Phil Hay - Inside Elland Road column: Marcelo Bielsa's injury-crisis hands Leeds United's youngsters chance to shine
Carlos Corberan's job title, convoluted though it is, gives him the task of quality control. He is part of Marcelo Biesla's iron circle, the often impenetrable backroom team which assists Bielsa anytime and anywhere, but Leeds United left one of Corberan's feet in the academy with 'responsibility for creating a pathway with the Under-23s and Under-18s, and ensuring consistency of football philosophy.'
In layman’s terms it falls to Corberan to encourage a single, defined style of play but Leeds pushed the policy of consistent coaching further when they asked Richard Cresswell to head up their clutch of academy managers in April.
Cresswell was given the remit of maintaining a training model from the eldest of Leeds’ youth teams down to the youngest. It was not about asking primary school kids to mimic Bielsa’s tactics and high-press – “that would be madness,” Cresswell told the YEP – but about having a system where different squads blend naturally with each other.
Continuity matters at Thorp Arch because Leeds’ better prospects rarely move with in line with their specific age groups. Many years ago, without realising, the club breached Football Association guidelines by fielding Lewis Cook in the Under-18s when the midfielder was only 13.
Ronaldo Vieira bypassed United’s development squad completely and James Milner is still the second youngest goalscorer in the history of the Premier League. Those were quantum leaps made to look easy by footballers so precocious and they explain why a club would devote itself to establishing the same philosophy at every step of the ladder.
Three or four years ago, when Neil Redfearn was switching between running the academy and firefighting with Leeds’ first team, he had several players to show for the work Thorp Arch was doing: Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor and Kalvin Phillips.
They were in full view of everyone, an advert for the production line, but Redfearn would often say that what was hiding in the squads at Under-15 and Under-16 level had the scope to be more special again. Some of those names are filtering through now and few individual crops in all of the years of youth development at Leeds have allowed the club to fall back on academy footballers in the way that this one has.
Bielsa has a track record of pushing potential, beyond the odd gamble here and there. He gave Newell’s Old Boys the teenage centre-back partnership of Mauricio Pochettino and Fernando Gamboa and he fast-tracked a core of the players who took Chile to the Under-20 World Cup semi-final in 2007.
Throughout his tenure as Chile’s head coach he listened to calls for him to drag David Pizarro, the silky playmaker who was then at Roma, out of early retirement but Bielsa always refused to go begging to his door. Chile qualified for the 2010 World Cup without Pizarro and Bielsa increased the debt of gratitude which grows wherever he goes. “It’s because of him that I am who I am,” Alexis Sanchez said in 2012.
Bielsa told Leeds in the summer, when he agreed to take the reins as head coach, that he would utilise their academy but no-one at Elland Road was certain of how quickly or with how much regularity. What became clear when his squad began forming in July was that he intended to take the best of the Under-23s into the fold immediately. There was no dipping into the development squad when desperation forced him.
Jamie Shackleton trained with the senior players from the off and others are doing the same. Even some who are yet to play under Marcelo Bielsa – Callum Nicell and, more recently, Leeds’ dynamic full-back Robbie Gotts – have made the transition up the chain. Good things are being said about Leif Davis, the defender who signed from Morecambe in July and who made the bench for the first time at West Bromwich Albion.
Their inclusion in training sessions is more than a pat on the head. Far from offering a taste of first-team life, Bielsa wanted to school them quickly for first-team appearances. It is not in dispute that some of the debuts made under him this season have been enforced – Aapo Halme’s and Will Huffer’s the best examples – but the trend of academy players emerging under Bielsa is matched by the trend of them avoiding looking horribly out of place.
Halme made light work of a proper baptism at Sheffield United on Saturday and Leeds have been able to embrace Jack Clarke’s wicked potential and teenage naivety at no significant cost. Bielsa is educating them in what to do when, in a way which tallies with his tactics and routinely negates unhelpful injuries.
The club could not tempt him to sign an emergency goalkeeper last month, when 20-year-old Huffer was his next port of call, and they doubt whether Bielsa would take a centre-back in January. Halme, after spending his first six months at Thorp Arch hobbling around on crutches, has settled in and holds the advantage of knowing Bielsa’s mind. That understanding seems to matter.
Not all of the graduates underpinning Bielsa’s squad have been years in the making. Leeds paid a six-figure sum for Halme last season and did likewise for Davis in July. Others in the development squad came at the cost of a transfer fee too.
But the club are reaping results from the insistence that those who are good enough are not only old enough but also coached and prepared enough. In helping to counter a firestorm of injuries and a scenario where Bielsa’s preferred defence is almost completely absent, it might just be the part of his management which carries Leeds through.