Bielsa before West Ham says everybody hurts

Written by: Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A graphic showing Marcelo Bielsa looking serious

Maybe it’s an indication of where Marcelo Bielsa’s head is with Leeds’ injuries now that we got a preamble to the latest addition to the sick list, and that half an hour later he diverted a question about the Under-23s’ development to close on the same thought.

“Well,” he began, to answer the inevitable opening question about players (hopefully) returning from injury. “As has been happening regularly in this season,” he continued, building the tension in his narrative rather than going straight into bullet points, “players are getting injured in the same positions. So to the injuries to Bamford and Rodrigo, we add the injury to Tyler Roberts,” and now I see, ah, the news about Tyro must be very bad. Or maybe there’s something else. “Joe Gelhardt injured his ankle in training yesterday and he’s going to be out for three weeks.”

Ah god damn it all.

Then we got the full bullet point rundown, because Bielsa was keen to avoid too many questions about injuries, no matter how much they might be on his mind:

  • Pat Bamford might be able to play against West Ham this Sunday, so that’s one bit of good news.
  • Phillips and Cooper out until March.
  • Shackleton and Cresswell out until after the international break (so, back for the Villa game on 9th February, ish).
  • Struijk and Rodrigo can’t be predicted.
  • Gelhardt and Roberts are both out for about a month.

Would this mean some players might make their debuts in the FA Cup this weekend? Bielsa wasn’t getting dragged into that one, after he was accused of disrespecting the competition whatever year it was for naming his team at a press conference in advance. He only answers about injuries, he said, because he is “constantly interrogated about it, I have no choice but to comment on it.”

Likewise, transfers.

“It’s a question I’ve answered an infinite number of times. I have no problem doing it again, but because the answer is always the same, I explain why. I repeat, if we could bring in a player in any position in a player that outperforms the players that we have, he would be welcome.”

Not only does Gelhardt’s injury rob us of an important player for the next few weeks, but I think it robbed a few journalists of their big weekend ‘FA Cup hero in the making’ stories, judging by the ones who pressed ahead with their questions about Joffy anyway. Bielsa gave them plenty to work with, they’ll just have to add (currently injured) next to every reference to the (currently injured) striker. First, what about the ovation given at the Burnley game, when Gelhardt (currently injured) was called from the bench?

“Sincerely, it’s a very big recognition of what he produces for the team, and for the expectations that the public has for his game, for his possibilities and for his resources. He is obviously a player who has connected strongly with the Leeds fans. That is a characteristic that few players have. He generates hope, he generates expectation, he increases the enthusiasm of the public. And I insist, there are not too many players that can provoke that.”

Can Bielsa help him cope with the attention? Always anxious to deflect, Bielsa says it’s all down to Gelhardt (currently injured): “The influence that I have on his game is very relative.” It says more about Joffy (currently injured) that he’s playing in the Premier League (well, he was, but he’s currently injured) than anything else, because there aren’t many teenagers in it, and it is “not a competition that has patience with the performance and evolution of the players… No, it is not easy to play well and to be able to play.” So if Gelhardt (etc etc) is coping at this level, it says something about the player, not the coach.

The coach was asked if a full week of training had been beneficial to the team, by someone oblivious to him saying that training was where Gelhardt had injured his ankle. Maybe less training would have helped! But Bielsa did say the long week allowed the players to do lots of exercise and activities, like they’ve been on a Duke of Edinburgh orienteering course. Because it’s the FA Cup, nobody is sure what team David Moyes will pick for West Ham, but Bielsa said that isn’t too much of a disadvantage to planning — the personnel might change, but the style will stay the same:

“Knowing the opponent’s formation is a piece of information that’s not definitive. Obviously it’s better to know it, but what I think is very clear is that the opponent’s style is a very, very definite style. They might change the players, I don’t know that, but what I don’t think will change is West Ham’s style of play, and especially in a season like this one, in which they’ve been consolidating their characteristics.”

Ditching the first team and playing kids because the Premier League is all consuming is just part of the magic of the FA Cup these days, and Bielsa was asked if he wouldn’t like to win this historic piece of silverware for Leeds. Given our injuries, it might have been as well to ask about resurrecting the Leeds Hospitals’ Cup, won four times in a row in the 1890s by Leeds City’s forebears Hunslet AFC, but Bielsa sounded up for this cup anyway:

“Every competition is a possibility. And that’s the way we take it. We approach every game with the intention of winning it, and while the evolution within the competition is very difficult to anticipate, it seems to me that the right thing to do is, with humility, to try to win every game.”

I mean you can’t get much more humble than trying to win without any fit players but I do like the sentiment. And in case you think I’m overthinking the injuries, here’s the ending I referred to at the start, when Bielsa was asked about how the challenges the Under-23s players are facing this season can help them develop. He took the question as a chance to acknowledge that the Under-23s’ draw with Sunderland on Wednesday — when coach Mark Jackson took three players off at half-time 3-0 up and drew 3-3 — was down to his requests for players to help the first team. Bielsa described himself as “transferring my problems” through the academy levels; “It’s a request from me to the U23 coach that deteriorates the performance of his team”:

“We have the support of the coach. He helps us a lot with the way he manages sometimes the U23 games. The first team is missing ten players and they’re replaced by ten players originating from the U23s, so the U23s are also ten players short. And it’s the same with the U18s. So it’s very complicated for everyone to balance and resolve the absences.”

Complicated, and very rare. It’s not only ten players out, it’s where they play; as Bielsa said at the start, players getting injured in the same positions is having an impact on the whole club:

“These are all the difficulties that arise from a very rare issue. When I was telling you that Bamford, Roberts, Gelhardt and Rodrigo, our four central attackers, all four of them have injury problems at the same time. Those issues affect the first team, and from there down. So we try to solve them in the best way. But the best way is not a good way.”

Saint Etienne, there. I know they’re London but they named a film after Mervyn Day and they cheer everybody up. Will a new striker help everybody be happy? Mateo Joseph Fernandez arrived this week, who “will start at the level of players his age,” eighteen, and:

“…as he demonstrates his qualities, which we know he has, he will find his place within the institution. Like every young player who comes to the club, and does so after a very careful and very deep analysis, we can only hope that his integration is quick and that he surpasses the levels of the players who are in his position as the training time goes on.”

The Mateorite Joseph is probably not blazing across West Ham’s skies on Sunday, then. Let’s just hope Dan James’ Lee Chapman impression against the claret and blue of Burnley was not a one-off. ⬢

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