Three midfielders enter the glare of Leeds United spotlight after Old Trafford horror show against Manchester United

Events at Old Trafford on Saturday put the spotlight squarely on Leeds United’s midfield options at Selhurst Park, where a trio produced bright performances.

By Graham Smyth
Tuesday, 17th August 2021, 4:45 am
NEW FACE - Lewis Bate was signed from Chelsea this summer and is highly regarded at Leeds United but not yet considered ready to start for the first team. Pic: Getty
NEW FACE - Lewis Bate was signed from Chelsea this summer and is highly regarded at Leeds United but not yet considered ready to start for the first team. Pic: Getty

Jack Jenkins, Adam Forshaw and Lewis Bate all played well against Crystal Palace Under- 23s in the Premier League 2 curtain-raiser, yet even if they had shone like never before it would not have been enough to lighten the mood entirely.

A 5-1 drubbing by Manchester United, due in large part to issues in the middle of the park, was always going to bring deep-lying concerns bubbling to the surface and 48 hours after the Premier League opener they were still boiling away.

Any loss to that particular opponent hurts, so one by such a scoreline has left a fanbase understandably raw and underlined worries that have existed since before the Whites even returned to the top flight.

Replacing Kalvin Phillips has become a long-standing sorepoint for Whites, many of whom fail to see eye-to-eye with head coach Marcelo Bielsa on the solution.

For him, the solution lies within. For a large number of supporters it lies without.

Pascal Struijk and Robin Koch have both been used in the central defensive midfield berth in the absence of Phillips and the latter was entrusted with the role against Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba at the weekend.

It did not go well, despite Bielsa’s assertion that he was content with Koch’s performance. Fernandes consistently gave the German international the slip, aided by Pogba’s roaming into space from the left. At times Koch looked unsure of who to try and stop yet even when he was fully focused on the Portuguese he could not get close.

Fernandes helped himself to a hat-trick, Pogba claimed four assists, Leeds were demolished and the inquest was in full swing.

The fact that Phillips, kept on the bench for the duration by Bielsa, is nearing a return to action is not nearly as reassuring as you might think, because the Euro 2020 finalist might miss more games this season, for whatever reason, and the problem of coping without him could rear its ugly head again.

‘Sign a midfielder,’ is a cry that looks set to ring out again in 2022, unless Leeds’ prevailing interest in Huddersfield Town’s Lewis O’Brien sends them back to the table with an increased bid. Even that particular signing would not bring total peace of mind, given his inexperience.

Bielsa made his feelings clear last week, however. He’s content with the squad and there’s a very real chance this transfer window closes without significant movement, just as CEO Angus Kinnear predicted early last week.

So if Phillips does break down, the only possible solution will be one already in place at Thorp Arch and in all likelihood will take the form of Koch, again. Bielsa is not a man to throw the baby out with the bathwater and it must be noted that Leeds won’t face a midfield quite as expensive, expansive and explosive as the one in residence at Old Trafford.

Beyond Koch there are other options though and they were all involved in the 23s’ 3-1 win at Crystal Palace on Monday night.

Bate, signed from Chelsea this summer, is very highly regarded and yet still not quite thought of as first-team ready.

Jenkins, a homegrown midfielder, is doing very well for the 23s but at 19 has come only as far as the substitutes bench when it comes to senior league action.

Forshaw is a man with Premier League experience – 35 games to be precise – and a man without first team minutes for almost 23 months.

Leeds are taking no gambles with Forshaw and his fitness, he was withdrawn on the hour mark at Palace, but they are cautiously optimistic.

The signs at Selhurst were good, for all three of the men in the middle, with Jenkins sitting deep, Forshaw going box to box and Bate playing further forward.

Jenkins was a steady presence, there to break up attacks in what was largely a functional, tidy performance. He did showcase a nice eye for a pass with a floated ball into the path of Amari Miller, allowing the winger to set up Sean McGurk for the third goal, and looked composed throughout.

Bate was everywhere, bringing energy and aggression, snapping at ankles, sometimes too keen to win the ball and sometimes spot on with his judgement.

He dropped deep to try and get Leeds playing on the front foot and he popped up in the final third to cause bother. He’s a work in progress but his potential is genuinely exciting Leeds.

There was a little rust on an early attempted one-two between Forshaw and Cody Drameh, but the veteran in the side soon shook it off and played some nice football. He too injected energy with no hint of mobility problems against a team of young Palace hopefuls and plenty of pace.

The 20th-minute red card for a Palace defender changed the challenge and it was Forshaw who helped Leeds remain composed and patient, probing for the right time and place to penetrate the packed Palace defence but ensuring the ball was moved quickly to move the hosts around. His appearance for the second half, albeit only for 15 more minutes, was encouraging as another recovery box was ticked, although Leeds took their time to recalibrate and regain control following his withdrawal.

Both Bate and Jenkins continued to play well to the end of what was a professional job and a highly satisfactory night.

It is too early to say if any of Monday’s midfield will play a part this season but Monday’s game raised no red flags. The truth is, however, that nothing they could have produced in a PL2 clash would have completely quelled the doubts at play outside the club. Bielsa’s contentment is not half as infectious as his passion or his football.

What has to be understood however is that Leeds have won big by betting on Bielsa. The risk of not beefing up the midfield options was brought into sharp focus on Saturday, but one bad defeat should not and will not dissuade the decision makers from seeing Bielsa as a safe bet. His track record since 2018 is nothing short of stellar. Decisions deemed strange by outsiders have been justified and his methods have been proven.

If he is happy with his midfielders, who can argue?