This article is part of Football League World’s ‘Comment’ series, this content strand is where the author of the article issues their personal opinion on the topic at hand….
Eddie Nketiah returned to the bench for Leeds United on Saturday to watch Patrick Bamford score in the 4-0 win over Middlesbrough and further cement his place as Marcelo Bielsa’s first choice at Elland Road.
Leeds benefit from Bamford’s selfless running and hold up play, even if his goalscoring is inconsistent and appears to come in bursts of four or five games.
In Nketiah, the Whites have a lethal back-up, who has struck three goals in 11 substitute appearances in the Championship, alongside two goals in two League Cup starts back in August.
However, with the January transfer window less than a month away, Leeds are at risk of losing Nketiah due to his lack of playing time, with Arsenal reportedly unhappy about the number of minutes the 20-year-old has played this season.
In the immediate future, it is hard to imagine Nketiah will come in and replace Bamford, who has three goals in his last four appearances, but Bielsa’s recent switch in tactics suggests there might be room for both in the starting line-up.
Bielsa has largely preferred a 4-1-4-1 system since arriving at Elland Road, but over the course of November, we have watched Leeds morph into something of a 3-5-2 formation, with a lot more focus on getting players around Bamford in attack.
Leeds' average player positions map over our last four matches. Marcelo Bielsa has switched up from a flexible 4-1-4-1 to a fluid 3-5-2 system the past three games. [Source: @InStatFootball]. #LUFC #MOT #Tactics pic.twitter.com/7hUT9U6O7l
— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) December 2, 2019
That, of course, opens the door for Nketiah to come into the side alongside Leeds’ top goalscorer, which could go some way to convincing Arsenal that there is no need to be recalling their striker just yet.
With Nketiah sidelined with an abdominal problem, it has been Tyler Roberts and Pablo Hernandez who have shared the burden of supporting Bamford from a central area in recent weeks, playing more of a No.10 role than that of an out-and-out striker. However, Bielsa has looked to pair two strikers together in the past, albeit with differing results.
Back in August, Leeds were goalless with Brentford at Elland Road until Bielsa introduced Nketiah alongside Bamford in attack, sacrificing Hernandez on 77 minutes to form a two-man strikeforce.
Nketiah scored the winner against the Bees, but when Bielsa revisited the tactic at Charlton Athletic in September, Leeds failed to break down the Addicks, losing 1-0.
Bielsa is concerned that going with a Bamford, Nketiah axis means he has to sacrifice a creative midfield player, which will result in Leeds creating less chances, but the fluidity of the new system means players all over the pitch are able to carve openings.
Clearly wary of taking out a creative player to accommodate two strikers. Name-checks Klich, Forshaw and Shackleton. #LUFC
— AGB (@BurnsAlfie) September 21, 2019
Now, the whole side is a little bit more familiar with that system and Bielsa’s men have just gone through November with a flawless record, with Saturday’s win over Middlesbrough rounding off the month in impressive fashion.
The general rule is ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it’, with Hernandez working well operating just behind Bamford. However, Leeds are going to have much bigger tests than Boro on the horizon and Nketiah’s cutting edge will be needed to win tighter games; Brentford and Barnsley are examples of that, whilst the youngster’s equaliser at Preston North End was a crucial goal in a big game.
Bamford’s hard work has tightened his own grip on a starting berth, but Bielsa’s re-jig is a sign that Nketiah isn’t always going to be warming the bench at Elland Road and that Arsenal’s recall threats have him thinking.
November was good, December is going to be much tougher, and Nketiah might have a big say on where Leeds finish 2019.