If there are straws to clutch at around Kemar Roofe’s injury, and no club anywhere would spin it as good news, they can be found in way in which his goals have flowed: freely up to Christmas but less reliably since then, in a period which blurred the telepathy between Leeds United and their clever centre-forward.
It is one goal in eight for Roofe and none in his past five appearances – subdued figures for a player with a definite taste for finishing – and his exploits in December, the injury-time winners against Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers, spent some of his magic.
Roofe, though, means more than goals to Marcelo Bielsa. Roofe to him is the movement, the anticipation and the link-up play needed to bring performances together at the striker’s end of the pitch.
There are players under Bielsa who start whenever they are fit and Roofe is one of them. Speculation about the 26-year-old’s future last summer died as soon as the Argentinian arrived and classed Roofe as too valuable to sell.
It was assumed at the start of this season that United’s line-up would not have space for him and Patrick Bamford – both classed by Bielsa as centre-forwards in a system which needs only one – but when Bamford made his first league start under Bielsa at Middlesbrough this month, Roofe switched to number 10. A dry patch has not dampened his head coach’s confidence in him.
Roofe’s knee injury, confirmed as ligament damage yesterday, is a setback of the sort Leeds have been sucking up since the very start of this season; more disruption in a squad who never seem to get away with minor niggles. Roofe hurt himself during the second half against Swansea last week, stretching the joint as he tried to drive home a pass from Jamie Shackleton, and Leeds are quietly hoping that his rehabilitation and Bielsa’s insistence on recovering players getting fully up to speed will not prevent him playing again before the season ends.
The club said in a statement that Roofe was beginning “a period on the sidelines” and despite not setting a fixed timescale for his absence, they indicated that it was likely to run for “weeks rather than months.” The regular season finishes in just 10 but Leeds remain optimistic that Roofe’s campaign has life left in it. The international break in the middle of next month leaves an empty fortnight for him to work through.
Without him, Bielsa is left looking for two things: an alternative number 10 and sharp finishing from Bamford.
Roofe’s form since Christmas does not alter the fact that he has scored 14 league goals to Bamford’s two, or that his body has largely held up in a way which Bamford’s hasn’t. Roofe’s shots-per-game ratio of 3.2 is the highest at Elland Road and the fourth highest in the Championship. He produced six from number 10 in last week’s win over Swansea, twice Bamford’s tally.
Bamford, though, has recent form for hitting a hot streak. He made a fleeting impact for Middlesbrough during the first half of last season but came into his own midway through February, at precisely the juncture where Leeds and Bielsa are depending on him now.
His hat-trick against Leeds was part of a wedge of nine goals in seven fixtures, a key component in Boro’s qualification for the play-offs. Bamford in that mood was classed by United as good value at the £7m price tag Boro demanded when Leeds signed him in July.
In two flashes, away at Bolton in December and more recently against Norwich City, Bamford’s poaching instinct showed itself and his displays since returning from a knee ligament injury – his second in four months – have shown natural rust from so much time in the treatment room.
Bielsa had planned to give the forward more time in the Under-23s but will be pleased in light of Roofe’s injury that he pushed Bamford into the first-team fray quickly. Bielsa spoke with Bamford before a top-of-the-table meeting with Norwich and told him: ‘I don’t want you to play Under-23s. I want you to be involved against Norwich.”
At number 10, United’s head coach has some choice, although not the easy alternative he held while Samuel Saiz was at the club. Pablo Hernandez could step in for Roofe, although the illness suffered by Jack Clarke at Middlesbrough might necessitate a run out wide for Hernandez.
Clarke did not train with Leeds last week and although various tests on the teenager came back clear, he is not expected to do much more than light gym work before Saturday’s game against Bolton. Bielsa said after the win over Swansea that Clarke, who collapsed and required oxygen at The Riverside, would be given “all the time he needs”.
Tyler Roberts has also been tried in an attacking midfield position and Izzy Brown is continuing to angle for the most long-awaited Leeds debut the club can remember.
Brown, who is finally fit more than a year on from ACL surgery, made Bielsa’s squad for the first time at Middlesbrough and went through a rigorous warm-up at the start of the second half without appearing as a substitute. He was on the bench again at home to Swansea and United gave him 45 minutes in a Under-23s game against Bolton yesterday.
Jamie Shackleton, too, is a player with the potential to fill the hole left by Roofe.
But Bielsa is once again at the point of asking someone to step in and step up, deprived of a player with the class to make the difference and carry Leeds home.