What new club mantra and Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United selection criteria means for Pablo Hernandez and young guns
There was no shred of hypocrisy when Leeds United preached meritocracy at the ‘big six’ last month.
‘Earn it on the pitch’ was the slogan that adorned the players’ warm-up t-shirts when Liverpool visited Elland Road, a slogan that quickly spread far and wide thanks to other clubs picking up the baton.
When kit man Chris Beasley took a box of t-shirts and offered them to his bemused Liverpool counterpart, the Leeds United tongue was lodged firmly in cheek.
The motives were pure enough, though. Leeds were simply pushing a message that James Milner later voiced in his post-game interview and for all Jurgen Klopp’s t-shirt angst, the words printed on the front and back chimed with views he himself has expressed.
And Leeds would not have been able to cast that stone had it not been for the stance they took during that insufferable period of 2020 when the country and our game were both locked down and when each new day brought a fresh round of self-interest fuelled proclamations about what should become of the season and the league tables.
When the pandemic put a halt to the Championship season, Leeds were sitting top, albeit only by a single point from West Brom, but crucially with a seven-point lead over Fulham.
A 2-0 win over Huddersfield had made it five wins in a row, all achieved without conceding a single goal.
Having been the best team in the division for the vast majority of the campaign, they were in their finest form and steaming towards promotion so, if anyone had motive to get behind the argument for deciding things by maths and not by football, it was the Whites. Yet the Leeds mantra, made public by CEO Angus Kinnear and repeated time and time again by Elland Road sources in private, never changed, even when others elsewhere put their head above the parapet to say things like ‘points per game’.
The Leeds response was always the same. ‘Earn it on the pitch’.
Marcelo Bielsa would not have it any other way, because it underpins everything at Thorp Arch. That’s why, if Pablo Hernandez or Gaetano Berardi get on the pitch in any of the three final remaining Premier League games of the season, it will be purely on merit.
Bielsa has explained his selection criteria on a number of occasions and it’s only by merit that a player can earn a starting role.
The head coach picks the best men for the specific job, the players not only best equipped to tackle the opponent facing Leeds but in the best condition to show the best of themselves. He said a week ago: “I always consider what is best for the team and what is best for each player that participates because there is nothing more important than to look at the participation of each player.
“Every time you take a decision you don’t only think about the good of the team, you consider each individual.
“Being a starter doesn’t just generate a hierarchy within the players available, so it doesn’t favour any player to be in a starting position if they are not in conditions to respond at their best level.”
Picking a player like Hernandez, whose name conjures up magical memories of the deftest skill and crucial goals, for any reason other than merit would demean and patronise a Leeds great.
If he wasn’t best placed in the squad to produce what Leeds need and reproduce the heights he has previously scaled, it would benefit no-one.
So, regardless of where the future of Hernandez, Berardi or any others lie, don’t expect sentimentality to play a part in the team selection for these final games.
Whoever runs out to face Burnley, Southampton and West Brom will have earned it, on the pitch.
This way, everyone in the squad knows – or should know – exactly where they stand.
For young prospects like Sam Greenwood and Joe Gelhardt, they’re not only aware that they need to become a better option than Patrick Bamford, Tyler Roberts, Rodrigo or Hernandez but that, when the time comes for their big moment, it has not simply been handed to them.
When Lee Westwood became the world’s No 1-ranked golfer, he revealed that his dad always refused to let him win in their games of snooker so that when he finally did, as a young teenager, victory meant something and he had learned to deal with defeat along the way.
Nothing good comes easy, even if nutmegging a defender and finding the top corner comes naturally.
All of this also explains why Gjanni Alioski, a man appearing more and more likely to head for the exit come the summer, has remained in Bielsa’s plans in the final stages of the season.
He might not be the future but he’s the best man for the present.
Each time a Leeds team is announced, an hour before kick-off, its make-up is a source of fierce debate, surprise, approval and even fury.
When is he going to give X a chance? Where is Y? I can’t believe Z has kept his place.
What cannot be argued is that the 11 names have not earned it, in Bielsa’s eyes, on the pitch.