Leeds United’s defeat to West Ham on Saturday made it six league games without a win, the club’s worst start to a top-flight season since 1935/1936, with results elsewhere pushing them down into the relegation zone.
The manner of the defeat, however, hit home harder than any statistics. Ahead and in command at the break, the Whites failed to capitalise on a litany of chances before conceding an unlucky, but not unavoidable, deflected equaliser and a devastating 90th minute Winner for West Ham, courtesy of Michael Antonio.
Regular problems surfaced: the ever-growing injury/suspension list underlining a thin squad that needed financial backing, an over-reliance on Raphinha to provide an attacking threat, an inability to manage a game defensively and an openness that borders on chaotic.
And yet despite all of the above, yesterday’s defeat can be looked at through a positive lens. Rodrigo - deployed up-front in the absence of Patrick Bamford - put in one of his best performances in a Leeds shirt, Jamie Shackleton had another excellent game at right-back and Illan Meslier made a string of world-class saves to cement his position as one of the most promising goalkeepers in Europe.
On top of all of that was the Premier League debut of Charlie Cresswell: brought in to start alongside Liam Cooper, with Robin Koch, Diego Llorente, Pascal Struijk and Luke Ayling all absent. Cresswell made his full debut with an impressive midweek performance during the Carabao Cup win at Fulham, but a step-up to face an in-form West Ham side and go man-to-man with one of the most physical and dangerous strikers in the league in Antonio was a massive challenge.
Yet the best compliment that could be paid to the Cresswell is that, to the average onlooker, there was no indication that this was his first Premier League game. Tasked with the unenviable mission of matching Antonio physically, the 19-year old more than held his own and contained the West Ham striker particularly well during the first half.
Not one to just play the role of the destructor, Cresswell’s confidence in possession showed a calmness and maturity years ahead of his age, often linking up effectively with the midfield or punching line-breaking passes into the feet of Rodrigo to kickstart attacking moves. When given the freedom from a deep West Ham side to step into midfield Cresswell looked assured and adept.
There was a chance for a dream moment as, rising high above a packed out penalty area, Cresswell connected with a powerful header that landed inches wide of Lukas Fabianski’s left-hand post.
But it ended in devastation as Antonio, so well contained by Cresswell all game, found himself free of his marker before flicking the ball past Shackleton and slotting home for all three points.
Charlie Cresswell on his Premier League debut vs. West Ham:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) September 25, 2021
71 total passes
54 succ. passes
24 opp half passes
3 aerial duels won
2 headed clearances
2 ball recoveries
1 blocked shot
1 tackle won
Excellent against Antonio. pic.twitter.com/3jVuO4nCLV
Speaking to LUTV shortly after the game, Cresswell said: “In the moment, I’m gutted we lost but I’ll have to watch it back to see how I did individually.
“It’s very overwhelming, I’ll need to calm down, see how I did and watch it back. I found out about five minutes before the warm-up, I was told I was starting and I was just like ‘wow’.
“I sat in the dressing room and I had to stick my game head-on. I thought I adapted quite well. He (Marcelo Bielsa) just wanted me to go out there and do my thing.
“That is what has got me in this position but I just need to continue doing that. As a footballer and sportsman, I wanted to play every week but I need to be there for my teammates and help when I can.”
Despite the defeat, Marcelo Bielsa was unequivocal about Cresswell’s performance when speaking to the media: “It was a performance of a lot of personality, a lot of character, very few errors, imposing himself in a very, very difficult game against a striker who is very difficult to neutralise,
“For a young player who took a long time to earn this opportunity, he did so against Fulham.”
Pascal Struijk is set to return from his suspension for next week’s game at Fulham, whilst both Diego Llorente and Robin Koch look set for imminent returns also, pushing Cresswell back down the pecking order.
But at just 19-years old the immersion into Premier League football can only be positive for Cresswell’s development. He’s certainly imposed himself as a competent deputy.