Inside Leeds' injury crisis - and why it may be time to stop 'murderball' - Telegraph 16/1/22
Could three-and-a-half years of Marcelo Bielsa’s extreme, high-energy football be catching up with Leeds' squad?
At the last count, when the final whistle blew at the London Stadium, the injury list at Leeds United included all of their strikers, their most important midfielder and their captain. To borrow a phrase: to lose one key player to injury may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose all of them looks like carelessness.
This has been the story of the campaign in West Yorkshire, where the second season back in the Premier League has been beset by Marcelo Bielsa being unable to regularly put his best team on the pitch.
Bielsa has never spent as long at a club as he has at Leeds, with his fourth season at Elland Road a relative marathon to the months at Lille or days at Lazio. Even at Newell’s Old Boys or Athletic Bilbao, the Argentinian coach has tended to make a big impact in a short amount of time before taking his pioneering methods elsewhere.
There is a suspicion that these demands are now catching up with Leeds’ players after three-and-a-half years of Bielsa’s extreme, high-energy football. On matchday they have been compared to a basketball team with their exciting attacking that relies on non-stop running.
At Thorp Arch, which had facilities improved under the instruction of Bielsa, they train with intensity like no other top-flight team. “Longer sessions. More intense sessions,” was how it was described by one source familiar with Leeds’ schedule and that of rival clubs. One other difference is more full-pitch scenarios while training.
What has taken them to the Premier League and made them the entertainers of last season could also be part of their problem.
As Bielsa explains, there is simply no other way for him to work as a coach. There cannot be concessions no matter how bad the injury list is. There will still be “murderball”, his famous session where the ball is constantly in play, no fouls, no offsides, no tactics. It is simply a test of a player’s physical capabilities.
“The training, of course, reproduces situations of the competition - if not it's very difficult to prepare a team,” Bielsa said. “We're still the team that runs the most in the Premier League, counting on half as many players - that has some value and what would seem makes common sense, because you say there's so few of them why are you not moderating training.”
The good news for Bielsa is that Patrick Bamford is closing in on a return but his absence has been sorely felt. His form over the previous year earned him an England call-up in September but he has hardly played since, then injured himself scoring and celebrating on his return.
Kalvin Phillips’ injury was perhaps the biggest blow of the season. The England midfielder sets the pace of the game for Bielsa in his defensive-midfield role and provides an element of control in Leeds’ frantic matches.
He was injured in a game against Brentford where Bielsa’s injury worries seemed to converge. Phillips was injured in the build-up to conceding an equaliser, then was off the pitch when Sergi Canos added a second. Liam Cooper, Bielsa’s captain, had limped off earlier with an ankle problem.
Bamford sparked jubilant scenes with an equaliser but it came at a cost: he injured himself scoring and celebrating. He was returning after almost three months out after aggravating an ankle problem.
“When Bamford was injured against Newcastle, the injury was towards the end of the game and I asked Bamford to finish what was left of the game because we needed him,” said Bielsa. “Perhaps me asking him that, that aggravated his injury.”
Bielsa’s players are used to going through the pain barrier to help the team. Rodrigo Moreno played with a knock for “a long time”, according to Bielsa, before his recent absence. Stuart Dallas plays most weeks with a niggling problem that would rule many other players out.
Luke Ayling had a spell on the sidelines earlier his season and constantly monitors his knee to determine whether he can play.
Recent additions to the treatment room have been Joe Gelhardt, who has broken into the first team and admitted that the intensity of Bielsa’s training. "It was a tough change at first with the physicality of the lads and the shape they're in," he said after his debut.
Sam Greenwood played in attack last week against West Ham in the FA Cup and he too was injured ahead of the Premier League clash against the same opponents. Bielsa says the injuries have been self-inflicted by team-mates at times but does not see the training sessions as the cause.
“For example Gelhardt's injury, Greenwood falls on top of him and injures him, it doesn't have anything to do with the type of activity,” he said. “For (Charlie) Cresswell a team-mate falls on top of him and injures his shoulder.
“(Crysencio) Summerville clashes with one of his team-mates and has his clavicle hurt, that isn't to do with the type of training but the activities has things that can't be prevented but apart from that if we lost our intensity, we would lose a value of something that's very important and the intensity you keep it by training, not by not training.”
Added to the absentees this weekend is Diego Llorente, who is suspended, while Cody Drameh asked to be loaned out to Cardiff City. Their points per game so far suggests survival but they will be limping over the line.