As Tyler Roberts stepped off Leeds United’s team bus and walked down the steps into Roots Hall on Sunday, one of the club’s supporters looked at him and said: “Now I know what you look like!”
Roberts got the joke and smiled. Before his appearance at Southend United, his first for Leeds in almost six months, the start of his career at Elland Road had given him an odd, mythical status. The club paid West Bromwich Albion £2.5m for Roberts’ signature in January but few in Leeds are any the wiser about who he is, what he will offer or whether that fee will prove to be a sound investment.
For him it has been a story of bad luck. The striker was diagnosed with a cracked shin bone after his very first training session at Thorp Arch and prevented from making his debut last season by an injury which took longer than expected to heal. His 28 minutes on the pitch against Southend on Sunday is the only time he has featured in a game of any sort. Roberts finished that outing with ice on his shin but felt comfortable during the match.
Despite an anonymous beginning at Leeds, Roberts, still only 19, has a promising reputation. Wales capped him at Under-21 level last year and he has trained with their senior squad. West Brom wanted to retain Roberts in January but failed to agree an extension to a contract which was due to expire this summer and chose to cash in on him before he could depart for a compensation fee. He was given a four-and-a-half year deal at Elland Road.
At present Leeds need all the attacking prowess they can get. The club are missing an experienced out-and-out centre-forward and have not adequately addressed that position since selling Chris Wood to Burnley last August. Roberts talked about making an immediate impact when he first joined and his attitude has not changed, irrespective of the way in which Leeds are easing him into their pre-season schedule.
“I still want to be involved and starting games,” he said. “I’m going to be trying to do that. If I keep getting stronger and fitter then I can get into the team and make a big difference.
“I’d say people can expect to see pace, power and some skilful play for me. I think I’m a creative player. I like to get in one-v-one attacking situations and go past people. And I’m positive there’ll be goals as well.”
Roberts took a 10-day break during the summer but was put through fitness work for most of the off-season. Leeds gave his injury a final scan as the rest of their players were returning to Thorp Arch and Roberts was cleared to begin training a week into Marcelo Bielsa’s programme.
“I haven’t really stopped,” Roberts said. “I had a week or 10 days to myself, just to get that headspace and some time away, but other than that I’ve been in grafting and working hard, trying to get everything right for when I made my return.
“I was hoping that (the absence through injury) would maybe be a couple of months but as time went on and it wasn’t healing as well as we wanted it to heal, it got longer and longer. It was mentally tough but I’m here now so it’s all good.
If I keep getting stronger and fitter then I can get into the team and make a big difference.Tyler Roberts
“Going to every game at Elland Road and seeing the atmosphere, it’s a massive club and you want to be out there playing week in, week out. When you can’t do that through injury it’s very frustrating. I just had to keep my head and keep motivated to come back stronger. Hopefully this season will be a lot better for me.
“When all the boys came back for pre-season, I started to get into training and doing the normal movements you do in a game. I felt like I was ready and the physios got another scan on it. It was healing properly so I got the all clear.”
On Sunday Roberts played as a substitute on the right side of midfield in the 4-1-4-1 system which Bielsa is using in the friendlies featuring his most prominent players. Bielsa has shown a preference throughout his coaching career for a three-man defence but the role of Kalvin Phillips, a holding midfielder with instructions to drop in as a third centre-back when Bielsa’s full-backs break or the opposition pick up possession in dangerous areas, is allowing for flexibility in the formation.
Leeds have three more pre-season games ahead of them, beginning with Oxford United away tonight. Time is short at Elland Road and in the absence of significant transfer business, much pressure rests on Bielsa’s ability to improve the players who struggled in the Championship last season. Neither of the club’s friendlies at Forest Green Rovers and Southend featured a single new signing and one of the two completed by United – on-loan Chelsea goalkeeper Jamal Blackman – has yet to play at all with the club working to improve his physical conditioning.
Roberts described working under Bielsa as a “massive learning experience.” “He’s tried to impose himself and he definitely has,” Roberts said. “It’s been a massive learning experience for all of us.
“Although we’ve only been with him for three or four weeks I’ve been able to learn so much. You can tell why he’s so respected and why he’s done what he’s done in the game.
“He tries to play a different kind of way and he likes the high press. Everyone’s adapting to the positions they’ve got to be in and the style he wants to play. It’s been different to other clubs I’ve been at but in a good way, and a very good way.”