Saturday 21st August represents ample opportunity for Leeds United to put behind them a torrid opening day result at Old Trafford.
With the Whites occupying bottom of the Premier League table after last weekend’s Manchester United mauling, the only way is up in their remaining 37 league fixtures.
Firstly, they must navigate the visit of Everton, who will arrive at Elland Road subjected to a raucous and thirsty atmosphere, no doubt – a stadium which has been starved of a full capacity since March 2020 when Leeds were still a Championship club.
This will mark Leeds’ 40th game back in the top flight since promotion last summer, and there is no time like the present to get a first three points of the season on the board.
Last year’s opening home game saw Fulham defeated 4-3 in an enthralling encounter. A similar result would certainly lay some fears to rest among the Leeds fanbase.
Manager Marcelo Bielsa has been speaking to the media ahead of this weekend’s fixture, giving his verdict on last weekend’s result, as well as the fitness of key players.
Here is every word the boss had to say:
What sort of shape is Kalvin Phillips in and is he ready to play this weekend?
Another week of work means he is physically better and he is closer to being in the team.
Diego Llorente, is he ready to be involved yet?
It’s probable that he will have chances to compete again next week.
Any closer to bringing any new players into the club?
It’s not probable that any more signings will be made.
Are you happy with the squad or is that a financial problem?
I’m happy, I’m comfortable with the players I can count on at the moment. It’s the same group as last year with the substitution of Firpo for Alioski. And young players who accompany the team have another year of experience.
Of course if we have the option to bring another player in, we will do it, as long as that player is able to challenge the player we already have in that position.
Deciding to strengthen the team means that player must be able to compete with the player we already have in that position, and that means there is a very high cost for this, so with regards to this situation with the signings, if players don’t arrive then there is disappoint because they don’t arrive. And if there are signings but they are below the level that we already have, then there is disappointment because they are not up to the standard. The situation is to find players who can overcome the players we already have, that have a low price, but to say a low price also means a high price.
The low prices at the moment are very high and the good players, their prices are inaccessible. What’s not logical is that players cost three times as much as the players we’re currently trying to incorporate.
What do you think makes Rafa Benitez so successful in many different leagues with many different teams?
Sincerely, I can’t remember if we’ve come up against each other. Both of us have been in this profession for a long time. What’s made him successful is that he puts together a very compact team, very difficult to beat. He always manages to get the maximum possible from the players he manages.
How different do you expect Everton to be this season compared to last season?
There hasn’t been big changes with regards to the players. The players are basically the same ones apart from the two wide players they brought in. The changes that I expect are those that I just mentioned about Benitez that his teams are efficient, strong and hard to beat.
How encouraged are you by Adam Forshaw’s recovery? Are there serious plans for him to feature in your midfield?
The process with Forshaw has to be a long one so he is able to play again at the highest level with his virtues. Of course the level of demand when he plays for the 23s is not the same he would face in the Premier League and it’s not the same to finish or complete a game, than to play segments of games and it’s not the same to compete twice a week, than competing once a week and taking care.
What we need to manage is for Forshaw to complete two games in one week. And that this doesn’t increase or produce a risk of injury, and he can chain together the games. That’s what a player normally does when they’re coming into the squad in the Premier League, being able to play one or two times per week, being able to recover in that time and if there’s only one game a week that he’s able to train leading up to that game and after that game also.
To make reference to the player Forshaw was two years ago, he was one of the best players Leeds had, without any doubt. And of course after two years without playing, he’s not that same player. The process for him to start looking like that player again necessarily has to be progressive and it has to permit him to feel confident. If we do this in a rush, urgently or anxiously there are a lot of risks that we run – he’s a very serious and applied professional and I’m sure he has a desire to shorten the time, but if there’s errors we’ve made in the past with this injury that has lasted two years it is that we’ve accelerated the times and to have brought him back prematurely, that has generated other injuries.
So, when he’s recovered healthy and full, he has the characteristics that we can’t buy in the market at the moment.
What’s happened with Niall Huggins potentially leaving after signing a contract extension last year?
Nothing has happened that wasn’t what we looked at.
The young players [Ryan] Edmondson, Niall [Huggins], [Robbie] Gotts and [Jordan] Stevens, these players who were part of the U23s team in previous seasons, they have a process of development and growth. When they get up to a peak during this growth and development like it has been the case for each of these players that have been named, they have to compete for a place in a group that is very small, the group that is chosen for the season.
In this case that you’re referring to, Ayling, Dallas and Shackleton are all players who play in the position he [Huggins] plays in. If I see clearly at this moment in time that he doesn’t have the chance to overcome these players at the club and I keep him at the club knowing this instead of favouring his development I’m hindering him.
For all these youngsters it would be ideal to compete in a group in the PL but if they’re not here there comes a moment where they need to look for a competition higher than the 23s otherwise their progress will be stalled. The expectation for all of us is that they compete outside of the club for a year and that we find an evolution that invites us to bring them back into the fold.
Without exception, every player that has gone out on loan, I have seen them every week, first because it’s my function and secondly because you grow a bond with these players. I don’t know if I’ve spoke also about Alfie [McCalmont] and [Leif] Davis and if there’s something that we desire, it’s that it goes well for them and we’re able to bring them back. They’ve made big efforts to try and be part of the group and we’ve accompanied them in this effort. If it doesn’t go well for them, the work that we’ve done is worse.
Marcelo how do you feel about fans returning to Elland Road in the Premier League?
The Premier League with and without fans is not the same. The fans of Leeds are not the same as the majority of other teams in the league. Not only because it’s the club we belong to but because of how generous and present they are in every game, so to live this experience is unique.
After such a heavy defeat at Man Utd, what is the process to lift the players physically and mentally for the next game?
Physically it’s not a problem, of course the self-esteem and the enthusiasm decreases after a defeat like the one we suffered at the weekend.
One of the things that damages the most in a defeat like this is the expectations and the hopes the fans had for this game and it feels like we’ve defrauded them. And if there’s something that hurts a lot it’s to disappoint, to not give what’s expected of us, so this produces suffering. The closeness of the game [this Saturday], it gives you the option to make a comeback and pay that debt. Games like the one we lost on Saturday, it generates a hurt that is not easily cured and we don’t forget. But you can go putting forward new emotions that allow for this to be in the memory but that it stops being present.
So in this last game, nothing happened that we didn’t contemplate would happen so the aspects that were most clear that determined the defeat, they’re the aspects that we worked on in the past seven weeks but we have to understand what the responsibility of what the manager is.
The manager isn’t good if he tells you what is going to happen in the game, he also isn’t good because he uses resources to incorporate the knowledge so that the things you don’t want to happen, happen. He is only good if the process to avoid what hurts a team is effective so that’s why I explained to the players that I feel absolutely responsible of the situations that happened in the game against Manchester United.
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When I imagine the steps we had to make to keep growing as a team, the fundamental aspects, the main thing that makes our team grow is based on three basic aspects: for the opponent to attack worse or their forwards to be worse, we need the build-up of the opponent to be difficult for them, so that their forwards do not receive the balls comfortably. That’s one key aspect of our game especially when we play games against teams better than ours. The other aspect that is key is to be very careful, with the management of the ball in our own half because if we lose the ball when we distribute to attack and if we lose it close to our own goal, when we’re out of possession we don’t have a lot of time to get back in position. To avoid that the opponent takes advantage to create danger.
And the third aspect which I am criticised for a lot is to maintain a defensive structure with a lot of the control over the attackers, avoiding the persecutions that take our players when the opponent is far away from the position they are initially in. So over these three aspects and over the management of the time in the game, it’s the things that we most worked on.
So all the things that I tried that the team had against a great opponent, we didn’t manage to put it into practice so that reflectively is my responsibility but for one reason in particular: because I have a group which is at a disposition to work, with enthusiasm and who integrate the ideas that I transmit to them. So if you analyse the unbalances that happened in the game, they’re all linked with things we’re constantly trying to develop.
To give an example, the interchange of functions between Pogba and Fernandes, in which they make Robin Koch responsible [for them]. Or the interchange of positions between Greenwood and Fernandes – all of those things with the idea of avoiding these persecutions, we’ve worked a lot on this and with a lot of dedication. When the work doesn’t produce the results required, the responsibility is on the manager. Of course we know McTominay is the one that attacks more between him and Fred and that Fred is the more defensive of the two, but sometimes their roles change and even though in this we weren’t able to neutralise it, we know we have to avoid the counter-attacks and we know we have to be marking before the ball is lost but if we don’t find these solutions it’s because of the work I do is not sufficient. There is a moment in the game the other day, the game up until we drew [level], we deserved to have been losing but we weren’t balancing or neutralising the game, but we were impeded by it being unbalanced.
I hope I’m able to explain this because it’s a very important aspect. When they scored the second goal, we lose the ball for a pass that generates a rebound but when that pass is made if you draw a line over the width of the pitch we had five free players at the height of the [opponent’s] box on the right hand side and through the area against only one of their defence. When I saw that situation, I saw clearly that it was our moment in the game, we couldn’t convert that possession into a dangerous one and the opposite happened with regards to the relationship with the team. Pascal was left 1-v-1 without the possibility of being covered, and what looked like what was going to be our start of our moment in our game, in ten minutes it changed, [and] that took us out of the game.
Marking in possession, the experience to manage the time in the game, they’re all things we talk about constantly. I insist when you train a team with players who are so generous, so identified, and so professional, and the coach or the manager hasn’t managed to achieve what he wanted to, it’s the fault of the manager not the players. I gave such a long explanation so there is no doubt that the responsibility of the defeat is in the function that I have, and I’ve argued it in a sufficient manner so you guys know that it’s true.
Is Ian Poveda in a similar situation to Niall Huggins?
The situation is different. First of all he’s had a close passage through the first-team and he also has the habit of competing with the 18 players who absorb most games of the Premier League. But there are also players that are evolving and competing with him to be part of the group.
Was the U23s game considered for Kalvin Phillips or was that not necessary?
In this case I didn’t deem it necessary he gain minutes with the 23s.
Crysencio Summerville had an interesting summer, he’s caught the eye and scored again with the 23s. How do you see his development. Is this a season he can break into your main group in the Premier League?
I share in the analysis you made, he’s one of the youngsters who has evolved the most. It’s what generates optimism but the most difficult thing is yet to be done.
Can you share with us what the most difficult thing is, please?
Players who show they deserve a chance in the first-team, there are many, but the players who take advantage of it, there are not that many. Us managers, coaches, we hope always dream that the virtues these youngsters have will allow them to shine with the elite. After you have to overcome this test and one thing is to prepare the player to overcome the test and the other thing is that he effectively overcomes it. It seems like a common place where you have to play and you have to shine. But to play and shine the manager has to pick him. I always play the player who I think is the best in that particular moment in that position. That doesn’t mean I’m always right or that I’m the owner of the truth.
If there are no further signings, does that compromise the season or do you feel as set and prepared as last season?
We absorbed last season with 18 players and we had some important injuries, like Forshaw’s, Koch, Llorente, Berardi’s. With respect of that nucleus, the same players are there, with the only change between the habitual players being Firpo coming in for Alioski. The rest if you have a look, substitution of Klaesson for Casilla. After the group of Ayling, Cooper, Llorente, Firpo, Pascal, Shackleton, Koch, the midfielders; Dallas, Klich, Phillips, Rodrigo, Tyler and the three wingers, Harrison, Raphinha and Helder, and Tyler and Bamford who play at 9 and 10, those are the players I had last year.
We have the possible recovery of Forshaw and some youngsters who are growing that can make important contributions, so this question over whether we need more players has two answers: yes, we need more players than the ones we already have and that we can buy because this club has invested, it’s not like this club hasn’t invested. And the second focus that this same group had the last season contribution that allowed them to be justifiably in the top half of the table. But what happens is when you lose a big game 5-1 it generates uncertainty around the team. It produces all these questions that you ask.
Do you think the home crowd being back in a capacity stadium made a difference to the game at Old Trafford?
There’s some data that without public, the home side wins less. The statistics confirm this. With me in particular, the absence of fans permitted a greater communication between the players and technical staff, but the effect of the crowd when we play away I don’t consider it a determining factor with regards to our performances. The effect that is has for our opponents I can’t measure.
The club is in contract talks with Patrick Bamford – how important is it that he stays at Leeds?
Bamford is a very important player for us and he’s one of the best strikers that English football has.
Are you confident Patrick Bamford will commit to a new contract soon?
I ignore these details.
Of the U23 players you have, the top performers in that group – how many right now are close to having an effect on the first-team?
More than prognosticating, the important thing is they overcome the players in the same position as them. That superiority that allows them to have a genuine position within the habitual starting XI or within the group. There’s something that’s very representative when a young player shines for real, the first ones to perceive their possibilities is the group in the first-team when they see that there is a player who’s good for real, it’s not that they say it, you notice that when this happens, they want that player next to them, not behind them. I have lived this many times. When a young player shines, it is the players with experience who notice it immediately. Even if they don’t say it, they make you notice it.