Eddie Nketiah improved his already impressive goals-per-minute ratio last night.
The 20-year-old striker scored a hat-trick for England Under-21s as Aidy Boothroyd’s side beat Austria Under-21s 5-1 at Stadium MK.
Nketiah once again displayed his predatory instincts with a trio of fox-in-the-box finishes that had Arsenal fans asking: why isn’t he starting for Leeds this season?
Many of the Elland Road faithful – who have become accustomed to watching their side dominate games only to be denied three points because of squandered chances – are also calling for the loanee to take Patrick Bamford’s place in the starting line-up.
So why isn’t Marcelo Bielsa – a coach who knows more about his players than their own families – giving Nketiah the nod?
For the answer, you have to go back to a Copa America fixture in 2004…
Picture the scene: Javier Saviola has just scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win over Ecuador to ensure Argentina’s tournament gets off to an emphatic start.
The Barcelona striker walks off the pitch with a content smile on his face and the match ball tucked under his arm.
He heads into the dressing room where he is approached by his coach; you guessed it, Bielsa.
Expecting praise for his hat-trick, Saviola is surprised when Bielsa describes his performance as ‘a disaster’.
Speaking to The Coaches’ Voice many years later, Saviola explained Bielsa’s reasoning: “I didn’t understand at all.
“But in his footballing vision, it was about what I did in the defensive phase. Or rather, what I didn’t do — like help my team-mates.”
That’s right, Bielsa dished out a b*llocking to a hat-trick hero because he didn’t press enough.
They don’t call him El Loco for nothing.
For Bielsa, the system is everything.
He believes that if the team functions as a cohesive unit in his design then they’ll win every game — his faith in his philosophy is unwavering.
“If football was played by robots,” Bielsa once mused, “I would win everything.”
In his unconventional mind, Saviola’s hat-trick was irrelevant because if the striker played his part defensively and contributed to a complete team performance, Argentina would have won anyway, and in a repeatable fashion.
How does this relate to Nketiah and Leeds in 2019?
The Arsenal wonderkid is a natural poacher who comes alive in the box but at this stage of his career, his hold-up play and ability to link up with team-mates is inferior to Bamford’s.
Bielsa knows better than anyone that Nketiah is the better finisher but he believes dropping Bamford would compromise Leeds’ attacking build-up which, if you look at the xG stats, is by far and away the best in the Championship.
So far this season, he’s effectively backed Bamford to score one of five chances rather than Nketiah to score one of two.
Many Leeds fans think this decision has proved incorrect, with Nketiah coming off the bench to score with his first sniff of goal more than once..
However, the Yorkshire club have also suffered after the customary introduction of Nketiah at 75 minutes in a couple of games this season, supporting Bielsa’s preference.
If you consider Bielsa’s approach an overcomplicated one, you’re not alone.
A self-confessed obsessive, it’s entirely possible his neurosis is the reason his trophy cabinet does not align with his reputation — Pep Guardiola once called him ‘the best coach in the world’.
While it may seem obvious to many of us that Nketiah’s finishing is the missing piece in Leeds’ promotion puzzle, we must consider Bielsa’s expertise.
After all, the Argentine’s sophisticated tactics are the primary reason Leeds have been in the promotion conversation in the last year.
Before Bielsa’s appointment, Leeds finished in the bottom half in six of their previous seven seasons.
Despite frustrations about chance conversion and the Nketiah v Bamford debate, which dominates the forums, message boards and Facebook groups, the majority of fans acknowledge supporting the club would be a whole lot worse without Bielsa crouched on the touchline.
Arsenal too are likely to receive the best possible version of their promising youngster in the summer.
Training under Bielsa will teach him more than starting 40 games under a Championship manager of infinitely less experience.
El Loco’s relative lack of flexibility may well be a weakness, but he is nothing if not a dedicated student of the game.
Will Nketiah start for Leeds this Saturday? Wait and see…
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