Norwich City v Leeds United: Marcelo Bielsa’s evolution of team continues as injuries bite

Evolution is a buzzword of Marcelo’s Bielsa’s. He likes to use it a lot with regards to players coming back from injury as Luke Ayling, Patrick Bamford and Robin Koch are - frustratingly slowly for Leeds United fans eager for the team to get their help.

But it also applies to the team. Despite a subdued transfer window. This could go down as a season of evolution for the Whites.

It is never a completely comfortable process, which is why Leeds could be in the Premier League relegation zone by the time they face Norwich City tomorrow, but it is a necessary one because football teams that stand still get overtaken.

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It is not only injuries that have made it harder to recreate the thrilling form of last season. Jack Harrison and Stuart Dallas are amongst the stalwarts who have not hit the standards they have consistently set under Bielsa. Until football is played by robots, it will ever be thus.

Immediate impact: Highly-rated Leeds forward Joe Gelhardt above could make his full debut at Norwich. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Dallas recently revealed the death of a close friend was behind him missing Northern Ireland’s September matches against Lithuania, Estonia and Switzerland. He also had Covid-19, which has also hampered Harrison, Mateusz Klich and summer signing Junior Firpo.

Raphinha missed the last Premier League away match at Southampton because he had only just returned from three World Cup qualifiers so his latest Brazil call-up will not exactly cause dancing in the streets of Beeston.

At least the turnaround this time is gentler - Argentina away on Tuesday/Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur not until the Sunday.

The winger missed the last match, at Arsenal in the League Cup, after being on the end of some rough treatment from Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Romain Saiss. Bielsa restricted himself to simply agreeing with the reporter who asked if his player had been lucky to only miss one game.

Role to play: Leeds winger Jack Harrison retains Marcelo Bielsa’s full confidence despite struggling this term. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Managers usually trot out the line that one player’s absence means an opportunity for another, and it is true.

Already this season, four players - Crysencio Summerville, Charlie Cresswell, Cody Drameh and most excitingly Joe Gelhardt against Wolves - have made Leeds debuts. Sam Greenwood’s substitute appearance on Tuesday was only his second.

Gelhardt’s Elland Road cameo, which included winning the penalty Rodrigo scored a late equaliser from, will have many clamouring for a first start today. They want to see more of a possible star of the future. Typically, Bielsa refused to go overboard on that when addressing the media yesterday.

“These are things you can’t calculate,” he responded, boringly and absolutely correctly. “We have to evaluate his participation and his interventions in the games. There is an important question to ask, of a young player especially - does he play to resolve the needs of the team or does he come on for a team that is dominating and he needs a few touches?

Show of faith: Marcelo Bielsa has given Leeds United youngsters a chance in the face of a numerous injuries. Picture Bruce Rollinson

“Against Wolverhampton, he came on in a team that was dominating and needed some corrections, and he managed to achieve it. Against Arsenal, he came on for a team that was not dominating in the second half and couldn’t change the course of the game by himself, as is natural. So the question can’t be answered easily.”

What can be said is that Leeds’s young players - who include Jamie Shackleton, stepping up a level this season in the absence of Ayling and fit to return at right-back today - look comfortable at this higher level, as they need to be with the way the squad is constructed. Many have served their time as unused substitutes on youthful benches making up the depleted numbers.

“We use all the resources we use for a player that usually plays in the Premier League,” Bielsa says of how the young players are acclimatised before they even get to the first-team picture.

“The treatment a player from the under-23s receives is exactly the same as a first-team player. I am referring to training, nutrition, control of their performances, theoretical preparation, evaluation of their physical performances, all of the evaluations and all of the things we could do are identical.”

As for Harrison’s dip in form, it is frustrating given he was so fundamental to Bielsa’s Leeds during his three seasons as a Manchester City loanee, although at least the August arrival of Dan James means the quality of the alternatives is higher.

“What is happening to Harrison is happening to all the players in our squad where they have better or worse moments and nobody is able to maintain a regular consistency in their performances, especially when they play in attack,” argues Bielsa. “Harrison is a player with a lot of resources to play on both wings and we have enjoyed his contributions.

“Harrison will shine again in proportion to the faculties he has and it is my job to put him in situations in the game where he is able to shine and make him feel as important as I feel that he is.”

The Argentinian coach is certainly not going to bad-mouth his 24-year-old winger.

“Of course, any question that invites public criticism of my players I reject,” he signs off his answer with sternly.

But Harrison’s - temporary - downturn, Dallas’s off-field difficulties and injuries to the previously indestructible Bamford and Ayling are a reminder that in football you can never be sure where the next hole, the next opportunity for an emerging young player, is going to open up, only that they need to be ready to grasp it when they do.

Gelhardt in particular has made a good start in becoming an important component in this evolving team, but as Bielsa would no doubt want us to point out, only a start.