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Sunderland decision on U23s has echoes of Bielsa

This article is part of Football FanCast’s The Chalkboard series, which provides a tactical insight into teams, players, managers, potential signings and more… 

Jack Ross has explained why Sunderland did not send loads of young players out on loan this summer, and a similar approach worked well for Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds last season.

What’s the word?

The Black Cats only allowed three youngsters to depart this summer – Jack Diamond, Ethan Robson and Jordan Hunter.

As reported by The Chronicle, Ross says the reason for this is that they wanted to “strike a balance” between development and under-23 success, while ensuring he has enough bodes for EFL Trophy games.

Now, to many, under-23 football may seem kind of pointless, and The Chronicle’s report even mentions that: “There is a widespread feeling within the game that under-23 games are insufficient for making the jump from academy to senior football.”

However, Bielsa, who is credited as one of the game’s greatest minds by the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, took a different approach at Elland Road last season and Ross’ plan contains echoes of that way of thinking.

Unity throughout the club

While they didn’t achieve promotion, there is no question Leeds developed significantly under the enigmatic Argentine in 2018/19. They improved their previous league finish by ten places and a whopping 23 points, and a lot of it was down to youthful exuberance.

Like Ross this summer, Bielsa did not send hordes of young players away on loan. The Whites did allow a whopping 11 players out on temporary moves in the summer of 2018, but of those players, only three – Will Huffer, Paudie O’Connor and Jay-Roy Grot – were youngsters with a possible future at Elland Road.

The rest were simply dead wood like 25 year-old flop Hadi Sacko or 29 year-old Eunan O’Kane, who had been scapegoated by the fans in the previous campaign.

An article on Leeds Live in May showed that Bielsa had given senior debuts to six academy products last term, while six more had been included in first-team squads.

The Whites’ under-23 coach, Carlos Corberan, also revealed that Bielsa instilled unity through the various age groups all the way up to the first-team: “Marcelo arrived here and the connection with the first team, for the 23s, have a connection. Every day they are involved with his demands. Every day they are training with high intensity. At the end you have to start to think to be ambitious and if the first team is competing for a high level of challenges you have to do the same as under-23s.”

As well as aligning the young players with the senior side and refusing to send loads out on loan, he also regularly played fringe players with the under-23s, something Ross hinted he may do in the comments reported by The Chronicle: “Elliot (Dickman, Sunderland’s under-23 coach) needs a certain number of players in his under-23 group regularly to fulfil fixtures, to try to perform well and get positive results.”

So, not only does Ross want there to be a “balance” between development in senior football and playing time in youth games, he also wants the under-23 side to be successful, rather than a mere breeding ground for talent, meaning we will likely see some senior players getting minutes under Dickman.

These are both strategies that Bielsa has used at Leeds, and they led to the Whites making £10m on the sale of Jack Clarke while also allowing several youth talents, such as teenagers Leif Davis and Jamie Shackleton, to become regulars in today’s first-team.

Whether this will all yield the same results at the Stadium of Light remains to be seen, but if you’re going to have similar ideas to another coach, Bielsa is certainly not a bad one to be comparable to.

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Article title: Sunderland decision on U23s has echoes of Bielsa

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