The gradual drain of confidence in Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s performances was the product of perception rather than statistics. His clean sheets were in double figures and his record of 30 concessions in 27 games was on a par with, or better, than every goalkeeper in the Championship, other than Darren Randolph. His pass completion rate of 66 per cent was not at all shabby for a player in his position.
And when it came to it in the final week of January, he lost his place in a team who were top of the division. Leeds are no longer top of it or even second but to find a correlation between Marcelo Bielsa changing keepers and the club slipping back would be to misunderstand the real issue facing him and to overlook the way in which Norwich City and Sheffield United have been turning it on. Good things start at the back for this side and Bielsa’s keepers, to coin a phrase, have helped to keep Leeds at a good height.
With Peacock-Farrell, the questions about him were down to a gut feeling which overrode the numbers: the goals which crept in too easily, the speed of his footwork, the absence of the presence which comes naturally to Kiko Casilla and the sight of Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper reading him the riot act at various intervals, implying that the lines of communication were shaky. Something in all that was niggling at Bielsa when he decided to replace Peacock-Farrell in November, only to see Jamal Blackman break a leg (and break it so badly that Blackman tweeted last week to mark his “first day fully standing up”). A funny game, football. Peacock-Farrell kept his place by default and Leeds won their next seven matches.
The acquisition of Casilla was different to the signing of Blackman: a marquee purchase with Real Madrid in his blood and a keeper whose physical condition at the outset satisfied Bielsa in a way that Blackman’s hadn’t. Bielsa is a coach who, more than most, values the combined sum of collective parts more than the collective parts themselves but Casilla was too big a transfer not to make his line-up. It was Bielsa who, the first time they met, joked with Casilla that he was “crazy” for giving up the Bernabeu for the Championship.
Casilla is suspended this weekend and for the first time in two months, Peacock-Farrell will be back in the fray while the Spaniard serves that ban. Casilla’s dismissal against Sheffield United, despite his own protests, was clear-cut enough for Leeds to let it go without an appeal but Bielsa asks him to hold a very high line and his professional foul on Billy Sharp was the result of Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips losing their marbles in front of him. Peacock-Farrell has the chance to play on Saturday but not, realistically, the chance to displace a keeper whose strengths dovetail nicely with Bielsa’s strategy. “Casilla brings serenity to the team,” Bielsa said, and the defence have the air of a unit who trust the man behind them.
Casilla, though, has 10 years on Peacock-Farrell and an education, in La Liga and European football, which is reserved for relatively few in his union. It is supposition to say that this season threw too much too soon at Peacock-Farrell but he has had his hands full: first choice at Elland Road overnight and first choice with Northern Ireland at much the same rate, two rapid promotions for a 22-year-old who had made all of four appearances in the EFL this time last season and was being warned by Paul Heckingbottom that Leeds might as well release him if he couldn’t find a way to challenge Felix Wiedwald or Andy Lonergan.
Set against that backdrop, Peacock-Farrell’s record this season is estimable and behind the discussions about his form and ability was one fact: that he is essentially a new academy graduate, the same as Jamie Shackleton and Jack Clarke but one who Bielsa leaned on more heavily in the most exposed of positions. Analysis of him was more exacting and so, when it happened, was the experience of losing his place. Keepers know themselves that an unenforced change in their role is usually a last resort.
The timing of his recall this weekend is handy, fresh from two competitive wins with Northern Ireland, and it is no bad thing for Peacock-Farrell to have the chance to remind everyone that he is still in the building and still up to it if Bielsa needs him; to make the point that his contribution should be more than a footnote in a bigger story.
Football became a squad game a long time ago and, as the season reaches player-of-the-year time, Peacock-Farrell exemplifies the way in which almost all of Bielsa’s squad, even the furthest reaches of it, have contributed to it: the odd precious goal from Tyler Roberts, the cameos from Aapo Halme, Samuel Saiz for as long as the mood took him and Jack Clarke with his little bursts of imagination. It might be that the signing of Casilla saved Peacock-Farrell from himself and saved Bielsa from trouble at the back but Leeds could not claim to be knocking on the door of the Premier League in spite of him. This year has merely taught him something about the nature of his trade, which Gianluigi Buffon illustrated beautifully: “In the end you need to be a little bit masochistic to be a goalkeeper.”