A gamble for Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United as January transfer deadline approaches

If the clock strikes 11pm on Monday night and Leeds United have not added to their squad, they’re taking a gamble.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 27th January 2022, 7:56 am

The gamble is not on Marcelo Bielsa being good enough - the Whites have bet big on the Argentine and his methods and been rewarded handsomely in the past with promotion success, at the second attempt, and a top-10 Premier League finish. Armed with a fully fit, or even mostly fit squad, Bielsa’s ability to keep the club in the top flight this season would not be in question - the performance and victory at West Ham United was a reminder of exactly what he can do even in the face of stiff adversity.

The gamble is not even on the squad as it stands being good enough. There are areas where strengthening needs to take place if Leeds are to march on towards the brave European ambition laid out by Andrea Radrizzani and, latterly, the 49ers but, if Bielsa has all his key players fit, then the Whites should have enough to accrue sufficient points to stay up.

Therein lies Leeds’ gamble, that the squad stays fit and healthy enough to get the results they need to stay clear of the drop zone. Even if there was an unexpected, positive breakthrough in the pursuit of Brenden Aaronson, it would not alleviate all the concerns over the state of a small squad decimated by injuries this season.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

Hamstring injuries have been on the rise not just at Leeds but across the Premier League as the demands on players, something Bielsa has expressed his concerns over, only ever seem to increase.

Kalvin Phillips is a good example, having gone into the Premier League for the first time on the back of a tiny pre-season break, before rushing headlong into the Euros and covering incredible distances for almost all of England’s march to the final.

Before the midfielder had time to even begin to process what the last year of his life had brought, he was back doing murderball and getting ready for a new season. Maybe we should not be surprised that he ended up on the operating table having his hamstring fixed.

Phillips will be back soon enough, we’re told, and it never takes him that long to get into the swing of things again. If he doesn’t, Bielsa at least has Adam Forshaw, Robin Koch and Pascal Struijk as cover. Yet two of those men have had recent seasons disrupted in the extreme by injuries and surgeries and the other is just back from a rare foot problem.

TRUSTED FIGURE - Marcelo Bielsa has earned the trust of Leeds United and the club's fanbase at Elland Road. Pic: Getty

At the top end of the pitch, Patrick Bamford’s absence has been costly to varying degrees since September and was perhaps never more painful than on Saturday against Newcastle.

Bielsa has Joe Gelhardt, Rodrigo, Tyler Roberts and Sam Greenwood, of course, but all four have missed games through injury very recently, as has Daniel James who plays as a striker on occasion.

In defence Liam Cooper, Charlie Cresswell and Junior Firpo remain out, along with Jamie Shackleton while Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas have played through the pain barrier this season.

In a squad as small as the one Bielsa operates, to suffer the loss for significant chunks of time of Ayling, Cooper, Phillips and Bamford presents huge difficulties so, for the supporting cast to be so afflicted, is troubling.

To expect that no one else will fall victim or that all the returning players will remain fit now until the end of the season isn’t just optimistic, it’s a gamble.

Of the players you would consider absolutely key to Bielsa’s plans, only Raphinha, Meslier and Dallas have been ever-present or close to it. At least, if Raphinha was out, the wing positions are well covered, but the loss of Dallas would be keenly felt given all the positions for which he provides a reliable option.

It’s the thought of Meslier being stricken that should strike the most fear into Leeds hearts, though. When you carry just two keepers in your senior squad and one of them has no English top-flight experience to speak of, you always run a big risk. In Meslier’s case, when he was back-up to Kiko Casilla, there was nothing to worry about and maybe that will be the same for Kristoffer Klaesson but, on the evidence of his Under-23s’ performances, his introduction would be a roll of the dice.

Giving the head coach players he does not want is painly not an option because they would not be used and that’s a situation Leeds could not afford, not so much financially but for the sake of harmony at a crucial stage of what are still tentative steps into Premier League life.

Bielsa’s small squad preference, his methods and the ‘exacting standards’ he holds, as Angus Kinnear put it, are what brought Leeds to the big time and kept them there last season. He is the one they absolutely cannot afford to lose and what he wants, or doesn’t want, will always determine Leeds’ transfer window activity.

He evidently has trust in the players he knows and the solutions he can find from within if further problems arise.

But when his team is seven points from the drop zone, teams below are attempting to strengthen and injuries have been the only consistent thing about the season, can he afford to gamble?