Selection decisions suggest Marcelo Bielsa has developed an appetite for Leeds United possibility

Carabao has never tasted so good for Leeds United.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 26th August 2021, 4:45 am
NEW APPROACH? Marcelo Bielsa fielded his strongest ever team in the Carabao Cup as Leeds United beat Crewe Alexandra. Pic: Bruce Rollinson
NEW APPROACH? Marcelo Bielsa fielded his strongest ever team in the Carabao Cup as Leeds United beat Crewe Alexandra. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

One suspects Marcelo Bielsa has never supped from a can of the Thai energy drink but he might well have acquired a thirst for what Elland Road served up on Tuesday night.

It was not so much Leeds' win over Crewe, one that saw them reaching the third round of the Carabao Cup, at the fourth time of asking, that put the possibility of a cup run high up on the agenda, but Bielsa's approach to it.

When questioned, the head coach came up with sound arguments for the selection of each of his players - Kalvin Phillips and Junior Firpo needed minutes, Jamie Shackleton deserved minutes, Diego Llorente and Adam Forshaw were returning from injury and Jack Harrison hits real form when he plays matches in quick succession.

But even as he reeled off the justifications, no matter how plausible they were, there was no escaping the feeling that this game and this team selection represented a marked departure from his previous League Cup selection policy.

Last season he played his second choice goalkeeper and six youngsters against Hull City. For the 2019 first round win over Salford City there was plenty of experience in the side but Under 23s were present in the starting line-up and on the bench. Five of the kids started at home to Stoke City in the second round.

And in his first season he made eight changes for the win over Bolton and nine for the defeat by Preston North End.

There might only have been five players from Saturday's Premier League clash with Everton in the line-up to take on Crewe, but with Diego Llorente, Rodrigo and Adam Forshaw among those coming into the side it had a distinctly senior, experienced feel to it.

With certain players due to make planned exits to manage their workloads and the game in need of something fresh, it was not the Under 23s on the bench to whom Bielsa turned.

Llorente was replaced not by Charlie Cresswell but Luke Ayling. Forshaw gave way to Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo to Patrick Bamford.

The team that finished the game was far stronger than anyone would have predicted, even after Monday's Under 23 team news landed and the players you might have expected to get some Carabao Cup minutes were starting.

David Artell happily admitted that was the moment when it dawned on him that Tuesday night was going to be tough, but even he had no idea just how difficult it would get, Bamford and Jack Harrison showing Premier League quality to take a potential upset off the table entirely.

The atmosphere, generated by a sell out crowd, was just as top flight as the football that graced the ground in the last 20 minutes, turning what could have been a damp squib of an occasion into a firework display.

As the smoke and the surprise of Bielsa's selection cleared, possibility hung in the air. What if Bielsa is going to go for it?

If that is indeed his attitude this season and he is to give the cup competition the full Leeds United treatment, it would be fascinating to learn why. Why now? Why this season, when it could be argued his pool of players is smaller than it was last season and injuries could prove a bigger obstacle than ever?

Perhaps the suggestion, made a number of times during his Elland Road tenure, that he has not afforded the cup competitions the exact same respect he gives league games or the reaction to last season's FA Cup humiliation at Crawley, has stung him into this action.

Maybe the mood simply took him and armed with enough cause to put out a very good team, he went with it.

If he continues to go with it, expect few to give a fig about the why and many to get swept along.

Leeds fans have shown, in number and in noise, how seriously they are going to take the competition. Tuesday night felt special and it felt urgent. Bielsa must have felt that.

What's more, a kind draw or two - it was hardly ideal but there were possible outcomes worse than Fulham away in round three - and Leeds could very quickly find themselves in contention to repeat history and once again hoist what was their first major trophy. If it was good enough for Don Revie and his team of greats it is not to be sniffed at.

This is a club, a fanbase, a team and a style of football capable of adding mightily to the spectacle of any cup final.

Winning the Championship was a glorious moment but the thought of tens of thousands of Whites at Wembley is quite something.

Kalvin Phillips in that stadium, wearing his other white shirt, is too.

Liam Cooper passing another trophy for Bielsa to hold above his head, this time to the genuine soundtrack of real, present fans, would be a moment to drink in.