Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United statistics scary but Illan Meslier and Leeds United boast impressive numbers too
Illan Meslier says he doesn’t look at statistics but the knowing grin on his face as he talked about the ‘hard’ games coming up betrayed an acute awareness of just how busy he might be for the next 270 minutes of Leeds United football.
At 21, Meslier has already played 67 senior league games in three different divisions and, when the Whites go to Manchester City for Saturday’s early kick-off, he’ll reach the 30-game mark in the Premier League.
His first taste of top-flight football, since a loan move from FC Lorient was made permanent for a thrifty £6m or so, has been as sweet as he might have wished for.
Although only four sides have conceded more goals than Leeds, in February he set a new Premier League record for clean sheets in a single season for a keeper under the age of 21 with his eighth of the campaign. He’s since recorded another to give him the sixth-highest, top-flight tally for 2020/21.
Leeds’ relentless attacking brand of football has, at times, kept him far more involved than he was in the latter stages of the 2019/20 Championship season, when their dominance and control largely protected him.
When Leeds have the ball he plays a full part – no other keeper in the English top tier has made more successful passes or taken more touches of the ball.
When Leeds don’t have the ball, he’s called upon with great frequency – he’s made 115 saves in the Premier League this season and, in Europe’s top five leagues, only Sam Johnstone of West Brom has made more. He has also won more duels than any of his top-flight peers.
“I don’t look at the statistics,” he said before Saturday’s win over Sheffield United.
“I’m focused on each game. It’s good when I make a lot of saves but, sometimes, it’s good to make no saves, because your defence is good and [the] team defends well. It’s my job, I’m ready to make the save in each minute of the game. I’m happy, if I can keep like this, it’s fine.”
It would indeed be good if Meslier had few saves to make on Saturday at the Etihad, or when Liverpool visit Elland Road on Monday, April 19, or when Leeds host Manchester United six days later.
Although the Whites held Pep Guardiola’s superstars to a 1-1 draw at home earlier in the season, they shipped four at Anfield and six at Old Trafford.
Meslier, discussing the importance of a win over the Blades, couldn’t hide his smile as he admitted they would then face a few ‘very hard’ games.
If he were to break with his tradition and sneak a peek at the statistics, they would back him up.
Leeds’ next trio of opponents all rank in the Premier League’s top four for goals, shots, shots on target and chances created.
As it happens, and quite incredibly, the newly-promoted Whites, with a squad containing players once considered mid-table Championship operators, themselves are a top-six side when it comes to all of those metrics, and will expect to cause problems in each of these upcoming games.
They ran Liverpool very close and could have taken something from that game, they weathered the fiercest of storms to give City all they could handle and, more in that draw and even in the thumping across the Pennines, they had their moments.
The best form of defence for Marcelo Bielsa’s side is often attack, keeping the ball in the opposition half by winning it high up the pitch through their aggressive press and, preferably, finishing all their attacks with a shot at goal so there’s at least some chance to get defensively set before the opposition begin their next move.
Opposition managers claim, from time to time, that Leeds want a basketball match, because they’re so good at counter attacking and so dangerous when spaces open up, but Bielsa’s ideal would be to set up camp in the opposition half and direct one-way traffic.
But there is an inevitability, when facing teams who have each created, on average, 11 chances per game, teams with players of the quality of the otherworldly Kevin de Bruyne, the in-form Diogo Jota and shot-machine Bruno Fernandes, that Meslier will be called into action with some degree of regularity.
Leeds, not just through the way they sometimes expose themselves to danger but through the world-class ability in the teams they’re facing, are highly unlikely to be able to dominate these games.
The key, therefore, will be to avoid errors in the defensive third of the pitch. These next opponents need no helping hand. Few teams in the Premier League do, as Meslier knows full well.
“Each action, if you make a mistake in this part of the pitch, you can concede a goal,” said the youngster who, as much through the scale of his involvement with the ball at his feet and the quality of the opposition as carelessness, has made more errors leading directly to shots than any other Premier League player this season.
In his defence, only two of his mistakes have been recorded as directly responsible for goals conceded.
The truth is, however, that no matter how Meslier and his Leeds team-mates fare in this trio of games, his and their post-promotion season can already be considered a triumph. Staying up was the aim and they’re well on course to do that with bells on.
For every scary statistic about City, Liverpool and Manchester United, there is one that paints Meslier and Leeds in a light brighter than even the most ardent of Leeds fans would have dreamed, back in September.
He will be a busy man, but it’s very possible that his opposite numbers will be too. The way Meslier’s Premier League introduction and Leeds United’s return has gone, just about anything is possible in these games.
Leeds United versus Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United. Don’t look at the statistics, but strap yourself in.