Fulham v Leeds United: Ideal opportunity for United’s youth to show they can step up
It was never the intention when Stanley Rous and Alan Hardaker came up with the idea in the late 1950s, but the League Cup has become as much a test of squad depth as anything.
It is not a competition big clubs take especially seriously, yet still the last eight finals have been won by either Chelsea or the two Manchester clubs flexing their super-squads.
Depth is not a strength of Leeds United’s, nor something coach Marcelo Bielsa even seems that keen on. He has always liked to work with a small group of players but it is getting uncomfortably tight.
It is the nature of modern English football that even the weakest Premier League squads have more beneath the surface than most Football League XIs, yet in round two it took the introduction of Patrick Bamford to make it past a Crewe Alexandra side yet to win in League One at that stage of the season.
Helped by a parachute payment after relegation from last season’s top-flight, Championship Fulham’s is not far off a Premier League squad.
Even though a fully-committed Leeds would have a good chance of reaching their first major final since reaching Wembley in this competition 25 years ago, defeat at Craven Cottage is unlikely to perturb Bielsa too much but whilst that Crewe victory remains Leeds’s only success of 2021-22, a victory would be very reassuring in the away end.
More than anything, it would be nice to know there is some real strength bubbling beneath the first team because it is likely to be needed in a game Leeds will be far more fussed about, at home to West Ham United in the Premier League on Saturday.
It is not entirely true to say the Whites have neglected their reserves. They have spent the last 14 months or so hoovering up under-23 talent but few have made the jump to regular first-team football yet and there is little bridging the gap to the tight band of senior players Bielsa relies on.
In his first three seasons it has not been much of an issue - except perhaps when they ran out of steam in early 2019 - but Leeds finished Friday night’s game at Newcastle United with Liam Cooper their only fit centre-half after even stand-in Luke Ayling picked up an injury.
When squads are small, Sod’s Law not only dictates more injuries, but they also tend to cluster.
Tyler Roberts finished the game as an ill-fitting right-winger with 19-year-old Crysencio Summerville making an understated debut on the left after Jack Harrison became the third Elland Road player in a month to contract Covid-19, and Raphinha went off with a hip injury. “We have four centre-backs and Ayling is a fifth,” said Bielsa that night. “To resolve the absence of four of them will be complicated.
“The same with the wingers. We count on (Dan) James, Harrison, Raphinha and Summerville. To lose two of them will make it difficult to resolve. I always have confidence we will find the solutions.”
Stuart Dallas can play just about any position, but only one at a time.
It is self-inflicted.
Leeds’s nine-man bench at St James’ Park had 17 Premier League starts between them, 14 for Roberts, three for Jamie Shackleton, none for the rest. Some of them might be hoping they get the chance to change that with a good audition in west London tonight but much-needed game-changing options were sparse by the Tyne.
Arguably Leeds’s first-team squad got weaker in the summer. Junior Firpo should in time be an upgrade on Ezgjan Alioski at least as a left-back, but Kristoffer Klaesson is a much less experienced back-up goalkeeper than Kiko Casilla. Dan James was a big summer signing, but two wingers - Helder Costa and Ian Poveda - left on loan. Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi - bit-part players last season, but numbers nevertheless - were not replaced.
The hope is that Adam Forshaw fills the central midfield hole identified in the summer of 2020 by playing some league football this season but after nearly two years without, it is a lot to bank on.
On the flip-side, the strata of under-23 players is a year older, and Dutch under-19 international Summerville is presumably thought to have overtaken Poveda. Others might be close to ripening.
It is the type of gamble a risk-taking coach like Bielsa revels in but those of a shakier disposition - some even in the boardroom - are less comfortable with.
A big performance from Summerville, 18-year-old centre-back Charlie Cresswell, 19-year-old forward Sam Greenwood or one of the others one injury or false positive PCR test from a Premier League debut would go some way to calming the nerves.
A big defeat could set them jangling.
Last six games: Fulham LWLWWW Leeds United DLDWDL
Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex)
Last time: Fulham 1 Leeds United 2, March 19, 2021, Premier League.