'We might have to suffer' - Marcelo Bielsa's bigger picture remains focus amid Leeds United academy's defensive issues
Leeds United academy’s commitment to Bielsa-ball may be causing defensive problems this season but it is the bigger picture that remains the focus.
The Whites’ Under-23s side has played 15 games across all competitions so far but has managed to keep a clean sheet in only one of those outings.
United have deployed what is essentially an Under-18s outfit in their two Premier League Cup fixtures while three EFL Trophy games have pitted Mark Jackson’s side against Football League opposition.
Leeds, in Premier League 2 though, are finding life at the back much more difficult following last summer’s promotion to the top tier of academy football.
Throughout the 2020/21 campaign, Jackson saw his side concede 29 goals in 24 league games in total but this year they have already shipped 23 goals in the opening 10 games of the campaign.
Leeds are now facing up against some of the best young talent the country and Europe has to offer in the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Liverpool week in and week out after winning the second division at a canter.
Injuries at first-team level have impacted proceedings with Charlie Cresswell and Cody Drameh – two out of last season’s consistent back-four – seeing reduced playing time, which has allowed for younger bodies to step in from below while Oliver Casey has left for Blackpool along with Leif Davis’ exit to Bournemouth.
Pascal Struijk has also earned a permanent home among Marcelo Bielsa' s first team squad.
Pre-planned substitutions – often done to ensure players who need competitive minutes get them – can often hinder rather than help amid constant in-game reshuffling of those who are learning their trade in new positions such is the Thorp Arch way.
Bielsa’s style has to be understood among the youngsters while the higher quality of opposition and an unsettled defensive unit is proving a more difficult combination to overcome.
Set-plays have proved a real nuisance for Leeds while the Whites have been carved open too often amid their commitment to attack – having conceded three or more goals in four out of their 10 PL2 games.
It is, though, the style which has brought huge success at both senior and academy levels in recent years and isn’t one the club will shy away from anytime soon, even if there are some adjustment issues.
“We always try to replicate what the first team does,” Jackson said of his side’s newfound defensive issues.
“It’s a simple fact – we need to prepare the lads to make the step up. If we want to defend in a different way, which might suit the personnel at this stage of their development, it will probably hinder them a little bit.
“They have to be ready to do the same as the first team, so we might have to suffer a little bit along the journey.
“Ultimately, that suffering will be worth it if the players are exposed.
“It might expose some weaknesses or some frailties in them and, hopefully, it galvanises them as individuals and maybe as a team to get better.
“For a little bit of short-term pain you’re going to get long-term gain, in my view. It’s important we stick to it and we get better – I’m sure we will.”
United’s development squad has failed to win a game since the EFL Trophy victory at Oldham Athletic on September 28.
Jackson’s side bowed out of the tournament in midweek at Salford City and now face a swift return to action against arch rivals Manchester United on Saturday lunchtime at Leigh Sports Village.
Leeds travel across the Pennines looking to pick up their first three points in five league matches against the Red Devils who sit two places and two points above the visitors in the table in sixth position.
“We also have to remember that winning is important – losing has to hurt,” Jackson added.
“We’re not in a good moment in regards to results. Winning, at times, needs to be everything in certain games. They have to learn quicker.
“If they want to knock on the door above and they want to progress then they have to start learning. The higher you go, the more you get punished.”