Reasons why Marcelo Bielsa won't rush Patrick Bamford and Luke Ayling back into Leeds United team as he firmly makes a point
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Tomorrow, Brentford come to Elland Road and there’s no doubt that it’s an important game, just as there’s no question over the importance of both players. Beating the Bees would represent a huge return over an eight-day period for Leeds, a seven-point haul from nine available ahead of four consecutive games against elite opposition.
Bamford and Ayling have been key to Bielsa’s success at Elland Road, the former scoring vital goals and, just like the latter, playing a vital role in the way the side builds their attacks. They are both leaders by example and Ayling adds a layer of influence through personality and vocal output.
His ability to drive forward with the ball from right-back took him all the way to the fringe of the England conversation last season.
That combination of factors naturally leads to an assumption that, having ticked off an Under 23s appearance on Monday night and been declared ‘likely available’ by their head coach, they should probably just go back into the team this weekend.
Yet even though Bielsa feels an urgency for wins and points to improve upon the start to the season, he has much to consider before giving Bamford and Ayling a nod that he was not yet ready to give yesterday morning.
“To be available and healthy is the first step for a player who has been without competition for two months,” he said.
“Nobody, just through their presence, guarantees their performance and the requiring of a football fitness level or the sporting level, which is the step prior to being healthy and training. A player can be healthy and they can be fit but the adaptation to the competition is something different.
“Sometimes that process is accelerated or it takes longer considering the particularities of each player and also sometimes the needs of the team. But sometimes the sporting reality of a team means that a player comes back to compete quicker. Managing all of that depends on a lot of factors and I cannot offer you a precise conclusion.”
Bielsa has often insisted that selecting a player who is unable to show exactly what he can do is not only to the player’s detriment, but the team’s and he cares too deeply about the individuals in his charge and the collective they make up to take undue risks.
And it has felt, ever since Bamford and Ayling were added to the injury list in mid-September, that Bielsa has been politely but firmly trying to make another point – that the absence of any one player should not mean a coach’s resolve or his plan fall apart.
Had he made an excuse of being without either man, it would have sent a message to his other options for those positions that he did not have full faith in them or the system they are a part of.
Anything that would undermine ‘Plan A’ or hint at flimsiness in that which he has built at Thorp Arch is clearly given a wide berth by the Argentine. The project at Leeds, the system of bringing players through who can play a set style and the style itself are serious business and seeking solutions by inconsistent means, quick fixes, hastily thought-up changes or even blaming the absence of individuals for results, would weaken the argument that it’s a project worth buying into.
“The way in which a team chooses to compete is a decision that has to be reflected on a lot because to construct it takes a long time,” said Bielsa when asked about the importance of being consistent on principles and values.
“Not maintaining your philosophy of play and abandoning the main themes that sustain it, that is very easy. But what is difficult is to construct a new philosophy to substitute it, not that it resolves the next game but that it works as a base that lasts because the urgency that we have to obtain results, it generates this option of the plan B and from my point of view, that has caused a lot of damage to football in general.”
When it comes to injuries and having to put another where Bamford or Ayling once operated so well, the players coming into the team cannot consider themselves Plan B but an extension of Plan A, even if they’re not yet as good as those they replace.
And while what they manage to do with their opportunity will ultimately decide their place in the pecking order when everyone is fit, something else Bielsa said about sticking to principles on playing styles speaks to why he remains so patient and unwilling to cast aside options facing external criticism for perceived failings. What Leeds have deserved during the absence of
Bamford and Ayling is something he considers when judging how their replacements have done, not just results.
“What you can’t do is change it on a weekly basis because to consolidate takes a long time and what is really significant is what you obtain or what you deserve because if what is deserved is not obtained the path is the correct one and if what is obtained is not deserved the path is not the right one and in both cases time verifies those two things,” he said.
“From my point of view what should be judged is the relationship between what you deserve and what you obtain, which is what is truly decisive.”
Bamford and Ayling will play again soon for Leeds and they might even play tomorrow but only if they represent the best iteration of Plan A in Bielsa’s mind. They’re available now but that’s when they’ll be ready.