Why Marcelo Bielsa is optimistic for '6/10' Junior Firpo as Leeds United boss cites Gjanni Alioski story

Marcelo Bielsa has seen signs for optimism in the early stages of Junior Firpo's Leeds United career.

By Graham Smyth
Friday, 1st October 2021, 11:30 am

A left-back was the club's top priority going into the summer transfer window and after a host of names had been linked to the club - some with good reason given their profile and Leeds' genuine interest - it was Barcelona's Firpo who arrived at Elland Road in a deal worth just shy of £13m.

The 25-year-old's attacking abilities and athleticism were a big part of the attraction for Leeds, given the responsibilities a full-back takes on in a Bielsa team and in so many others who employ them in a hybrid role.

"Nowadays there are no full-backs who can't play as wingers, and no wingers who can't play as full-backs," said Bielsa recently.

EARLY DAYS: For new Leeds United left back Junior Firpo following his move to Elland Road says head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Photo by George Wood/Getty Images.

"Even if teams have a certain number of nominated wingers and nominated full backs - for example, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold will be wingers depending on the opponents they come up against.

"If they come up against wingers who force them to defend, they'll be a little bit of both, defending etc, if not they'll be wingers the whole game, and not because they don't have two wingers in front of them."

When winger-turned-full-back Gjanni Alioski moved on, Leeds lost a bundle of energy, an attacking nuisance, a solid relationship between the Macedonian and Jack Harrison, and a much improved defender.

Firpo, Leeds felt though, was an upgrade on the effervescent, enigmatic promotion winning Alioski, despite question marks over the new signing's one v one defending.

As Bielsa is quick to highlight, Alioski took time to reach the levels of performance seen in the latter stages of last season.

So too will Firpo, who is yet to play to his true potential in the eyes of the head coach.

"With regards to [Junior's] evolution within the team, I think he hasn't been able to play a seven point performance but he also hasn't played below a six performance," said Bielsa.

"He has had a regular performance and it has been growing but below what he is capable of.

"To give an example, Alioski took a lot of games to stabilise his game and he had been in England for a few years."

One of the difficulties the former Real Betis defender has to manage is the pace and style of football played in the English top flight.

That was part of the adaptation Rodrigo went through when he moved from Valencia in the summer of 2020.

"The intensity of the league in general is a little bit higher than in Spain, and also with the way we [Leeds] play even more," said the forward after his first Premier League campaign under Bielsa.

"It takes a little bit of time to adapt but I think it's part of the process."

Learning on the job is not easy in one of the most high profile and scrutinised leagues in the world game and today against Watford Firpo will have his hands full with Ismaïla Sarr.

The Hornets winger is in fine form and a real threat, but there are no easy games for Premier League defenders.

Once Firpo adapts fully, however, Bielsa is sure Leeds will have a star on their hands.

"Junior has come in from playing in two teams that play at a different rhythm to the Premier League, nor better or worse but different and in this process he is taking it forward and from my point of view it invites optimism," said the head coach.

"When Junior manages to have the rhythm that the Premier League proposes, he is going to be a full-back that shines a lot because he has all the physical and technical resources to generate moments of very good football."

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Thank you Laura Collins