Leeds United's biggest weakness is a Marcelo Bielsa trust issue

FRUSTRATION: Dan James misses a chance at Southampton on SaturdayFRUSTRATION: Dan James misses a chance at Southampton on Saturday
FRUSTRATION: Dan James misses a chance at Southampton on Saturday
Leeds United's biggest problem at the moment is perhaps the fact that the issue letting them down is one of the principles of Marcelo Bielsa's management.

More than anything, the Whites are suffering from a lack of squad depth, but it is by choice more than by accident.

Their coach has always believed in having a tight group of players and, like most top managers, Bielsa is a stubborn man. At times the Leeds board have had reservations about his preference for going with such a small group but the reality is they cannot argue. Bielsa has been given the job as the No 1 football expert in the club - even director of football Victor Orta would describe him that way - so who are they to contradict his judgement? He has shown before in his career he is not a coach who will be dictated to by the boardroom.

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Even if Bielsa wanted to do things differently, he could not until January - a time of year when Leeds are reluctant to do much in the transfer market. It is anyway a very big if.

Recently he outlined his thinking."A Premier League player is a very expensive player and not every team can have 25 players who can be starters so I prefer to have less players but of a higher level," he said.

"But in every fixture there are four or five players missing and those players who replace them come from the young team, players 19 to 33. After the 18 (senior) players you have the rest up until 33 so you can have three players per position.

"The difference between player one and two is not that big but the third option for every position, what we try is to find players who can replace those in front of them. When we manage to achieve that, so that is to say when (Joe) Gelhardt is better than (Patrick) Bamford, Rodrigo and Tyler (Roberts), that will be a triumph for the work that we have done."

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Last season, it worked a treat. The Whites had good fortune with injuries and few problems with form either.

This season has started very differently, which is why their only Premier League win came at home to a hapless-looking Watford side who had sacked their coach before Sunday dinner was served the next day. On Saturday they allowed Southampton their first three points of the season. Alarmingly, they only created three shots - most un-Leeds.

At St Mary's, Luke Ayling, Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford, Robin Koch and Junior Firpo were all injured. Raphinha could not sensibly play after three Brazil games which would have been as mentally as physically draining for a player who had not represented the Selecao before, then a 5,000 mile return flight on Friday morning UK time.

They made up a third of that group of 18 players, and Ayling, Phillips, Bamford and Raphinha come from the sub-group of big-hitters. Excluding the games Raphinha missed before his debut, they sat out just 13 matches between them last season - nine when Phillips was injured, and their Premier League record without him is poor

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It is not just the injuries per se, important though that is.

When Mateusz Klich was having a bit of a wobble in form at the turn of the year - probably as much to do with the relentless schedule his body had been put through over the last couple of years of Bielsaball - Leeds could take him out of the side for a bit of a breather.

Now, players who are out of form pretty much have to play. Stuart Dallas, so fundamental to Leeds, has not been at his best, nor was Ayling before his injury. Rodrigo has still never hit top level, Leeds fans have never been convinced about Roberts's (Bielsa is), and Firpo is settling in to a new country with a new language. Dan James's only issue is getting used to Bielsa's methods, but that is no walk in the park either.

Last season four starts came from outside the 18 - three from Jamie Shackleton, now promoted to the senior group - and a thank you, farewell outing from Gaetano Berardi, who missed most of the season with cruciate knee ligament damage. Beyond that, the only players to figure were Ian Poveda (14 substitute appearances), Leif Davis (two) and Niall Huggins (one).

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Opening the pathways to young players is great to see. Charlie Cresswell has been this season's biggest beneficiary but there have also been Premier League debuts for Crysencio Summerville and Joe Gelhardt.

No other Premier League club has as small a group of senior players. Leeds’s is actually technically 17, but their first-choice goalkeeper, Illan Meslier, is on their under-21 list. Leeds are going out on a limb which does not make them wrong - much of what is so good about Bielsa is his bold risk-taking - but does mean questions are justified.

To go with such a small group to play the intense football Leeds do, it probably requires all 18 to be as durable as, in all fairness, the likes of Ayling and Bamford historically are.

First team coach Matt Hamshaw was talking about League One Rotherham United yesterday, but the principles apply just as much to Leeds.

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"We demand a lot of our players," he said. "We press high up the pitch, we get in team's faces and the lads give us everything. They put their bodies on the line every minute of every game and when you do that you're always going to get injuries."

A fully-fit Adam Forshaw would certainly enhance the squad but after two years out injured, it seems almost unfair to rely on that. As his body adjusts to the rigours of Premier League training - or rather Premier League training-plus when it comes to the infamous Thorp Arch "murderball" sessions - it has unsurprisingly picked up little niggles.

Better, surely, to regard him as a bonus 19th player.

Neither Robin Koch - sent to the United States recently for a minor operation one appearance into his season - nor Diego Llorente have been especially durable. Phillips and Liam Cooper had issues last season and in 2021 there is always Covid to consider - Firpo, Klich (again) and Jack Harrison have all had it recently.

Eighteen seems like a number for another age, another league, when you consider that Premier League clubs are allowed - and Leeds always select - nine substitutes. You might argue that since at some clubs some of those selections are no more than box-ticking exercises, why not give a youngster the chance to learn the environment of a Premier League matchday or you might say that if you need 20 players a match 38 times as season, relying on only 18 seniors is too few.

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If the juniors - or, to be more realistic, enough of the juniors - are as good as Leeds's management hopes, it could prove a masterstroke, a bit of short-term pain for long-term gain, although if the club get to where they want to be - European football - it will have to be because the demands on the squad will grow again.

Leeds fans often say that "In Bielsa we trust". Right now those words are being put to the test because not doing it his way means doing it without him.

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