Leeds United youngster facing harsh lessons outside comfort zone as milestone target revealed

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Charlie Cresswell is getting used to life as a senior player and learning the hard way miles from his Leeds United comfort zone

Charlie Cresswell has started each of Millwall’s five fixtures across all competitions this season.

The centre-back, who turned 20 this week, is earning his first taste of regular senior football, hundreds of miles from Leeds United’s Thorp Arch academy where he grew up.

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His loan spell at The Den began spectacularly, scoring twice on his Championship debut as the Lions defeated Stoke City on the opening day of this season.

Charlie Cresswell of Millwall and Jake Bidwell of Coventry City battle for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship between Millwall and Coventry City  (Photo by Chloe Knott/Getty Images)Charlie Cresswell of Millwall and Jake Bidwell of Coventry City battle for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship between Millwall and Coventry City  (Photo by Chloe Knott/Getty Images)
Charlie Cresswell of Millwall and Jake Bidwell of Coventry City battle for the ball during the Sky Bet Championship between Millwall and Coventry City (Photo by Chloe Knott/Getty Images)

If Cresswell had quite understandably been on cloud nine after his Millwall introduction, he was swiftly brought back down to earth in their next two games – back-to-back defeats to Cambridge United and Paul Heckingbottom’s Sheffield United.

Cambridge finished 14th in the third tier of English football last term, but presided over a 1-0 Carabao Cup First Round win versus Cresswell’s temporary employers.

Days later, the England Under-21 centre-back was to endure one of the cruel realities that often befalls young players taking their first steps in league football.

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In attempting to play a ball back to his goalkeeper, Cresswell inadvertently passed straight to the Blades’ John Fleck who found eventual goalscorer Sander Berge.

“We then make a mistake for the second goal, which will be a good learning curve for young Cressy, because, against Stoke, he scored two goals and won us the game and today he makes a mistake,” Millwall boss Gary Rowett said after the match.

"But he’s a young defender, and that’s what you have to learn. If you make a mistake away from home at these sorts of places, then you’re gonna get punished.”

Cresswell was not dropped for the Lions’ next fixture, playing 80 minutes in a 3-2 win over Coventry City.

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He was also trusted from the start in a 2-2 draw with Swansea City in midweek, although if not for two stoppage time own goals by the Welsh side, may have found himself on the losing side once more.

Cresswell is very much outside his comfort zone, but that is the idea.

The hope is that the 20-year-old will return to Elland Road a more rounded player, more intelligent and perhaps even a little bit more robust than he already is.

That can only be achieved through testing himself at a competitive level, and truth be told, the England Under-21 man outgrew youth football some time ago.

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Despite the occasional mistake and Millwall’s seven concessions in five games, Cresswell is acclimatising as well as anybody could feasibly expect.

Only Preston North End’s Liam Lindsay – a player six years Cresswell’s senior – has won more aerial duels than the young Leeds loanee in the Championship this season.

While frequent battles in the air are more often reflective of a team’s preferred style, Cresswell’s success in this area does confirm pre-season suspicions that he is physically capable at this level.

Only veteran centre-forwards Chris Martin and Troy Deeney have contested more battles in the air this season, indicating Cresswell is willingly putting himself in the firing line.

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Cresswell featured in roughly 1,000 minutes of football last season – the vast majority as part of Leeds' Under-23 side.

At his current rate, he will surpass that figure by mid-October, all the while playing at a much more demanding level.

Ronnie Edwards, Levi Colwill and Sepp van den Berg were the only three centre-backs under the age of 21 to feature in excess of 2,000 Championship minutes last season.

It is a ball-park estimate of playing time Cresswell should aim for if that particular trio are anything to go by.

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Edwards has been linked with a move to Chelsea from Peterborough United, while Colwill has sealed a transfer to Brighton and Hove Albion and Sepp van den Berg remains a Liverpool player.

The season before last, the only Under-21 centre-backs to surpass 2,000 minutes were Marc Guehi, now of Crystal Palace, Leo Ostigard, now of Napoli, and Ben Cabango, a Welsh international.

Historically, the Championship is not a league where coaches have been particularly generous when affording game-time to young players at centre-back, especially loanees where there is an unrealistic prospect of retention.

However, when centre-backs under the age of 21 do play often in England’s second tier, it typically forecasts a promising career at a higher level.

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Rowett must be commended for the faith he has already shown in the young centre-half but the question now is whether Cresswell retains his place at the heart of Millwall’s defence for the remainder of the season.

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