Marcelo Bielsa says Joe Gelhardt has captured Leeds United imagination 'in a big way' as opportunity Hammers for another youngster

Joe Gelhardt has captured the imagination of the Leeds United public but his ankle injury might now give Sam Greenwood the chance to do the same.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 8th January 2022, 4:40 am

The pair arrived at Elland Road 18 days apart, already well acquainted from their England youth international involvement, and quickly built on an existing friendship off the field, while impressing on it for the Under-23s.

Around this time last year Greenwood appeared to have the edge in the race to the senior set-up, playing as a second-half substitute in the FA Cup defeat at Crawley Town with Gelhardt left back in West Yorkshire.

As Leeds approach this season’s first participation in the knockout competition, Gelhardt will again be watching from home.

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Had it not been for the knock he picked up in training on Thursday, one Marcelo Bielsa says will keep him out for up to a month, the 19-year-old was a good bet for a starting role and almost certain to see action.

The 2021/22 campaign has brought his breakthrough and allowed him to ascend from a promising 23s prospect to a thrilling first-team impact player.

A goal against Chelsea, an assist against Burnley and the penalties he won against Wolves and Arsenal went a long way to carving out Gelhardt’s new niche in the hearts and minds of Whites supporters, but even when there hasn’t been end product in his performances there has been much to admire.

READ: The Elland Road roar, Bielsa's telltale sign and the numbers that say Joe Gelhardt is readyThe rise and rise of the teenager’s popularity has not escaped his head coach, who provoked a huge ovation when he called for Gelhardt in the second half against Burnley at Elland Road last weekend.

OPPORTUNITY HAMMERS - This weekend will be instructive as to where Sam Greenwood truly lies in the Leeds United pecking order, with Joe Gelhardt, Tyler Roberts and Rodrigo all out. Pic: Getty

The noise generated by the home support was, in the Argentine’s words “a very high recognition for what he produces for the team”.

Gelhardt has found his mark with the fans.

“For the expectations that the fans have of his game and his possibilities and his resources, evidently he is a player who has connected in a big way with the Leeds fans,” said Bielsa yesterday.

“That’s a characteristic not many players have, he generates hope and expectation. He increases the enthusiasm of fans and there are not many players who do that.”

It’s not just hope, or hype, though.

“He is a player who is able to resolve a lot of things in the play with his individual qualities,” said Bielsa.

“I can’t be precise but I can’t think of many 20-year-olds in the Premier League who come from the academy. When a player establishes himself at that age it is because he has shown he is very good.”

No-one would argue. Gelhardt is plainly a very good young player enjoying a very good moment. At least he was, until Thursday.

His ankle problem, the muscular issue that forced Tyler Roberts off against Burnley and the bilateral heel pain still being experienced by Rodrigo amount to an injury crisis in the forward department.

Patrick Bamford, at least, is expected to be available to play against the Hammers, but a 90 or even 120-minute performance is not only likely to be beyond him, it would be neglectful of Leeds to ask it.

As Bielsa said, Bamford is always important but ask any Whites supporter which West Ham game they’d prefer the striker to win and it would not be this weekend’s.

When your midweek training session goes by the name ‘murderball’ there isn’t really such a thing as wrapping players in cotton wool and the argument that Bamford would not be fit for the role he plays in games were it not for the strenuous and frenetic Thorp Arch activity is a sound one.

But if ever there was a time for taking extra special care of the goalscorer throughout the week and on matchdays, at least until he’s completely fit and healthy, it’s now.

If Bamford isn’t going to play the full game, Bielsa’s other options for the lone forward role include wingers Daniel James and Jack Harrison, players he’s used there before without much at all in the way of success, and Greenwood, an actual striker.

His seven goals and four assists in Premier League 2 games are good statistics but not enough to guarantee he could produce end product against the Hammers. He does know the role, though, despite being used predominantly as an attacking midfielder this season, and what would be required of him if the nod came his way, as he will desperately be hoping it does.

He has the energy and willingness to do the running and the pressing, if not quite to the same perfected standard as Bamford, and adds a genuine set-piece quality – his knack for rattling in free-kicks has caught the eye of fans over the past two seasons.

What he hasn’t had the chance to do is properly capture their imagination in the way Gelhardt has and there are evidently reasons for his position in the pecking order.

This weekend will be instructive in determining where he truly lies, right now.

Beyond Greenwood there is Max Dean, a player whose aggression levels on the pitch frequently suggest he’d be up for the fight no matter the size or quality of the opponent, but at 17 his time will not come so soon.

This was meant to be Gelhardt’s time and it’s lamentable for all concerned that injury has paused his scintillating rise. Coming as it has ahead of a Cup game in London, however, his unavailability is an opportunity and for Greenwood it’s not just knocking, it’s hammering.