Elland Road roar, Marcelo Bielsa's telltale sign and numbers that say Leeds United teen Joe Gelhardt's time is now

The roar that went up around Elland Road in the 57th minute with play dead suggests Marcelo Bielsa will soon be straining to keep the Leeds United fanbase on the leash when it comes to Joe Gelhardt.

By Graham Smyth
Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 4:40 am

Expectations on the teenage forward are sky high because he is making things happen in the Premier League at a rate that points directly to a career ceiling that is also sky high. Simply put, Gelhardt is soaring.

The reason for the roar was that, with Tyler Roberts hobbling towards the touchline, his race run, Gelhardt was sprinting from the corner flag at the opposite end of the pitch having been summoned to the technical area by fitness coach Benoit Delaval.

Ordinarily the sight of reinforcements being prepared raises hearty applause and encouragement from the West Stand but this was different, louder, stadium-wide and raw. It was the expectation that something good was about to happen.

His actual entry to the playing surface and the sounding of his name over the public address system by stadium announcer Leigh Nicholson only increased the din.

“Joffy must have felt 6ft 5ins when he took his bib off ready to come on,” Nicholson Tweeted later.

“That noise...absolutely insane.”

Gelhardt had already shown, in six Premier League appearances, that he’s going to be a player who makes things happen and excites fans, and against Burnley he simply underlined the point.

BIG MOMENT - Joe Gelhardt has arrived with a bang in the Premier League for Leeds United. Pic: Getty

His first action was to chase what appeared to be a lost cause and hook it back dangerously from the byline to keep Burnley under the cosh.

He could see an Elland Road repeat of his Stamford Bridge goal when Daniel James flashed a dangerous cross in, but Wayne Hennessey read it and grabbed it. What was noticeable was that he had lost Ben Mee completely and had the goalkeeper not been so alert, Gelhardt was in exactly the right place.

The Wigan Athletic academy product was more than a handful for the experienced pair of centre-half giants tasked with controlling him, rushing Mee into a clearance and bumping James Tarkowski out of an aerial challenge to set Leeds on an attack that won a corner. He later flattened the defender with a shoulder in the back that some referees might have let go, and knocked Mee down too, distributing his physicality equally between minders who knew full well they were in a game. The latter was a good foul, if there is such a thing, because it stopped Burnley playing out.

Another bump with Tarkowski allowed him to get on the ball for a shooting chance that the Burnley man recovered to block. Teenage players are not expected to have the dark arts and tricks of the trade in their locker, so those nudges to unbalance a twice-capped 29-year-old England international were good to see.

Mee was nowhere near the striker when James fizzed another great ball through the Burnley area and Jack Cork was completely wrong-footed by Gelhardt’s footwork on a dart into the box a little later. Through his movement and his ability on the ball, he’s a difficult young man to contain.

That was never more evident than when he peeled off to the right to take a Matuesz Klich pass, looked up and swept the perfect cross onto the head of James for the third goal. As he showed earlier in the season with two goals from miles out against Liverpool Under 23s, Gelhardt’s left foot holds danger anywhere in the opposition half.

Given it was an injured Roberts he replaced, this cameo might well prove to be a sliding doors moment, although Patrick Bamford could return to play in the FA Cup. At the very least, it was another performance that spoke loudly to Bielsa and suggested he has more than one potent top flight option for the centre forward role, fit and champing at the bit.

The head coach has said that an indication of how ready a youngster is for the first team is whether or not his senior team-mates want him in it. Judging by their readiness to give him the ball and the affection with which he’s evidently held among his elders in person and on social media - Adam Forshaw in particular appears to have taken his fellow Liverpudlian under his wing - the result of a straw poll in the Thorp Arch dressing room would be a landslide.

Looking at numbers compiled by lufcdata.com, particularly those that show his contribution per 90 minutes, it’s little wonder the older heads are having him.

Only Patrick Bamford [0.78] can better his 0.5 goals and assists per 90, only Tyler Roberts [1.25] can better his 1.18 shots on target per 90 and only Kalvin Phillips [9.6] has bested his 8.8 successful pressures per 90. No one boasts more than his 2.94 successful take-ons per 90, his 5.59 attempted take-ons per 90, his penalty box touches or his number of players dribbled past. In 301 Premier League minutes he’s scored a goal and set up three, two of which were penalties won with quick footwork and clever thinking. Only Alexandre Lacazette has won more spot-kicks in the division this season. Gelhardt makes things happen. He generates trouble for defenders and excitement for supporters.

Bielsa hasn’t so much unleashed Gelhardt on the Premier League, he’s gradually given him more and more freedom in the form of first team minutes this season. Necessity has played its part with Bamford and Rodrigo struggling with injuries but ever since the ruddy-cheeked boy known as Joffy arrived from Wigan, there has been an air of inevitability about him.

It took time and patience for the young Scouser’s moment to arrive but it feels very much like it’s here, now and upon him already. Gelhardt is out of the box and isn’t likely to go back in.