In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe talks about the impact of having two games postponed, the international break and the forthcoming break for the FIFA World Cup.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
When is an international break not an international break? When it solves the tedium rather than creates the tedium. As Leeds United fans many of us treat international football like some kind of petty side-hustle the players insist on getting involved in. And we’re very pleased for them and everything, but it’s really just an inconvenience. The two rounds of international games over the next week, however, will be welcomed like a portaloo in a 24-hour queue, even if they do still represent an interruption to our season and the cause of us having a full 29 days between Leeds United fixtures.
It’s all about match fitness isn’t it? And while normally we’d secretly want our players to have as little involvement in the tiresome triviality of international football as possible, and to be wrapped in cotton wool for the entirety of their time away, this time around we’re happy for them to be let loose for two sets of a full 90 minutes whether it’s a dead rubber Nations League fixture or a friendly international against some semi-pros. To hell with experimentation and wholesale half-time substitutions, flog these guys to within an inch of their lives, because they need it.
While Leeds sold their two highest profile internationals in the summer, we still have an impressive roster of players departing for various climes this week. Of our new signings, both Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson are away with the USA, while Rasmus Kristensen was fit enough to join up with Denmark and Luis Sinisterra has two fixtures for Colombia against Guatemala and Mexico, which are to be staged in the United States.
Willy Gnonto has again been selected for the full Italian squad, and may well be lining up against England, albeit he won’t be preparing for the World Cup campaign in Qatar because Italy didn’t qualify. After that, both Darko Gyabi and Sonny Perkins were selected for England Under-19s. That’s quite an impressive haul of international recognition for our new signings, and of course you can add to that Mateusz Klich away with Poland and Diego Llorente with Spain, while at Under-21 level we have Kristoffer Klaesson and Leo Hjelde away with Norway and Illan Meslier with France.
That doesn’t leave many players wandering round the echoing corridors of Thorp Arch trying to drum up some banter with the canteen staff, and when you consider that Liam Cooper, Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood, Patrick Bamford, Jack Harrison, Pascal Struijk, Robin Koch and Rodrigo all had legitimate claims to have been anticipating a call-up over the last week, albeit with varying levels of expectation, it puts a slightly different slant on the strength of our squad. Indeed, perhaps there was only Luke Ayling, an injured Stuart Dallas, Cody Drameh, Junior Firpo, Adam Forshaw, Marc Roca and Crysencio Summerville who weren’t twitching nervously and glancing at their phone every five minutes waiting for a call.
And given the players have been competing in only inter-squad friendlies and some of them an Under-21 fixture over the last three weeks, that call, if it came, was a very welcome one. From a Leeds United perspective the international games do provide some vital match practice at a time when the season has been halted in an unforeseen fashion.
Even the travelling time for these international games isn’t too bad, with Luis Sinisterra encountering the most taxing schedule, but the second of his two games in the States is being played at 3am next Wednesday morning (UK time), giving him four days’ recovery time before Leeds re-start their season on Sunday afternoon against Aston Villa. This is a grievance lathered in insincerity, of course, but Raphinha being selected for Brazil did become an outright nuisance. Playing in South America in the early hours of a Friday morning was never going to be to Leeds United’s benefit on a Saturday afternoon, quite apart from the fact that once he began to shine in the famous Brazilian shirt, he was never going to remain a Leeds United player for long.
Let’s just agree that having fancy Brazilian internationals on your books is something of a double-edged sword, and right now, Leeds United are ticking over quite nicely without one, except I think we are.
It’s difficult to say, when you support a football club that doesn’t play football games, and just sells shirts, receives touchline bans and posts training videos and stuff. This mid-season break would be great under many other circumstances, an important one being that there wasn’t another mid-season break coming up in a few weeks. This is why the international games are heaven-sent in terms of restoring match sharpness, but in truth, nothing can replicate the cut and thrust of regular Premier League football, and it will be difficult for Leeds United, and other clubs, to regain the rhythm they were trying to build and rediscover the understanding that was beginning to spread throughout the side.
With a six-week break for the Qatar World Cup from mid-November, this season is quickly unravelling into another ‘ghost’ campaign much like the COVID-interrupted season of 2019/20, where stats are analysed with a caveat and fans and pundits add a subconscious asterisk to achievements that don’t suit them. In theory, the players’ physical outputs are so tightly assessed and controlled that we should expect to see Leeds United’s squad at peak fitness and capability when they eventually line-up against Villa, and again against Manchester City on Boxing Day after the World Cup break, but you just don’t know.
When the Premier League is contested on such an elite level, both technically and physically, there are very fine lines between success and failure – and lets ignore for now the part VAR also plays in that - and how clubs navigate these extended and unwelcome breaks, in terms of player preparedness, will play a pivotal role.
On the surface you would say that the delicate fitness status of players like Liam Cooper, Patrick Bamford and Junior Firpo, for example, who have enjoyed very little first team football so far this season, would mean the break was the very last thing they wanted when their fitness levels were just building-up nicely. But they have all suffered an awkward succession of different injuries over the last couple of seasons, so perhaps this extended break is ideal for their bodies to be fully prepared for the rigours to come, and the temptation to rush them back into action is able to be resisted?
I don’t know, but these 29 days off have to be good for something and perhaps that is it. We need our captain and most established striker firing as soon as possible, and maybe this is the best way of doing so. And maybe at the end of the season we’ll look back on this international break and think this was the time we were able to press ‘reset’ and re-start the season with the fully-fit squad we really wanted back in August.
It’s a peculiar time, and not just because an Italian player, rather than an English one, is the only reason why we’re invested in England versus Italy this weekend. Nobody told me there’d be days like these, where I welcomed and enjoyed international football. Strange days indeed.