There have been many heart-warming aspects about how the Whites have barged back into the Premier League after 16 years pressed up against the window, and one has been the core of players responsible.
Marcelo Bielsa is a coach, not a chequebook manager. In two-and-a-half seasons at Elland Road he has relied heavily on Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips, Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich and Patrick Bamford.
These players provided the thread of the mid-table Championship side the Argentinian inherited and he has honed them into the heartbeat of a team a point above the Gunners with a game in hand. With Rodrigo, Robin Koch and Diego Llorente injured, it will largely be down to them again versus Mikel Arteta’s superstars.
Bamford has stolen the headlines for the way he has taken to the top flight. His regular flow of goals – 12 this season – and engaging personality means he can be heard on Match of the Day more often than some pundits. He would be the first to point out, though, he is just one component.
Ayling has had his moments stepping up to his first top-flight season, but his overall performance at right-back or in central defence has been excellent. Injuries have made it a stop-start campaign for Cooper, but he is a leader whenever he is on the field. Dallas’s versatility is a thing of wonder.
Phillips’s performances have brought well-deserved recognition but like many holding midfielders the way he intelligently knits defence and attack and mops up problems is probably most noticeable when he is not there. Tomorrow could be one such occasion.
Leeds have missed Phillips when he has not been around, so when Bielsa said in yesterday’s press conference, “There’s not a definite position whether he’ll play or not,” plenty of fingers will have been crossed in West Yorkshire.
If the Leeds-born player is unable to take part because of the calf injury sustained late in Monday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, it will only increase the already massive importance of Klich.
What is so impressive about Leeds’s core is how solid it is. Ayling, Bamford and Dallas have been ever-presents and are rarely substituted. In any season of the notoriously intense, super-physical Premier League that would be laudable, let alone this Covid-condensed campaign, and let alone in this team, which remains fanatical about pressing.
Until recently, Klich was the byword for dependability, missing only one kick-off under Bielsa, a dead rubber after winning last season’s Championship. That run ended when he was on the bench against Newcastle United and Leicester City. He came off it both times, of course, in the 21st minute in the East Midlands, but it was a brief respite that needed to happen.
Klich’s ultra-reliable performances had dipped a touch, the relentless metronome showing signs of weariness. It turns out he was human after all.
Now, though, he looks back to full charge, excellent in his probing passing on Monday.
“Against Crystal Palace Klich looked more like the player he is,” confirms Bielsa.
In assessing footballers we should factor in the unique physical and mental demands not just of this season, but this period of it, with the Premier League cramming in midweek games at every opportunity whilst the European competitions are on their winter breaks. Next week the Champions and Europa Leagues restart, and for those not involved, the switch by and large back to once-a-week football will be very welcome.
“It’s very difficult to maintain your level in a competition that’s so long and competitive,” says Bielsa when asked about Klich. “Players have highs and lows which is natural.”
Inevitably, not everyone is up to it.
Age is showing signs of catching up on Pablo Hernandez, the second-tier conductor who has now largely passed the baton on to Rodrgio. He has only started two Premier League matches, the same number as Tyler Roberts.
On Monday we were told Hernandez’s injury was minor, one a less risk-averse coach could perhaps have pushed him to play with. He would not be missing very long at all.
At 35, though, the body takes longer to heal. The prognosis remains unchanged for tomorrow.
Winger Raphinha’s sparkling performance against Crystal Palace, topped off against Palace by a backheeled nutmeg on Gary Cahill, showed how Leeds have shrewdly added £17m-worth of stardust to Leeds’s core. Without them, though, it would be carried off on the wind.
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