One of the things that new manager Marcelo Bielsa insisted upon, it seems, when he took over at Leeds was that things were done his way.
As with any high-profile appointment, that ‘my way or the autopista’ approach is to be expected as the incoming appointee stamps down his authority. It is to be seen at all levels of the Whites, from playing style down player decisions.
One of those levels is Bielsa’s insistence that Leeds United will have a first-team squad pared back to the basics, a squad that is, in ways, lean beyond lean with depth stripped back almost to the bone.
For Bielsa it is a question of flexibility and professional courtesy. Flexibility in that he wants each retained player to be able to play at least two distinct roles; professional courtesy in that he’s not going to keep hold of a player with no hope of game time.
The positives of a smaller squad are an increased sense of bonhomie and competitiveness as players gel and fight for a place in the side. Yet, for upsides there are always going to be downsides, unfortunately.
The biggest of these negatives, and the biggest in magnitude by far, is what happens when injuries start to creep in and the hit is felt? That’s already started to happen, and so far the Whites have coped admirably – their ‘covering players’ managing to keep the Elland Road side at the head of the table.
What if the pinch is felt more though? What if the injuries become less of a spate and more of a crisis? Will the Whites be able to adapt more as player strength is stretch so wide that playing resources start to become more threadbare?
Questions. Questions. Questions. What is needed to balance that all out is answers. One area where Leeds United have shown themselves to be stronger this season is at the back. Here they are much more an organised and cohesive unit than they were last season under Christiansen and Heckingbottom. Injuries have hit here, but these gaps have been plugged and sealed.
Leeds started the season with much-loved right-back-cum-left-back Gaetano Berardi fulfilling a role as a centre-back. That alone shows the flexibility that Marcelo Bielsa has demanded of his side. His ‘place’ in the side was more than adequately filled by Swedish international Pontus Jansson who is showing more than glimpses of the style that made him a crowd favourite on his singing from Torino.
But what if injuries or absences worsen, what if playing resources are stretched further? Will Bielsa’s ‘lean squad approach’ be able to cope? The answer to that might not be too far away.
Barry Douglas is facing time out with injury, Pontus Jansson could be facing some time out with the impending arrival of his first child. There are options for Leeds United to explore with both. For Douglas, it is a case of likely dropping Stuart Dallas back in at left-back and utilising his abilities as a winger to drive the left side forward, linking up with Gjianni Alioski.
The possibility of Jansson missing games is a different kettle of footballing fish altogether. Natural centre-backs at Leeds United are in short supply, you’d have to dip into Carlos Corberan’s Under-23s and look at the likes of Aapo Halme and Hugo Diaz for that recourse.
The option there would likely see that Kalvin Phillips, who often drops into the back line under Bielsa’s meticulous planning, would cover Jansson’s absence with the likely replacement for Phillips in midfield being a now fit again Adam Forshaw.
That’s all well and good, and definitely encouraging, but other questions might be plaguing the minds of Leeds United fans. Questions such as…what happens if the injury crisis worsens into something of a catastrophe?
The answer to that possibility will be the true acid test of whether Marcelo Bielsa’s decision to run with a lean, pared-down squad was the right decision after all.