Why Under 23s results and promotion matter so much to Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United

Today’s Under-23s game at Wolves might be a chance for Kalvin Phillips and Rodrigo to pick up some match fitness, but it’s also a chance to further a Leeds United promotion charge of real importance.

By Graham Smyth
Friday, 5th March 2021, 5:40 am
TOP SCORER - Joe Gelhardt leads the Leeds United Under 23s in goalscoring this season, along with Sam Greenwood. Pic: Getty

If first team regulars Phillips and Rodrigo do make appearances as they return from calf and groin problems respectively, they’ll do so in a team that is top of the Premier League 2 second tier with six games remaining.

Mark Jackson’s 23s have won 13 of their 18 league fixtures to open up a 10-point lead over second placed Stoke. Today’s hosts sit third, 14 points back with three games in hand.

For any senior pro shaking off rust, Monday’s Premier League trip to West Ham is already in their focus but for Jackon’s group of youngsters, Wolves is the big game this weekend.

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You’ll hear it said, from time to time, by those working underneath the senior set-ups at various clubs, that results are of secondary importance to the development of players for the first time.

It holds true, Jackson’s job is to make players like Charlie Cresswell, Niall Huggins and Stuart McKinstry better players, to give them a better chance of making what is a huge step up to Premier League level.

Results still hold importance, however, for the club’s head coach Marcelo Bielsa

“Winning has a lot of importance [at developmental level],” he said.

“A way to grow is to learn how to win.

“I always link winning to the resources that are used to achieve it.”

So far, so good this season then. The 23s squad has been supplemented by occasional appearances by first team players who should, by now, be too good for that level of competition – Tyler Roberts, Kiko Casilla, Helder Costa, Pablo Hernandez, Phillips and Raphinha have all featured.

But a group of youngsters the club has high hopes for, collectively and individually, have been the constant for Jackson to work with.

Right-back Cody Drameh, a potential successor for Luke Ayling, has shone in his 18 appearances while Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood lead the team in goals with seven apiece.

Guiding those players on the path to the Premier League, having them play the same brand of high intensity break-neck football as the senior side and winning games is no easy feat.

Bielsa has been impressed.

“The job that the staff with the under-23s is doing is admirable,” he said.

“It was a group that was designed by the academy director and the sporting director of the club and sincerely it’s a very, valuable job that they are doing.

“They have consolidated a group and they play football that is very attractive and without exception, all of the players have grown.”

The pathway has already led to opportunities for some. Huggins acquitted himself well when he stepped into the game at Arsenal as a second-half substitute and last season 23s regular Pascal Struijk is coping magnificently with top flight football.

But the difficulties faced by young hopefuls when they and fringe players made up the team to face Hull City in the Carabao Cup, and the torrid time a mixed side had at Crawley Town in the FA Cup, hint that a sizeable leap still exists between the level the 23s operate at and the big time.

That’s why promotion to the PL2’s top division is so key and why three points at Wolves today would matter so much.

Escaping Division Two will pit next season’s 23s side against the very best academies in the country, players with hopes of making it at the biggest clubs, players like Liam Delap and Felix Nmecha at Manchester City, or Dennis Cirkin at Tottenham Hotspur, who will provide more pressure and potentially help produce diamonds, for Leeds.

“The development of players has three big things,” said Bielsa.

“The first thing is genetics, what each player brings from their cradle, and the second thing is the phase of 10 years of training that they have – four or five years when they are children, four or five years when they are teenagers.

“The third element is the level of the competition. Nothing improves a player more than playing against a better player.”

Promotion will grant this crop of Thorp Arch kids access to that crucial third element. So winning is important. Today and every time they pull on the white shirt they hope to wear one day at Elland Road.