There is little in football that confounds Marcelo Bielsa but Tyler Roberts’ capacity to play as a centre-forward came as a surprise to him. Famously adept at taking players out of their comfort zones, Bielsa sized Roberts up during the summer and quickly came to rate him as a natural right winger.
Roberts had a go there in pre-season and again last month in League Cup ties against Preston North End and Bolton Wanderers but little by little it became clear to Bielsa that the 19-year-old preferred to play elsewhere. Up front on Tuesday and where he wanted to be, Roberts finally came good with two finishes befitting an out-and-out striker.
‘Finally’ was how it felt for him, despite the fact that Tuesday’s appearance at home to Preston was only his second start in the Championship. His first goals for Leeds have materialised at the earliest opportunity but the chance to play regularly was delayed by the cracked shin bone which followed his transfer from West Bromwich Albion in January.
When Leeds paid West Brom £2.5m for his signature, a fee which could rise to £4m depending on add-ons, they were signing a forward. Bielsa viewed Roberts differently, believing the teenager would carry most influence out wide, but even a head coach as experienced as him was forced to admit that Roberts’ performance in a 3-0 defeat of Preston had proven otherwise.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in the centre of the pitch,” Roberts agreed. “I played out wide in the first part of the season and it’s something I’ve had to adapt my game to. I think I was in the mix of doing that but it’s nice to get time in the middle.
“I feel more comfortable as a striker but I’ve worked on my game and think I can play out wide too. If that’s where I’m going to get my opportunity, it’s something I’ll have to take. I’ve learned so much (from Bielsa) in a short space of time and with the things he asks me to do, I’m learning and getting better at them. These things I’ll keep improving at.”
I played out wide in the first part of the season and it’s something I’ve had to adapt my game to. I think I was in the mix of doing that but it’s nice to get time in the middle.Tyler Roberts
In any case, Bielsa needed a centre-forward before Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Millwall, the scene of Roberts’ league debut. Kemar Roofe has a calf problem and Patrick Bamford is out until at least January with a damaged knee ligament. Minus any proven alternatives, Roberts got the nod in London and experienced a mixed afternoon: consistently on the end of chances but unable to take any of them.
On Tuesday, in a rampant victory over Preston, his touch returned as a 74th-minute lob and an 82nd-minute header prevented a fightback which North End had barely been threatening. For three months last season an injured Roberts was forced to the stands and imagine the sensation of scoring at Elland Road, detached from the sensation of being on the pitch.
“It’s definitely up there,” he said, reflecting on his goals. “The feeling was one of the best I’ve had. Just hearing the noise was great.
“This is the first time I’ve been through a long injury and to have it happen as soon as I joined Leeds was mentally tough. Being at games and hearing the atmosphere was hard to take. As a footballer you want to play.
“Literally, as soon as I’ve seen somebody score here, I’ve thought ‘wow, imagine scoring in front of however many fans are here each week’. So it was a dream come true. I had a hard start to my Leeds career but I’ve been patient.”
Roberts’ immediate injury and anonymous start made him the butt of jokes about whether or not he actually existed.
He is one of the youngest members of Bielsa’s squad but there was a degree of pressure on him to demonstrate his quality this season. That his signature had been coveted was never in dispute. West Brom sold him reluctantly having failed to agree an extension to his contract and several clubs were lining up to sign Roberts for a compensation fee when that deal expired in the summer just gone. Leeds jumped the queue by wrapping up a transfer on the last day of the January window.
“I don’t think there’s pressure,” Roberts insisted. “Everyone’s been okay and the fans were desperate to see me and see what I can do. I took that in my stride and had the right people around me to calm me down and make me relax.
“It’s about being in the right areas. If you get confidence then you want to be in the box, you want to be around the ball and you want to be getting your chances. When you’ve got players like (Mateusz) Klich and (Samuel) Saiz there, they can always pick you out.”
Roberts’ first finish, a controlled chip over Preston goalkeeper Declan Rudd, was the pick of his touches but his second, a cushioned header at the end of a surgical move, was the attack of the night.
Bielsa has committed his players to a ferocious passing style and they are averaging close to 60 per cent of possession per game. United took risks in the early stages on Tuesday by passing out from the back but it did not take long for their control of the ball to start wearing Preston down.
“Football can be a simple game,” Roberts said.
“If we’ve got the ball at the back in training and we’re comfortable passing it about, why can’t we do it in a game?
“That’s the type of thing we’ve been learning to get on with.
“We trust each other at the back and we trust each other in the final third. It’s obviously shown this season.”