Marcelo Bielsa's thinning Leeds United squad endures at Fulham just as faith starts to wobble - Graham Smyth's Verdict
Much water has passed under the bridge since the last time there was a loss of faith around Leeds United.
Worries over form and the prospect of automatic promotion slipping out of the Whites’ hands for a second time came to a head at Nottingham Forest in February 2020.
The rough patch began in December with a capitulation at home to Cardiff, having led 3-0, followed by defeat at Fulham. By the time Forest beat them at the City Ground, chins and morale were on the floor.
Marcelo Bielsa endured, though, and, after a pandemic-enforced three-month break, Leeds won the title at a canter.
Others, who in that December to February period were licking their lips at Leeds’ apparent downturn in form, have not endured. Sabri Lamouchi lost his job at Forest in October 2020 and replacement Chris Hughton has since been sacked, with the Tricky Trees rooted to the bottom of the Championship.
Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup hosts Fulham have also had a change of manager since Scott Parker watched his men beat Leeds 2-1 in December 2019, before his now infamous ‘scripted movements’ utterance about Bielsa’s attacking football.
Both men enjoyed a promotion to the top flight at the end of that season, but while Leeds were securing a top-half finish, Fulham were returning to the Championship and Parker left by mutual consent soon after.
Marco Silva is the new man in charge at a Craven Cottage that has sprung a shiny, imposing but unfinished new stand on the banks of the Thames.
Under his care the Cottagers have made themselves right at home in the second tier again, storming to 16 points from their first eight games. And for a cup game against winless-in-the-league Leeds, Silva showed exactly where his priorities lie, making 11 changes to his starting XI.
Bielsa, for the second round in succession, went with as strong a team as he could muster in light of an injury crisis that has begun to make life more than a little awkward at Elland Road. While the lack of victories in the first five Premier League games of the season is hardly ideal, it’s the ever-reducing size of the squad available to Bielsa causing faith to wobble this time.
Regulars Raphinha, Patrick Bamford and Luke Ayling stayed at home having picked up knocks at Newcastle United, joining Pascal Struijk, Diego Llorente and Robin Koch in the ranks of the unavailable, while captain Liam Cooper travelled, but only as moral support.
Bielsa could still call upon senior stars Illan Meslier, Kalvin Phillips, Stuart Dallas, Junior Firpo, Mateusz Klich, £27m Rodrigo and £25m Daniel James, but there was a distinctly makeshift look about the backline.
A glance at the bench, where Adam Forshaw was the lone figure of any experience, showed just how thin an already small squad has been stretched.
The beauty of Bielsa’s methods however, is that players can swap positions without feeling entirely unfamiliar, because the style of football does not change, and the Under 23s should, in theory, be able to slot in alongside seniors they train with day in and day out.
Even so, Leeds struggled to find rhythm in the opening minutes, giving the ball away in their own half as players either failed to read the intentions of the team-mate on the ball or the passer failed to find his intended target.
The entirely-changed Fulham side showed no signs of unfamiliarity, though, creating a trio of early chances chiefly through the work and presence of Rodrigo Muniz, who drew a good stop from Meslier.
Leeds’ best moment of the opening 10 minutes was not so much of their own creation but a Fulham error, Crysencio Summerville racing onto a loose pass and teeing up Tyler Roberts, albeit a little wider than he would have liked, Marek Rodak saving the ensuing shot with his legs. The rebound dropped to Rodrigo but with the goal gaping he fluffed his lines.
The Whites, playing in blue, settled after that. Charlie Cresswell, partnering Phillips at centre-half, found his feet and forced play high up the pitch with a pair of diagonal balls out to the left. Defensively he was reading the game well and winning his headers.
A goalless first half featured some good stuff and some not so good. Firpo’s struggles were not restricted to defending, the left-back guilty of poor passes that subsequently put his side under pressure. When Fulham did get the ball back and Firpo was caught up-field, they sought to profit on that side.
But all the best chances were coming at the other end. Rodrigo played a lovely one-two with Klich only to make a mess of the final act, then Dallas clipped a ball into the area for
Before the whistle went for the interval the two sides traded efforts from direct free-kicks, Rodrigo and Neeskens Kebano forcing both goalkeepers into fine stops.
Rodrigo was swiftly into the action in the second half, too, racing onto James’ through ball and shaping to shoot until Michael Hector appeared from nowhere to slide in and deny the Spaniard.
Bielsa waited just 10 minutes after the interval before making a change, swapping the ineffective Roberts with Forshaw, allowing Klich to move forward, Dallas to move into midfield and Shacklelton to go to right-back.
His second intervention came with a little over 20 minutes left, Leeds having huffed and puffed and not managed to do a great deal. Joe Gelhardt came on for his debut, with Klich going off and Rodrigo dropping back into the 10 role.
Leeds continued to enjoy plenty of possession without creating, while Fulham pressed for a short spell, Meslier having to tip Josh Onomah’s rising effort over the top in the only chance of that period.
Penalties were inevitable and no matter the importance of the Carabao Cup, the tension was nigh on unbearable.
Rodrigo, James and Phillips all scored, Dallas saw his saved, Forshaw skied his and Firpo smashed in to make it 4-3 to Leeds.
When Alfie Mawson levelled it was left to Gelhardt and the teen made no mistake, hammering his effort high into the net. Bobby De Cordova-Reid kept Fulham in it, but after McKinstry’s cool finish made it 6-5 the stage was set for Meslier to become a hero and he did, saving from Muniz to send Leeds into the next round.
The small squad, supplemented with kids, endured. Cresswell, in particular, slotted right in and although Cooper will come back in for West Ham, the 19-year-old gave his head coach something to think about ahead of the weekend.
As for the fans, who packed the Putney End of Craven Cottage and sang all night, it's difficult for them to place their faith in the unseen. They’re yet to catch sight of Firpo’s best or consistent quality from Rodrigo and quite how Bielsa will manage this new injury crisis remains to be seen – but they know they have a manager whose methods have passed the test of time and adversity at Elland Road. In the Championship he answered all the questions. Last season in the Premier League he solved a defensive puzzle to shut down top teams and even beat a few of them. Leeds fans can put their faith in what they have seen. They know Bielsa can endure again.