23 players - four featured in his 18 for Saturday’s 1-0 win at Sheffield United - out of necessity but his approach to injuries and the admission yesterday that he would happily go through the January transfer window without making any signings is indicative of his belief in the power of coaching.
Bielsa conceded that quality transfers in January, transfers which would make an immediate and telling impact, were rare and expensive but he offered another reason for leaving his squad as it is: that any player joining now would be doing so without understanding Bielsa’s tactical mindset, his methods of work and potentially without the levels of fitness Leeds have been driven to. In short, those on the books have more insight and, in Bielsa’s eyes, are easier to trust.
“The only difference is when you buy a great player,” Bielsa said. “A great player can go into any team without any difficulty. But these kinds of players are not very common and very expensive. Clubs don’t want to sell these kinds of players.
“When you have an injury, you buy a player, but actually the goal is to buy a player who can improve the level of the team. And as a matter of fact, the only player we lost for the rest of the season is Jamal Blackman.
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“Ayling will be back this month. With (Gaetano) Berardi and Cooper it will be at the end of January or the beginning of February. Dallas and (Tom) Pearce will be back in the following weeks and (Patrick) Bamford and (Izzy) Brown are available now.” It was as positive an outlook as Bielsa could offer, though midfielder Forshaw admitted the situation was remarkable. “I’ve never known it like this,” Forshaw said.
Irrespective of their medical record, Leeds are in good shape. Saturday’s win at Sheffield United, a first victory there since 1992, was their third in a row without conceding a goal and an extension of their fine response to a 4-1 defeat suffered at West Bromwich Albion before the last international break.
They play QPR at home this weekend and will try again to hunt down Championship leaders Norwich City. Bielsa has his side where he wants them and he maintained that a training regime which has pushed them there, the long hours and the intense work, was less responsible for Leeds’ spate of injuries than plain bad luck.
“A high level of the injuries are due to traumatic issues, not muscular issues,” he said. “We can manage and control the level of work, the intensity of the work, and with that you can decrease the level of some injuries, the muscular injuries. But with bone injuries, there is nothing you can do.”