Key role: He may only be 26 but Italian Tommaso Bianchi is the ‘old man’ of Leeds’ midfield. He spoke to Phil Hay about life on and off the pitch.
At 26 years of age – “still young,” he jokes – Tommaso Bianchi is the elder in Leeds United’s midfield. He has never thought of himself in that way before but equally he has never played in a team like this.
Bianchi is nine years older than Lewis Cook, seven years older than Alex Mowatt and six years the senior of Adryan.
Even Sam Byram, the full-back directly behind him in United’s diamond formation, turned 21 in September. It’s a heavy responsibility for a player who, in spite of his past experience, is finding his way in a different country and a new, demanding league.
“At Modena last season it was a bit like this,” he said. “I did a bit of this with young players at Modena but not so much as here.
“Normally I’m in the middle – some players younger than me, some players older – but here I feel old. Not too old, really, but I’ve got more experience. Experience of 250 games in Italy. So I try my best to help.
“It’s new but it’s nice work. It’s not pressure for me. It can be a bit difficult with the language but I speak with the young players and I try to help with positions and control of the game.
“And they are good players, really good. We’re all comfortable.”
In the midst of his own development, Bianchi has handled that duty well. By his own admission he toiled through a patch of three or four games where performances deserted him but he has been worth his midfield role this season, particularly in games at Elland Road.
Bianchi believes he has goals in him and is slightly disappointed to have gone 20 games without scoring once but the set-up under United’s head coach, Neil Redfearn, makes specific demands of him: to hold the line in midfield, to double up with Byram on the right-wing and, in the main, to leave the direct attacking to others.
Leeds have a genuine number 10 in Adryan. They also have legs, form and creative talent in Mowatt.
Bianchi is honest enough to know that there is no value to Leeds in him raging forward, looking blindly for goals. A forward-thinking team needs cover from somewhere.
“I want to score,” Bianchi said. “I want to score a goal but it’s difficult because we have two strikers and one number 10 player, Adryan. Mowatt is very offensive too so I help the team in another position. I run to the full-backs and double up on the wings, especially with Sam Byram.
“My work is important for the team and I do it all for the team. The fans, I know, want to look at goals or good passes but I run for my team-mates and I do what the coach wants me to do.
“I feel I’ve played well. I had one moment of three or four matches when I didn’t play well but I had some physical problems which is normal in a long season. But I work hard every day because I want to improve and I want to become more important to this club.”
Bianchi’s mention of “language difficulties” is jovial and self-deprecating. His English is excellent and most of the foreign players signed by Leeds in the summer have a good grasp of it.
He grew up in Tuscany –“nice country, very different” – and carved out a career in Italy’s second division, finishing up with Sassuolo when Leeds signed him on a four-year deal in July.
Sassuolo won promotion from Serie B in 2013 with Bianchi in their team but he was sent back to that division last season, joining Modena on loan. Promotion almost followed again but Modena lost to Cesena in the divisional play-offs.
With several campaigns behind him, English football appealed to Bianchi and he liked the cut of Massimo Cellino’s jib. United’s owner is embroiled in a bitter fight with the Football League and could be forced to resign from the club’s board before the end of this month, the start of a short-term disqualification imposed by the League, but he has friends among the players he signed during the summer transfer window.
“For me he’s a great president because he has a lot of passion for football and his team,” Bianchi said. “He’s done great work with this club and I hope we improve.
“This is very different here. I played in Serie B in Italy but the level here is higher than Serie B. It’s very physical. There are more great players in all the teams. In Italy there are maybe three or four teams with quality but here, every team has the same level and every match is difficult.”
This weekend is proof of that. Leeds saw off Championship leaders Derby County last Saturday with their best performance and their most creditable victory for months. Tomorrow they travel to Ipswich Town, the league’s second-placed team. Then comes Fulham, Nottingham Forest, Wigan Athletic and Derby again. This is no holiday for Bianchi or his compatriots and no easy ride.
The midfielder has spent much of his spare time in the company of the likes of Marco Silvestri, Mirco Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara, three other players brought in by Cellino from abroad. Bianchi’s girlfriend lives in Italy and visits when she can.
“At first it was difficult because English was a new language for me and the people in the city spoke very fast,” he said.
“Now I’ve improved and I think I’m better. It’s a nice city and life is good for me here.”
The football is good too. In the short-term, since Redfearn was appointed as full-time head coach at the start of last month, Leeds have had a spring in their step and more craft in their game. The diamond is working for Redfearn, helped by a balanced midfield and two aggressive full-backs. The mood, Bianchi feels, is also better.
“With this coach we’ve done some great results,” Bianchi said. “I feel good and I think all the team feels good. There is another (a new) atmosphere here and I think the fans can watch their team and be happy again. The team is taking a good way.”