Featured image courtesy of Lewis Storey/Getty Images
The ‘second season syndrome’ is an overused phrase when it comes to a side falling off after a successful season prior, Sheffield United a pressing example from last season. After finishing 9th in the top flight last season, their first in the Premier League for some time, Leeds fans expected an unlikely push for Europe. Expectations are yet to be met, with Leeds stuttering so far this season in 17th.
Looking over the Leeds team, an issue does seem to lie in a lot of the players suffering from a hangover so to speak. With the high intensity of Bielsa’s game, the likes of Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling have been transformed into players far above what you might expect from those two in particular. Riding off a wave of Championship success, has this momentum ended? Have certain individuals done all they can, and have inevitably reached their peak? The group at Elland Road have been around for a good solid couple of years, is a lack of fresh blood in the camp their undoing?
Moreover, the transfers into Elland Road didn’t add substantial quality to a thin squad arguably. Junior Firpo and Dan James are smart signings – both deals Bielsa had been chasing for some time – but the squad remains thinner than others around them hence the drop-off in league position. A fix for the lack of faces entering Elland Road could well lie in the youth set-up, something that Leeds have used to effect over the years.
Even going back to the days of Alan Smith in a Leeds United shirt, The Whites have always been unafraid to plunge youngsters straight into the first team fold. In some more modern examples, the likes of Alex Mowatt and Sam Byram burst onto the scene through the Leeds Academy before finding success elsewhere with Mowatt one of the Championship’s better midfielders for West Brom. Are this current crop up to this standard? You only have to look at Kalvin Phillips for a resounding answer, this current crop has some of the best youngsters Leeds have ever produced. A product of the Youth Academy, Phillips has cemented himself as a starter for club and country.
Moving away from the obvious example, and there’s a whole host of youngsters Bielsa should be looking at to re-ignite his faltering side. With Jamie Shackleton pushing into the first team mix, alongside regular U23’s member Struijk eclipsing 30 appearances for the senior side, the Argentine at the helm for Leeds isn’t hesitant at giving the youth a go. Looking at the Wolves game, Joe Gelhardt’s influence up top could well prove to be a distraction from Patrick Bamford’s recent injury issues. Driving forward with the fearlessness of a youth player trying with his all might to succeed, Gelhardt’s cameo won Bielsa’s men a last minute penalty to snatch a draw over Lage’s Wolves. Coming up against basement club Norwich at the weekend, Gelhardt’s influence late on against Wolves could see him start against a leaky Canaries side.
This fearless approach could give Bielsa’s men the edge, this unexpected side to their game with many teams becoming equipped to deal with Leeds’ style of play. Cody Drameh is another name ready to break through, making his senior debut in the Carabao Cup versus Arsenal. Lining up alongside Kalvin Phillips and Illan Meslier, this was a dream come true for the 19 year old full-back. Crysencio Summerville was also given some first team minutes in this cup tie, the former Feyenoord turned Leeds youth prospect a tricky winger ready to make the step-up. Highlights for the Leeds United U23’s show his true capabilities, a goal against Sunderland providing us with the most evidence. Weaving around multiple Sunderland shirts before firing a shot into the net, the Dutch midfielder is another who could make an impact for Bielsa’s men sooner rather than later.
With Leeds just above the relegation zone, it could be time for Bielsa to start thinking outside of the box in order to turn around their form. Playing too many youngsters at the one time could prove disastrous – Leeds have enough quality first team players to mount a rise back up the table – but the likes of Gelhardt and Summerville could inject Leeds with a bit more energy in a side that looks slightly jaded. With Lewis Bate and Charlie Cresswell also names to watch out for, prepare to see Bielsa opt for youth to arrest what some might describe as an early indicator of the dreaded ‘second season syndrome.’