Every one of Leeds United’s summer recruits made mention of the pull of playing for Marcelo Bielsa but Jack Harrison’s was the only transfer in which the South American actively pulled the strings.
Bielsa’s reputation sold itself – “if you know your football you know he’s a massive manager,” said Lewis Baker after signing from Chelsea – but in the case of Harrison the deal required him to convince Manchester City of the value of sending the winger to Leeds for a year on loan. He had a captive audience in Pep Guardiola, a man who used Bielsa as a sounding board before embarking on his own coaching career, but Harrison was prominent enough at City to have made their pre-season tour of the USA.
There was no promise or guarantee about how much Harrison would play; only the assurance that he would have chances to develop and make an impression as he did with an 89th-minute equaliser against Millwall on Saturday. The goal was his first at senior level in England and, in no small way, a starting point for him at Leeds.
Bielsa had started him before, in League Cup ties and a 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough last month, but the 21-year-old has taken time to show the flair which motivated Guardiola to sign him from New York City, a team controlled by Manchester City’s owners. On Saturday, until the penultimate minute, Millwall kept him quiet and on the fringes. By the time of his goal he was playing as a centre-forward, as Bielsa wrestled with a shortage of strikers.
Bielsa has a reputation for unconventional positioning: wingers up front or midfielders like Kalvin Phillips redefined as centre-backs. Harrison finishing Saturday’s game as a number nine was part of the education Guardiola told him to enjoy.
“Before I came here he (Guardiola) spoke very highly of Marcelo,” Harrison said. “He said the opportunity I had was something special. He told me that himself.
The way he sees it is very special and the players have a lot of respect for him, his philosophy and his ideas.Jack Harrison
“It’s very different to anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve only been at three other clubs but I’m learning a lot. He (Bielsa) is very intelligent. He knows a lot about the game and I’m trying to make the most of that. In every position the whole game is so detailed with him.
“The way he sees it is very special and the players have a lot of respect for him, his philosophy and his ideas. It can be beneficial for us.”
Harrison’s cameo up front in London was a case of Bielsa finding a solution to an injury crisis. United’s head coach had strikers on the bench but two 17-year-olds in Jack Clarke and Ryan Edmondson.
Kemar Roofe was absent with a calf strain and Patrick Bamford is out until the new year with a knee injury. When Tyler Roberts left the field in the 68th minute, Bielsa chose to find a solution from the players already on the pitch.
“We’ve been a bit unfortunate with a few injuries so I tried out the number nine spot in the last few minutes,” Harrison said. “It worked out for us, fortunately. I like to be versatile so I can play anywhere or wherever the manager needs.
“It was quite surprising and it was tough playing against Millwall with big, tall, physical centre-backs but I tried to use certain things to my advantage and get past that. It might be a possibility (to play there more often) going forward. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Harrison’s initial appearance on the right wing, his preferred position, also stemmed from the fitness issues which are biting at Bielsa’s squad.
He stepped in for the influential Pablo Hernandez against Middlesbrough last month after Hernandez tweaked a hamstring and will continue to play there while the Spaniard spends the next four weeks recovering.
Replacing Hernandez – described by Bielsa as “a complete player from my point of view” – was no easy task.
“He’s obviously a very experienced player,” Harrison said. “He brings a lot to the team when he’s playing and you can see all the stuff he creates. I’m trying to live up to those expectations and learn from him, not only for me but for the team as well.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity but, at the same time, I wish him the best and I wish he can come back soon to help the team out with hopefully getting promoted.”
In pursuit of promotion, Leeds have made the start they wanted: unbeaten after seven matches and a point clear at the top of the Championship.
Avoiding defeat at Millwall, a ground where United are accustomed to earning nothing, felt like a psychological barrier cleared and Bielsa’s players host Preston North End this evening, a team who eliminated them from the Carabao Cup but are one place above the foot of the Championship.
Harrison’s motivation at Leeds is two-fold: to add promotion to his CV and to elevate himself in Guardiola’s thinking at the Etihad Stadium.
“It’s a dream to play for Man City but it’s important not to get ahead of myself,” he said.
“Right now it’s important just to stay in this moment. I’m going to do everything I can to get promoted and then we’ll see from there.
“It was a bit challenging here at first but once you settle down and start getting used to things in and out of training you really start to learn and develop.
“I’m learning a lot about the game and the way Marcelo sees it. I’m at a good point.”