This international break at Leeds United will be restful for some and gruelling for others. The club whipped through six more fixtures in the second month of the season, one falling every three or four days, and even Marcelo Bielsa could see that downtime was in order for those in the thick of it.
Leeds’ head coach has asked a lot of his most prominent players, pushing a small core through the games as they fall. Six members of his squad have been ever-present over 12 Championship matches and it is clear that more would have held the same record had it not been for the injuries in Bielsa’s dressing room.
Managers talk these days about the ‘red zone’ – the point of physical exertion where footballers are at particular risk of soft-tissue damage – but Bielsa is not aligned with the modern trend of rotating players on the grounds of fatigue. His changes this season have been entirely enforced and Leeds went through five straight games with the same line-up last month before Barry Douglas pulled a hamstring in their 1-0 win at Hull City.
“We take into account the performance more than the state of the player,” Bielsa said. “We use rotations more for performance than if a player is tired or not.”
The two weeks in front of United after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Brentford are a chance to ease off but also, in Bielsa’s eyes, a time to target the fitness of the individuals who have been camped outside his starting side or stuck in the treatment room at Thorp Arch. A clear run of training days and two Under-23 fixtures will be used by Bielsa to give himself more cards to work with when the season starts up again at Blackburn Rovers on October 20.
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He already has issues to contend with for that game, affecting either side of his defence. Right-back Luke Ayling is banned for one game after his red card against Brentford and left-back Douglas is not certain of recovering from his hamstring strain in time to play. In spite of that, Bielsa could be helped at Ewood Park by the availability of two attacking players who underpinned the rapid start made by Leeds in August.
Kemar Roofe and Pablo Hernandez are almost over respective calf and hamstring problems and the club intended for them to play some part in a development-squad game against Burnley at Elland Road this Friday. Defender Gaetano Berardi will also be considered for that fixture and Leeds’ Under-23s are due to play again before the Championship visit to Blackburn, away at Barnsley the previous afternoon.
Hernandez, the oldest head in Bielsa’s squad, last appeared in a 3-0 win at Norwich City on August 25, a match in which he scored before leaving the field with a minor injury. Leeds nursed him back to full training inside a fortnight but Hernandez was ruled out for a further five weeks after aggravating the same hamstring a few days before a 1-1 draw at Millwall.
Roofe’s absence has been slightly shorter but he, like Hernandez, has been sidelined since the last international break. At a stroke, Bielsa lost two players who between them had scored or provided assists for 11 league goals in the opening month and in their absence questions began to arise about the quality of United’s finishing. Bielsa focused on it himself, talking critically about the “efficiency” of his team in front of goal.
At no stage, however, was he tempted to risk Roofe or Hernandez, both of whom have been quietly recuperating in the background. Hernandez took himself away briefly to the Ryder Cup, where his brother-in-law Sergio Garcia was competing, and set Blackburn as a firm target for his comeback. He is yet to test himself in with the Under-23s but Bielsa – unlike Thomas Christiansen last season – is using the professional development league as a way of enhancing the fitness of certain players. Adam Forshaw, Lewis Baker, Jamal Blackman and Stuart Dallas all featured in a 2-0 win over Nottingham Forest at Thorp Arch a week ago.
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Bielsa was asked after Saturday’s draw with Brentford what he planned for the international break.
“Two big plans,” he said. “The first is to make the players who play a lot get some recovery. The second plan is to make the players who play less to get fitter for the game against Blackburn.”
The international break might also save Bielsa from any complications with Pontus Jansson, whose wife is about to give birth. Jansson has returned to Sweden and likely to become a father before Leeds head to Ewood Park, sparing the club from the loss of a centre-back who has found his form impressively since regaining a place in United’s line-up at Millwall.
Sweden coach Janne Andersson admitted over the weekend that he was expecting Jansson to miss the country’s Nations League fixtures against Russia and Slovakia and remain with his family. Pierre-Michel Lasogga, during his loan from Hamburg, insisted on making his Leeds debut against Burton Albion last season despite the risk that his girlfriend – back home in Germany – might give birth on the same afternoon.
Jansson admitted he had not questioned his own involvement in Saturday’s draw with Brentford.
“It’s no problem,” he told Sky after full-time. “My wife is at home and she’s okay without me. If she called me I would go home but she hasn’t called.”