Marcelo Bielsa finally gives Carabao Cup the full Leeds United experience to beat Crewe Alexandra - Graham Smyth's Verdict
It was starting to look like a case of damned Leeds United if you do and damned if you don’t for Marcelo Bielsa in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night.
Had he paired kids with fringe players, as has been his tradition since his 2018 Elland Road arrival, he would have risked further accusations of not taking cup competitions seriously and potentially suffered yet another early exit.
By naming such a strong side, one that may only have boasted five of the starters from the Premier League draw with Everton yet was still made up entirely of first teamers, he courted the risk of embarrassment and an even bigger upset. As it happened, Crewe came within 11 minutes of a famous stalemate, before succumbing to a 3-0 scoreline that told the tale of Leeds’ dominance, if not their initial wastefulness.
This fixture was earmarked as a potential competitive sighting of Under-23s trio Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood and Cody Drameh, so there was an element of disappointment for those desperate to see the future stars in something other than Premier League 2 action.
Those three, and others, have whetted the appetite with their performances for Mark Jackson’s side and been tipped for a first-team breakthrough at some stage this season. Yet on Monday, when Jackson named his team to face Tottenham Hotspur in Premier League 2, they were all involved, giving the first strong hint that Bielsa would be giving Crewe the full Leeds experience on Tuesday.
Regardless of how highly Bielsa has rated the young players he has fielded in past cup fixtures it could never be argued that the teams he put out were anything other than weakened versions of the real thing and this side was packed full of Premier League quality.
It might not have been the nod to the future many eagerly anticipated but the starting line-up contained plenty of good news. England’s Euro 2020 linchpin Kalvin Phillips wore the captain’s armband, Diego Llorente made his return from injury and Adam Forshaw ended almost two years of absence from action.
Of the 18-man squad only substitute Crysencio Summerville was yet to make a single first-team appearance and with first-team stalwarts Luke Ayling, Patrick Bamford, Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich joining the teenage winger on the bench, Bielsa took out further insurance against unlikely disaster. A keen fan of the lower leagues in England, Bielsa was paying Crewe every respect with his selection.
And yet it still took 79 minutes for Leeds to make a breakthrough, before Crewe buckled with top-flight fire power blasting away at them.
In the early minutes Crewe were showing they had come to give Leeds a game, exhibiting few signs of crumbling under the atmosphere or the weight of the experience and pedigree facing them.
Barring a smart 18-yard shot from Forshaw that brought a decent stop from Will Jaaskelainen, the League One side survived the first 20 minutes handily, putting a little pressure on themselves through the lively Ben Knight and a couple of aerial balls Leeds defended untidily.
That the game remained scoreless as long as it did owed as much to Leeds simply not clicking in attack, Rodrigo and Jamie Shackleton guilty of slightly wayward passes that allowed the visitors to breathe more comfortably, as it did to the defensive solidity of Crewe.
When Leeds did start to get it together, Crewe keeper Will Jaaskelainen and his defence made superb last-ditch interventions. Billy Sass-Davies headed a Diego Llorente effort off the line before Jaaskelainen dived full length to push a venomous Jack Harrison strike around the post.
The resulting corner was played straight into the path of the unmarked Phillips and he somehow nodded wide.
Although still not at their slick best, Leeds were in full control of everything but the scoreline, their build up improving A pair of superb Llorente passes put the hosts in behind on each flank to create golden chances, Rodrigo and Roberts both seeing shots blocked.
Any threat Leeds had down the right was carried by Roberts pulling into the channel and not by Jamie Shackleton and Helder Costa, who were both called over for specific instruction by Bielsa during a break in play.
Costa responded, darting centrally to pick up yet another lovely Llorente through ball, only to shoot into the despairing South Stand crowd.
The second half was even more comfortable for Leeds and played almost exclusively in the visitors’ half, but Bielsa’s men took their sweet time in finding a breakthrough.
Their early work held promise without any reward. Harrison got in behind the defence but blasted his shot wide of the far post.
Leeds set up camp outside the Crewe area and teed each other up for shots that never came, trying for a better opening with black shirts blocking the route to goal.
Thanks in chief to Mikael Mandron bullying Struijk off the ball, Crewe did manage to break out of the iron grip they were in and put together an attack that ended in the area without bothering Meslier. The game settled into a pattern, Leeds finding space inside the full-backs to get men to the byline and dig out crosses, which were cleared time and again.
Most of the good things the hosts did came down the left through Harrison, with Firpo in support, yet Bielsa stuck with Costa on the right, instead replacing Forshaw with Klich and Rodrigo with Bamford. What was already a strong side got even stronger and Crewe’s task got much harder.
Kayne Ramsay’s remarkable run, almost the full length of the field, was but a moment of respite as they hung on, but only just. It was little surprise when, with 11 minutes remaining, the resistance broke. Harrison’s corner reached Phillips and he drilled past Jaaskelainen to ensure there would be no penalty drama.
Bamford’s presence made a world of difference with Crewe opening up a little to try and get back into it, running onto channel balls to drill shots goalward with his left and right feet, Jaaskelainen saving both before the striker’s diving header floated just past the post.
When the second goal came it was Bamford who teed it up, Leeds breaking through their centre-forward who drew the last two defenders towards him, allowing Harrison to sneak in at the back post, receive the ball and dink it over Jaaskelainen.
The third involved the same two players, Bamford breaking in behind yet again and rolling the ball back for Roberts, Jaaskelainen’s save falling to Harrison who lashed in the third goal, to put Leeds in the third round.
Bielsa’s time at Leeds has lacked little but a cup run would be a damn fine addition to his storied era.