The door at Leeds United closed on Jamal Blackman just when it seemed that it might be starting to open for him. Debate over Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s position as first-choice goalkeeper came to an abrupt halt on Friday with the broken leg which ended Blackman’s season there and then.
Blackman underwent treatment at Leeds General Infirmary within hours of suffering a fractured tibia in an Under-23s game against Birmingham City and was transferred back to London on Saturday morning to begin a long and slow recovery. His loan from Chelsea is over without it ever beginning in earnest and he is not expected to play again until next summer.
The 25-year-old had barely played at Elland Road either – two appearances in the League Cup back in August – but there was a hint last week of Blackman starting to fancy his chances of edging Peacock-Farrell aside: a video posted by him on Instagram showing his own inch-perfect pass covering 50 yards of the pitch in a previous development-squad clash with Hull City. On the back of the error made by Peacock-Farrell which left Leeds trailing 2-0 in their 4-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion 10 days ago, it was almost Blackman’s way of reminding Marcelo Bielsa that he was in the wings and ready.
Blackman’s conditioning when he first joined from Chelsea was the reason why his chances under Bielsa were so few. Leeds signed him in July, three weeks into a pre-season programme which saw virtually all of their players shed weight and body fat as Bielsa pushed them en masse to a higher level of fitness. Blackman missed a number of friendlies as United worked to get him into the same shape and by the time the Championship season started, Bielsa had set his mind on starting Peacock-Farrell.
Peacock-Farrell has been ever-present in the league and steady without making regular headlines. His mistake at The Hawthorns – a misjudgement which allowed a long-range Matt Phillips shot to squirm through his hands and into the net – killed that match and encouraged debate about his role as first choice but Blackman’s injury will ensure that Peacock-Farrell retains Bielsa’s faith until at least the turn of the year.
Leeds have no other experienced keeper to call on and Bielsa will pick from two juniors – Will Huffer or Kamil Miazek – for a place on the bench against Bristol City this Saturday. Huffer, 20, is an England Under-20 international and was involved in a friendly against Germany last night. Miazek, a 22-year-old Pole, was formerly part of Feyenoord’s academy and linked up with Leeds late last year. Huffer has no senior experience on his record. Miazek gained a small amount with Polish club Chojniczanka Chojnice during the 2016-17 season.
The rules of the EFL will only allow Leeds to bring in emergency cover if Peacock-Farrell is injured or suspended but the recruitment of a replacement for Blackman will be a priority when the transfer window opens at the start of January. In the meantime, Peacock-Farrell is set to remain as the last line of a defence which is close to being stretched beyond its limit.
Bielsa was protective of the Northern Ireland international after his mistake at West Brom, insisting the causes of Leeds’ heaviest defeat of the season were not related to Peacock-Farrell’s performance. Bielsa was more concerned about United’s ball retention and the regular losses of possession which invited West Brom to counter-attack in numbers and at pace.
“I don’t think he (Peacock-Farrell) has a high percentage of responsibility for the defeat,” Bielsa said. “I don’t like to talk deeply about good things or bad things by one individual player, especially after a game like this one and especially when we lost with such a difference in the score but what I can tell you for sure is that our goalkeeper is not responsible for the defeat.”
Bielsa has grown accustomed to managing injuries in a campaign where injuries have never stopped but Blackman’s leg break and the sudden end of his loan from Chelsea leaves United exposed at the back, with no proven cover for Peacock-Farrell and little in the way of options across Bielsa’s defence.
Blackman’s injury will ensure that Peacock-Farrell retains Bielsa’s faith until at least the turn of the year.Phil Hay
Gaetano Berardi and Luke Ayling are out until the new year – Berardi until February with a torn hamstring – and Pontus Jansson is a doubt for this weekend’s meeting with Bristol City having suffered a foot injury in the second half against West Brom. Jansson withdrew from Sweden’s squad 48 hours later and was able to rest through the first week of the international break. Leeds sent him for a scan on Thursday and are yet to comment on his condition but Jansson’s injury is not believed to be serious. It could, however, create a hole in the centre of defence on Saturday which neither Ayling nor Berardi are available to fill.
Midfielder Kalvin Phillips has doubled up as a centre-back on occasions this season and Conor Shaughnessy played in Friday’s Under-23s defeat to Birmingham City, his second appearance since returning from injury. Bielsa’s rationale for refusing to sign another central defender in the summer was based on his confidence in the likes of Phillips and Shaughnessy, players who persuaded him during pre-season that they could hold the fort if and when the time came.
Defensively, Leeds are at the stage of needing all hands on deck, with only one pair of hands to rely on.