How Leeds blend first team & U23s in return to reserve team model
Written by Simon Austin — April 23, 2021
MORE than half of Marcelo Bielsa’s first-team squad have played for Leeds' Under-23s so far this season in something of a return to the old reserve team model.
There has been a lot of debate about whether the U23 leagues are the best preparation for aspiring young players.
In the old reserve teams, senior players would line up alongside up-and-coming youngsters, but since the advent of EPPP first-team squads and U23s have tended to be kept separate.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has complained that in Premier League 2 “they play between each other with small ages," whereas in Germany or Spain, where they have B teams, "they are playing with guys who are 28, 29 or 30 and that is the best way to improve.”
Brighton have tried to address this issue by signing Andrew Crofts, 36, specifically for their U23s, with Technical Director Dan Ashworth explaining: "I hear a lot of people talk about back in the day when in the reserve team you could drop down a couple of senior players and help the young players - I suppose it’s a hybrid version of that.”
This season, no fewer than 15 Leeds first-teamers have played for their U23s in Premier League 2 Division 2 - Pablo Hernandez, Adam Forshaw, Rodrigo, Raphinha, Jack Harrison, Ian Carlo Poveda, Tyler Roberts, Kiko Casilla, Gaetano Berardi, Diego Llorente, Robin Koch, Pascal Struijk, Calvin Phillips, Helder Costa and Jamie Shackleton.
They have done so mainly to get playing time, either because they're coming back from injury or not in the first team, but there has also been the knock-on effect of aiding the U23s and bringing the two squads closer together. Indeed, a week ago, Leeds were crowned champions of Premier League 2 Division 2 in their first season as a Category 1 club.
Interestingly, despite Guardiola’s reservations about the "small ages" of Premier League 2, not a single City first teamer has played for their U23s during this campaign.
Conversely, the U23s must also be ready to jump into Bielsa’s match-day squad whenever they're called upon.
Leeds U23 boss Mark Jackson, who stepped up from the U18s last September when Carlos Corberan departed to become manager of Huddersfield, said the excellent attitude of the first teamers had been key.
In an excellent interview with Phil Hay of The Athletic today, Jackson said: “I speak to other U23 coaches and sometimes they’re not totally happy when first-teamers drop down. It can be seen as disruptive and maybe their attitudes aren’t great.
“But 100%, every player who drops down here, their attitude is first class. I found myself saying that all the time in interviews after games because it was true and I felt like I needed to make the point.
“Even with the analysis, I’d see someone like Pablo Hernandez in the front row for the sessions before a 23s game, concentrating and listening to what’s being said."
Jackson came through the youth ranks at Leeds United in the 1990s and added: “I used to play for the old reserve team at Leeds so I’m used to this. There was an agreement at the start of the year that if senior players needed minutes, Marcelo had scope to influence that and put them in.
"But he gave me the freedom to coach the team and pick the rest of it and that was very important for me."
Leeds' Academy and first team squads train at the same Thorp Arch site and manager Bielsa takes a keen interest in the younger age groups.
Academy Manager Adam Underwood told The Athletic: "He’ll ask about the U15s or U16s and sometimes I’ll think, ‘I’m not sure I’ve ever even mentioned that player to you but somehow you already know about him’. There’s no divide here between Academy and first team, not like you see at some clubs."
Ged Roddy, the architect of the EPPP system as Director of Football Development at the Premier League, told TGG: "Marcelo oozes common sense. Mixing senior pros in with the 23s speeds up transition for youngsters and keeps seniors match sharp. Most senior players are also great with young players."