Arsenal v Leeds United – Marcelo Bielsa prepares to gamble with one eye on Whites’ future

As the Premier League has become all-powerful, the League Cup has become a bit of a developmental competition.

For Leeds United at the moment, most matches have an element of that.

When Marcelo Bielsa first took a team to Ashburton Grove, in the 2019-20 FA Cup, he handed Illan Meslier a full debut. Tonight when Leeds return for a League Cup fourth-round tie youngsters might be involved out of necessity, with Joe Gelhardt pushing himself to the front of the queue at the weekend.

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Football is increasingly all about the here and now but tonight could again be a match to watch with one eye on the future.

Leeds United's Joe Gelhardt breaks through the Wolverhampton Wanderers defence on Saturday before winning a late penalty. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

For all that the wisdom of Bielsa’s tight-knit squad has been questioned at times this season – including in these pages – the potential benefits are huge not only for his club, but English football as a whole.

With Raphinha added to an injury list which already included Robin Koch, Luke Ayling, Junior Firpo and Patrick Bamford, even Leeds’s first-choice squad at the moment is peppered with youngsters. Jamie Shackleton has had a run at right-back, Crysencio Summerville made a Premier League debut at Newcastle United, Charlie Cresswell at home to West Ham United. On Saturday Gelhardt joined the club.

Making space for youngsters – especially English ones – is something most football fans want to see, it is just many would rather other clubs took the risks. Bielsa’s ethos is based around being unafraid to take a gamble.

Gelhardt, a 19-year-old forward or attacking midfielder signed from League One Wigan Athletic two years ago, rewarded his bravery handsomely on Saturday in a performance which climaxed with winning the penalty Rodrigo equalised from against Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Leeds United's Joe Gelhardt and his team-mates warm-up ahead of a Premier League clash at Arsenal back in February. Picture: Catherine Ivill/PA

“I sort of went numb when I heard the noise,” he said afterwards. “All the tiredness goes away, you just feel ready.

“I’d love to play more games in the future.”

Most managers prefer to get that numbness out of the way in a lesser game. Bielsa is not most managers.

In Bamford and Kalvin Phillips, perhaps in line to start tonight having been an unused substitute against Wolves, England manager Gareth Southgate has spoken about how lucky he is to be able to tap into players who have learnt from a coach revered around the world.

Marcelo Bielsa, on the touchline during Leeds United's Premier League clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers at Elland Road Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Others, such as Phil Foden at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Mason Mount with Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp pupil Trent Alexander-Arnold, have similar benefits but the likes of Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori had to go abroad for a real grounding.

“The physicality was hard getting used to but once you get past that period you learn so much from the gaffer, technically and tactically,” said Gelhardt.

Leeds have assiduously accumulated Sam Greenwood, Amari Miller, Lewis Bate, Leo Hjelde, Cody Drameh, Sean McGurk, Stuart McKinstry and Kristoffer Klaesson and others since achieving academy category one status in 2019, on top of the likes of Phillips and Cresswell who have been there all along. Not all will make it. Jordan Stevens and Robbie Gotts, Meslier’s team-mates in January 2020, have fallen by the wayside, both released to join League Two Barrow in the summer.

With their team sat uncomfortably on the Premier League’s relegation borderline, many Leeds fans worry more about today than tomorrow.

Bielsa is trying to find players who can deliver for both.

Last six games: Arsenal WDDWWW Leeds United DLWLDD

Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands)

Last time: Arsenal 4 Leeds United 2, February 14, 2021, Premier League.