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In defence of Tyler Roberts

The 22-year-old is often the first on the firing line when things go wrong for Leeds, regardless of how well he has actually performed.

Leeds United v West Ham United - Premier League
Dejected: Roberts reacts after the final whistle of Leeds United’s 2-1 defeat to West Ham United in the Premier League.
Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Tyler Roberts is not the finished article. His decision-making can let him down, his passes aren’t always accurate, he can struggle to generate chances for himself and others, and he doesn’t have the greatest impact coming off the bench. It is fair to point out such faults in his game.

A threshold has been crossed, however, and fair criticism has become unwarranted. The 22-year-old is among the first on the firing line when things go wrong for Leeds United, regardless of how well he has actually played. The discourse surrounding the Welshman within the club’s fanbase has become overwhelmingly negative over the last year, and out of proportion compared to how he’s performed on the pitch.

Despite his current unpopularity, Roberts is often the first attacking player Marcelo Bielsa turns to when he wants to switch things up, despite the likes of Joe Gelhardt and Crysencio Summerville knocking on the door for more first-team involvement. While it can be argued that the latter would have been a more like-for-like alternative to Raphinha in the 2-1 loss to West Ham United, there is a reason why a manager of Bielsa’s pedigree has not given up on the West Bromwich Albion academy product like so many others have.

Roberts fits the system. While this is not intended as an attack on Rodrigo, who evidently looks more comfortable leading the line than he does in midfield, a comparison between the two suggests that the 22-year-old suits Bielsa’s style better. Despite completing fewer pressures per-90, he has a higher success rate (31.8%) compared to Rodrigo (26.9%). Roberts has also completed more tackles, stopped more dribbles and made more blocks than his Spanish teammate so far this season. Going forward, Roberts also completes more progressive carries than Rodrigo and registers more touches in the final third and penalty area.

These statistics obviously do not directly correlate to immediate success for Roberts on the pitch, but they do provide an argument against the narrative that he has absolutely nothing to offer when he comes on. In reality, despite consistently entering the fray when Leeds have been struggling and subsequently are not playing like their usual selves, Roberts tends to have at least a little to offer in the short time he’s on the pitch.

Against Manchester United, the forward came on with 13 minutes of normal time remaining, but still contributed with a key pass, a big chance created, a shot, a duel won and a tackle, all while the game was well beyond the Whites. At home to Everton he hit the woodwork, at Burnley he won two duels and completed a tackle, against Liverpool he bested those tallies while also registering two shots and at Newcastle he provided two key passes.

In the aftermath of Leeds’ agonising defeat to the Hammers at Elland Road, Roberts was targeted for apparently contributing nothing for Leeds and, has he has been for every appearance he’s made this season, he was criticised. But what exactly did he do wrong? He completed all of his passes, helped progress the ball up the pitch and even completed a key pass for Leeds, all while the team had collectively lost their grip on the game to a West Ham side that finished in the top six last season.

The argument here is not that Roberts has been amazing; it’s that fans should tone down their judgement of players who for the most part are doing what is asked of them. Of course, Roberts does not have the same impact as someone like Raphinha, but you cannot blame a decent player for not being a world-class one. Liam Cooper has endured similar criticism this season and was singled out yesterday despite playing relatively well.

Roberts is only 22-years-old, the same age Phillips was when many fans seemed ready to see the back of him before Bielsa transformed him into a Premier League and international star. If the Welshman’s performances do not improve in the next couple of seasons then yes, it is a fair assessment that we may have to move him on. But let’s stop pretending he is as bad as some are making him out to be.