Pair of Leeds United players walking taller after Marcelo Bielsa's performance analysis ahead of West Ham clash

Charlie Cresswell stood approximately 6ft 2ins before his head coach discussed him in the press conference to preview Leeds United versus West Ham United, but walked a little taller around Thorp Arch after.

By Graham Smyth
Friday, 24th September 2021, 4:45 am
WALKING TALL - Charlie Cresswell, centre with arms raised, and Stuart Dallas, right, came in for confidence-building analysis from Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa in his press conference. Pic: Bruce Rollinson
WALKING TALL - Charlie Cresswell, centre with arms raised, and Stuart Dallas, right, came in for confidence-building analysis from Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa in his press conference. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Still only 19, the centre-half took a ‘significant step forward’ in his development and Marcelo Bielsa’s estimation this week.

Cresswell rose to the occasion of his first senior competitive start in front of a crowd in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup clash with Fulham and while he did not give Bielsa conclusive evidence that he is Premier League ready, he did at least give the Argentine something to ponder.

Going into last Friday’s clash with Newcastle, Leeds had problems at the heart of the defence with Diego Llorente’s rotten injury luck rearing its ugly head once more, Robin Koch sitting out with a pelvic issue and Pascal Struijk serving the first game of a three-match suspension.

Bielsa’s response was to move Luke Ayling inside to reprise a central defensive role he filled so admirably last season, yet the problem became a conundrum when a knee injury forced the former Bristol City man off the pitch late on.

It was not to Under-23s captain Cresswell that the head coach turned, however, instead opting to put Kalvin Phillips in the heart of his defence and sending on Jamie Shackleton to play in midfield.

For Fulham, with four of his five senior centre-back options unavailable and Liam Cooper being rested, Bielsa did turn to Cresswell.

A solid-enough partnership with Phillips helped Leeds keep a clean sheet, despite a number of chances for Fulham, and Cresswell did his level best to catch the eye on and off the ball, despite the difficulties all of the Leeds backline encountered in possession.

West Ham, in the Premier League, provide a much different and far harder test – 20-year-old Cottagers striker Rodrigo Muniz has not yet acquired the nous of Hammers dangerman Michail Antonio.

Llorente, Koch and Struijk remain unavailable and Ayling’s participation was still up in the air as Bielsa sat down to speak to the press at lunchtime on Thursday.

Bielsa could play Cooper and Phillips together, with Shackleton and Stuart Dallas at either right-back or in defensive midfield. Or he could play Cresswell.

Sending the teenager out to face Antonio and the Hammers in front of 36,000 at Elland Road is not a prospect Bielsa rules out, or one he fears.

“I wouldn’t have any inconveniences,” he said.

“The performance from the other day is not a definitive performance.

“It has a lot of arguments to say that he took advantage of the opportunity he was given and he deserved it.

“He observed in the game against Newcastle that after taking Ayling off I pushed Shackleton in as a defensive-mid and I put Phillips in the backline, in place of Cresswell coming on for Ayling, which would have been more natural.

“That indicates my position with respect to Cresswell.

“After the game against Fulham, he has taken a significant step forward. I have to read that message,” said Bielsa.

Reading between the lines of Bielsa’s message, he turns to those he trusts most in times of need, the players he feels are the best possible option for the scenario presenting itself.

That’s why Ayling played centre-half last season.

It’s why Dallas has played in so many positions. Cresswell, this week, evidently gained a little more trust.

The current injury crisis has threatened to leave Bielsa with more gaps than his generals can fill, and as Bielsa himself says, at some point Leeds’ plan to supplement a small but ‘sufficient’ first team squad with talented youngsters has to pass the top flight acid test.

“We have a sufficient amount of players, and we’re prepared to adapt to the absences,” he said.

“I can’t say it doesn’t matter, that so many players were not available.

“Of course it’s an added difficulty when players in the same position are also injured.

“But I’ve been working here now for a long time and there comes a time when you have to show or demonstrate that the project can resolve these uncomfortable situations.

“What we cannot do is nurture a plan around the youngsters and then, when we have to turn to them, argue that they are only playing because first team players are missing.”

Whether or not Ayling makes the Hammers game, if Bielsa turns to Cresswell then no matter the result there will be no complaints about the resources at his disposal.

As ever, there will be no excuses.

This is the bed he and Leeds have made, he will happily lie in it.

So a Premier League start, if it comes, should mean the world to Cresswell – not just because it is a dream come true for any teenage footballer, but because Bielsa believes it is the right decision for Leeds United.

That in itself would be enough to have the centre-half striding out at Elland Road feeling seven foot tall.

He will not be the only Leeds player with his chin a little more raised, this week.

Last season’s undisputed Player of the Year Dallas would be the first to admit he is yet to match the sky-high standards he set as a Premier League rookie.

Bielsa admits it too, but not without adding what was much more than a vote of confidence in the Ulsterman.

“[His performances] have not been at the same level last year, I think you knew this when you asked me about it,” said Bielsa.

“There are reasons to understand why it’s not that way.

“Every game he plays, he plays a little bit better than the previous one.

“I have every confidence that next Saturday or the following Saturday, or in a short space of time, he’s going to come back to his high level. It’s not that I have confidence – I am sure of it.”

Bielsa does not do mind games and did not come to the press conference with the express intention of building up Cresswell and Dallas – he simply answered questions specific to those two players midway through the meeting with the media, yet his words will find their mark and the meaning will not be lost on their subjects.

Being picked to play for Leeds in the famous old stadium on Elland Road and doing the famous white shirt justice is a tall order, but knowing the boss has your back can only help you hit the heights.