In just under two weeks time Leeds United’s 2021/2022 season will be underway. Their opener, at 12:30pm on Saturday 14th August, is at Old Trafford against Manchester United. Easy enough.
The Whites go into the new season looking to build on their electrifying first campaign back in the Premier League, which saw them win their last four and finish in ninth place. This, in an ideal world, would be generously reflected in the club’s summer transfer budget. But this is not an ideal world. Far from it.
The purse strings have been somewhat tightened at Elland road this summer, with nothing like the near £100 million transfer kitty available to Victor Orta and Marcelo Bielsa. The Leeds hierarchy were aware last summer that they needed a considerable investment in an already over-performing squad, in order to give it that nice shiny Premier League finish, but Andrea Radrizzani has made it clear that this summer - or the next few summers for that matter - won’t be quite as fruitful.
Business has had to be much more shrewd, and whilst Radrizzani has been happy to dip into his pocket when needed - spending £12.8 million on left-back Junior Firpo whilst finally making Jack Harrison’s move from Manchester City permanent for around £11 million - it will be much more a case of work with what you have for Bielsa.
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Luckily, what Bielsa has at his disposal is pretty good, and if the manager wants to freshen up the squad then he only has to look as far as the under-23s. Leeds’ awarding of category one academy status last July opened the floodgates, and a wealth of young talent has since come through the doors at Thorp Arch. Mark Jackson’s side walked the Premier League 2 Division 2 last season and will now ply their trade amongst the best academy sides in the country.
Bielsa has made a point of keeping the most promising under-23s in the under-23s. A combination of a thin first squad, a huge physical toll and the specifics of his methods has lead Bielsa to feel much more comfortable with his best youth players close to home - they are often dropped into first-team training and are well versed in Murderball.
Amongst that group there are some clear favourites for first-team minutes, with a pathway of succession to current senior members. These are the five most likely for a first-team breakthrough during the 2021/2022 season.
Arguably the most likely of the under-23s to make a break into the first-team picture, and the only pick who made his debut last season - albeit in a woeful 3-0 defeat to Crawley Town - Sam Greenwood is a clear favourite of Bielsa and his transformation into a goalscoring central midfielder has significantly bolstered his chances of racking up some first-team minutes this season.
Initially brought in from Arsenal as a striker, Greenwood’s development into the goalscoring midfielder, in the mould of Tyler Roberts and Rodrigo, has provided a much clearer pathway into the first-team setup, with his good friend and team-mate Joe Gelhardt (spoiler alert: another of the top five) taking on the role of main striker.
The deeper role has done nothing to relinquish any of Greenwood’s attacking intent however, and the 18-year old ended Leeds under-23s season as top-scorer, with 12 goals in 18 games (at a rate of 0.76 goals per 90 minutes).
In fact quite the opposite. the move into a deeper role has accentuated all of Greenwood’s best qualities: his two-footedness, aggression on the ball and strong positional intelligence, qualities that make him a perfect attacking-eight for a Bielsa side.
His quality from free-kicks won’t do his chances any harm either...
Greenwood! You beauty! pic.twitter.com/EMMV4c6qqv— Leeds United (@LUFC) July 27, 2021
Another summer 2020 bargain-buy, Joe Gelhardt’s arrival for the small fee of £1 million was an incredibly astute investment, and one that looked more and more so as the former Wigan player made the under-23s striker position his own last season.
His competitive friendship with Greenwood has brought the best out of both players, and no doubt there will have been fierce rivalry when it came to club top-scorer last season. And whilst Greenwood pipped Gelhardt by just the single goal (Gelhardt managed 11 goals in 16 games) the striker’s goals per 90 ratio of 0.86 handed some bragging rights to Gelhardt.
It’s never just about the goals for a Bielsa forward, however, and Gelhardt’s biggest development over his debut season with the under-23s has been his build up play. Deployed as a loan front-man, the young striker’s responsibility to bring others into play has garnered an appreciation for those advancing around him, as shown by his assists per 90 minutes ratio of 0.24 - second only to Crysencio Summerville.
In terms of pathways into the first team, Gelhardt has a few already ahead of him. Patrick Bamford is the clear first choice after smashing in 17 Premier League goals last season, whilst Rodrigo’s positive end to the campaign will see him in first reserve. With Roberts seemingly settled into the attacking midfield role, you would think Gelhardt would be Bielsa’s third choice up-top.
Since arriving last summer the comparisons to a young Wayne Rooney have been constant, but Gelhardt, if given the opportunity, will look to set his own narrative as part of the future of Leeds United.
The likelihood of that opportunity coming during the 21/22 season is looking more and more likely.
With the most clear pathway into first-team action, it can easily be argued that former Fulham academy project Cody Drameh pips Greenwood as the most likely to break into Bielsa’s side. 29-year old Luke Ayling is the obvious first choice, and whilst Jamie Shackleton’s positive performances in recent friendlies have strengthened his own position in the squad, Drameh’s similarity to Ayling keeps the 19-year old firmly in contention for a first-team breakthrough.
As with Greenwood and Gelhardt, Drameh joined for a nominal fee (£396,000, according to Transfermarkt) as part of the summer 2020 influx that saw Leeds develop their newly awarded category one academy. During his debut season in West Yorkshire he has completed the most minutes for Jackson’s side on their way to winning the Premier League 2 Division 2 title, and won Leeds United Under-23s Player of The Season in the process.
As solid in defence as he is dominant going forward, Drameh’s outstanding athleticism makes him the perfect fit for a Bielsa full-back, and propels him into the outright second choice to fill in for the experienced Ayling. In addition, Drameh’s defensive discipline, coupled with his tactical nous in 1v1 situations adds a maturity to his game that is far beyond the young full-back’s years.
There’s a reason he was voted as the Under-23s Player of The Season, an all round full-back with some incredible years ahead of him. He’ll get a chance to pit himself against the best under-23s sides in the country next season, and will be hopeful of a first-team debut, sooner rather than later.
18-year old Lewis Bate arrived from Chelsea, just a couple of weeks ago, for the cut-price fee of £1.5 million, after the young midfielder refused to sign a new contract at Stamford Bridge in search for a chance of first-team football.
It was that pathway into the first-team that attracted Bate towards West Yorkshire, and after seeing the importance that Bielsa and the rest of the Leeds hierarchy place on youth development, and the opportunities given to players of a similar age, It was Leeds who came out on top of a number of Premier League clubs in acquiring the youngsters signature.
Initially signed to settle into Jackson’s under-23s side as they progress into their debut Premier League 2 Division 1 season, Bate’s pathway into the first team - deputising for Kalvin Phillips in the deep-lying midfield role - is likely to come to fruition as the season progresses, with a first-team debut during the upcoming campaign inevitable.
As with all recent youth recruitment, Bate has been scouted with a very specific role in mind, and that deep-lying midfield role recently dominated by Phillips is perfectly suited to the combative yet technically brilliant Bate .
What sets Bate up for future stardom is his quality on the ball and his wand of a left foot. Beautiful long range pings are mixed in with short, snappy passes and a diminutive physical profile that brings both strength and speed. His spatial awareness and speed on the ball make him incredibly press resistant and able to pick the ball up in tight spaces, another strength perfectly suited to his deep-lying role.
Lewis Bate's midfielder ranking in the PL2 (Div 1) last season:— Jamie Kemp (@jamiemkemp) July 22, 2021
2nd - completed passes per 90
2nd - touches per 90
5th - lowest possession loss rate
4th - long pass attempts per 90
4th - long pass %
On the ball a lot > high # of long passes > gives it away rarely, despite that. pic.twitter.com/dg5H79PqS5
Last, but definitely not least, is 18-year old centre-back and last season’s under-23s captain Charlie Cresswell, who signed for Leeds back in 2018 under a two year scholarship. Since joining the youth set up at Thorp Arch, Cresswell’s development into captain of both the under-18s and under-23s has been an incredible journey, and it doesn’t look to be ending there.
Despite making his first-team debut back in 2020, albeit in the EFL Cup defeat to Hull, the emergence of Pascal Struijk, coupled with signing of Diego Llorente and Robin Koch last summer, has made the pathway into first-team action an arduous one for Cresswell. But his dominance within the title winning under-23s side and his solid performances during this season’s friendly games have kept him in the hunt for more first-team minutes.
What stands out about Cresswell, still just 18-years old, is his maturity in the heart of the defence. Physically, the 6’0” centre-back has no problems mixing it up with senior forwards, and has both the strength and the recovery speed to match Premier League strikers.
Equally as effective technically, Cresswell’s assuredness on the ball reflects that of a vastly experienced defender with years of football under his belt. Quality with both right and left foot is a bonus for the all round stopper, and a keen eye for goal from set pieces earned him two goal last season as well as the opener in Leeds’ pre-season friendly with Fleetwood Town.
An incredibly satisfying BULLET HEADER from Leeds defender Charlie Cresswell. pic.twitter.com/T0OunPH8AF— Tom Carnduff (@TomC_22) July 30, 2021
With a reduced summer budget, and subsequently calmer transfer window, Bielsa’s use of a fresh and hungry under-23s group may prove pivotal in Leeds’ 2021/2022 season.
Lack of experience is always a worry with such players, but astute management and the experience of those around him - now with a season of Premier League football behind them - could pave the way for some of the most exciting youth talent seen in West Yorkshire since the turn of the century.
Above all these players, along with every other member of the under-23s squad, will be plying their trade in the top division of academy football against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, under the management of Mark Jackson.
They will all be dreaming of that breakthrough season.