Marcelo Bielsa not paying lipservice to Joe Gelhardt and Leeds United Under-23s' chances of Premier League football

On the day that Gareth Southgate dangled a carrot for Patrick Bamford, Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa did the same for the club’s Under-23s youngsters.
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Bamford, with his six goals in seven Premier League starts since earning promotion with the Whites, wasn’t even a name put to Southgate during the England manager’s squad-reveal press conference.

But still his name cropped up, from the lips of Southgate himself, who hinted that with so much of the season still to play there may yet be opportunities for Bamford to make an international breakthrough.

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A little earlier, Bielsa held a press conference of his own in which he offered similar hope to the young players currently outside his immediate first-team plans.

The Argentine was initially asked about the development of Joe Gelhardt, an 18-year-old forward signed from Wigan Athletic in the summer.

Gelhardt was a somewhat different proposition to the other 23s prospects brought to Elland Road by Victor Orta, Craig Dean and the Leeds recruitment department, because he already has first-team experience.

Then-Wigan boss, Paul Cook, exercised caution with the England youth international, to the point of receiving criticism for doing so, but still handed him 457 minutes of Championship action before the pair departed the DW Stadium.

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Gelhardt’s exit was a huge blow for a club in administration with no choice other than to cash in on young talent, but his arrival in Leeds was greeted with a level of excitement not normally inspired by a signing of such tender years.

PROGRESSING - Joe Gelhardt has almost looked out of place in Under 23s football for Leeds United but Marcelo Bielsa chose to speak about the young group as a collective.PROGRESSING - Joe Gelhardt has almost looked out of place in Under 23s football for Leeds United but Marcelo Bielsa chose to speak about the young group as a collective.
PROGRESSING - Joe Gelhardt has almost looked out of place in Under 23s football for Leeds United but Marcelo Bielsa chose to speak about the young group as a collective.

Gelhardt’s early performances for the 23s have gone some way to explaining the hype.

Along with fellow striker and new boy, Sam Greenwood, ‘Joffy’ has apparently slipped seamlessly into life at Thorp Arch and taken the place of Ryan Edmondson, who led the line for the reserve side in recent seasons before being granted a loan move to Aberdeen to continue his own progression. The three goals he’s scored in his six Premier League 2 outings are the headline, but the story is his strength, balance, mobility and intelligence on the ball.

He has looked as close to out of place in 23s football as an 18-year-old could hope to in the early stages of his stay at a top-flight club like Leeds and, as seemed inevitable, had Whites fans wondering aloud when they’ll get to see him make an impact in ‘real’ football.

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There was often a similar debate surrounding Edmondson, who scored goals prolifically for the 23s under Carlos Corberan and was hauled into the conversation every time Leeds struggled for goals in the Championship, but he never managed to make a strong enough case for first-team inclusion.

YOUNG GUN - Joe Gelhardt, an England youth international, arrived at Leeds United from Wigan Athletic with quite a fanfare, for one so young. Pic: PA.YOUNG GUN - Joe Gelhardt, an England youth international, arrived at Leeds United from Wigan Athletic with quite a fanfare, for one so young. Pic: PA.
YOUNG GUN - Joe Gelhardt, an England youth international, arrived at Leeds United from Wigan Athletic with quite a fanfare, for one so young. Pic: PA.

Perhaps keen to avoid a similar clamour over Gelhardt or maybe due to the player’s age or a desire to keep a lid on the expectations beginning to pile up on his young shoulders, Bielsa was brief when asked to comment on the attacker specifically.

“He is a player who is progressing,” said the head coach of the Scouse youngster.

He then went on to do for the 23s what Southgate elected to do for Bamford, offering hope to them all, without naming names or elevating individuals above Mark Jackson’s collective.

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“The evolution of the whole of the 23s team, we follow it closely,” said Bielsa.

“We analyse every performance of the Under-23s as if it were the first team.

“Because normally we train with 22 players and when we are missing any of those we substitute them with some of the Under 23s.

“I think around 50 per cent of the players in the 23s can apply for a place on our team.”

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His words will doubtless find their target and the question it should prompt among Jackson’s young players is not whether or not Bielsa had them in mind, but what they need to do to ensure they enter his mind when he thinks about the options beyond his senior group.

It is, obviously, a tougher task this season than it was last.

Gelhardt and the other young summer signings were the undercard for arrivals worthy of main-event status and top billing.

With £27m man Rodrigo not so much breaking but obliterating the club’s transfer record and taking little time to live up to the price tag, Bamford knocking off more than a third of last season’s goal tally already and Tyler Roberts continuing to enjoy the trust and backing of his head coach, Gelhardt and Greenwood have their work cut out.

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Similarly, impressive new 23s right-back, Cody Drameh, will learn, as Bryce Hosannah did before him, that the consistency of Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas makes patience a key virtue for any hopeful right-back.

But the reason Leeds were able to attract Drameh, Gelhardt and Greenwood was that Bielsa offers more than just hope, he offers a pathway. When academy product and England international Kalvin Phillips damaged his shoulder, Bielsa turned to Pascal Struijk, 21, and when he was at risk of a red card, Bielsa turned to Jamie Shackleton, 21.

Twenty-year-old Leif Davis overtaking two-time Championship title winner Barry Douglas in the left-back pecking order and Illan Meslier, 20, taking Kiko Casilla’s role is further proof that Bielsa is not paying lip service when he says there is a chance.