« He’s like a human wrecking ball. I like him, he’s really exciting. He’s fast, he’s aggressive, he gets on the ball, he takes people on. Once he gets into the box, he loves it. That’s where he can do most of his damage. »
Joe Gelhardt announced himself inside 42 seconds of his first Premier League start for Leeds United last weekend at Tottenham, and Sky Sports’ Jamie Redknapp was full of praise for the 19-year-old.
The former Wigan Athletic academy product wasted little time in making an impression, turning inside the opposition half and driving at the defence before being hauled to the ground by Japhet Tanganga.
For the 3,000 Leeds supporters who made the trip down south last weekend, and for manager Marcelo Bielsa, his impressive display came as little surprise.
Gelhardt – or Joffy as he is nicknamed – played with great confidence and spoke of his pride despite Leeds slipping to a narrow 2-1 defeat.
« I think we were unlucky with the result, » he said. « In the first half, we were very good and second half I think we just couldn’t soak up the pressure.
« We were pinned in, couldn’t really get out and they just took advantage of that. At the start of the second half we had good chances, I had a couple that I could have put away. But that’s football, we’ll be looking to work hard and go again next week. »
Gelhardt has sparkled as a level-headed individual in the eyes of those who know him best ever since he joined the club for £1.6m from the Latics in 2020.
The Liverpool-born forward has scored 17 goals for the club’s second string in 26 games – helping Mark Jackson’s U23 team win promotion last term.
It was back in September during Leeds’ Carabao Cup third-round tie at Fulham that Bielsa first called upon his services and the youngster demonstrated his temperament during the eventual shootout.
Making his first-team debut, Gelhardt volunteered to take the fifth penalty and scored as Leeds won 6-5 at Craven Cottage.
Bielsa said afterwards: « The young players showed personality and character. Joe had missed his last two penalties and took on board the responsibility and managed to score and Stuart McKinstry also had to take one in the most decisive moments and they showed character. »
Having made his first Premier League appearance in the defeat at Southampton, it was his impact off the bench against Wolves that really caught the eye.
Leeds were heading for a fifth loss in their opening nine league games when he was introduced in the 63rd minute but it was his fearless contribution that ultimately resulted in the hosts salvaging a draw.
Gelhardt was the catalyst for the dramatic late comeback with two attempts on goal before his driving run in stoppage-time drew a rash challenge and penalty from Nelson Semedo.
Rodrigo kept his cool from 12 yards, converting a pressure spot-kick as Leeds salvaged a point from the jaws of defeat, and Gelhardt’s first Premier League start at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was the next step in the player’s natural evolution.
« No, I’m not surprised by his integration, » Bielsa exclusively tells Sky Sports. « In some way, when I call on someone who is not usually in the starting XI, it’s because I’m convinced he can offer us a positive result.
« It didn’t surprise me that he was able to compete at this level as he has worked hard to deserve these opportunities. He has shown me that he is someone who has the right tools to have an impact without any problems.
« He’s a player that always creates danger in a game. He’s a player who’s more linked with the finishing of chances rather than the creation of them, but he has resources to beat an opponent and he has a final shot, a finish that is very good. »
Joe Gelhardt averaging a touch in the opposition box every eight minutes in the Premier League this season (17 in just 128 minutes of football) – an admittedly small sample size, but that’s the best average of any Premier League player to play 90+ mins this season. #lufc pic.twitter.com/EhyW7Y3mgB
— Jonny Cooper (@JRCooper26) November 22, 2021
Gelhardt has routinely been compared with Wayne Rooney during his short career due to his Liverpudlian roots; a similar tenacity was seen in him collecting a booking against Spurs for a foul on Eric Dier. His low centre of gravity, the manner in which he uses his strength and chases lost causes certainly were aspects of Rooney’s game, but Gelhardt is making a name for himself.
Having appeared to have moved ahead of team-mate Tyler Roberts in Bielsa’s attacking options, the player certainly does not look out of place, and Patrick Bamford has used his time wisely on the sidelines to act as a mentor for the forward.
Bielsa continues: « Patrick should be viewed as a reference point for Joe as he is someone who can lend him plenty of experience in the role he is playing for the team. He is consulting him of course as a more senior member of the group. »
Bamford remains out this weekend as Leeds make the trip to face Brighton, live on Sky Sports, with the England striker still in the process of recuperation following a serious ankle injury.
While his absence has enabled Gelhardt to seize his opportunity, Bielsa has not ruled out using the two strikers as a partnership once Bamford is fully fit.
« Joe’s primary position is to play as a number nine and this is also Bamford’s natural position, » he adds. « It may be that when Patrick is fit, I can play both together as they are different or it may be that I select just one of them at any given time.
There are virtues – the spirit of an amateur – that you show as a player growing up that are necessary in order to be successful as a professional and this is something we see in Joe.
« It depends on the opposition and the moment within a given game, but it’s certainly something I have considered already. It’ll be interesting to see how well they can combine. »
Bielsa refuses to take much credit for the player’s swift ascent.
Gelhardt developed during seven years with Wigan and the Argentine recently made a phone call to Gregor Rioch, the League One club’s academy boss and son of former Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch, to thank him for his work with the youngster. Bielsa has seen enough to not hesitate when it comes to selecting him again this weekend.
« The unwritten law within the professional game is that those who are in the best condition are those who play, » he says. « I evaluate this ahead of every game, and this would be applied to Joe irrespective of the injuries we have had this season.
« There are virtues – the spirit of an amateur – that you show as a player growing up that are necessary in order to be successful as a professional and this is something we see in Joe.
« I’m always in deep discussion with our U23s head coach about how our academy players are developing with regards to being ready to form part of the first team. The same applies to our U18s.
« I watch all the games and I talk about them with our coaches because it interests me greatly what they think. Every player has the power in their hands to alter the hierarchy from within the team. »
Leeds’ 11 points is their lowest total after their first 12 games of a league season since 2006/07, when they were relegated from the Championship.
The Whites have had fewer points at this stage in just one previous Premier League campaign, when they were relegated in 2003/04, but Bielsa shrugged off any suggestion of this not being the ideal environment in which to call upon players such as Gelhardt with limited experience.
« Irrespective of our current position in the league and whether therefore these are the right conditions in which to call on young players, it is part and parcel of being in the first team being able to adhere to what’s needed, » he says. « Being able to respond to what’s required is what makes them first-team players.
« The young players naturally play with less pressure on their shoulders and play with more freedom of expression, so it’s not something that concerns me when it comes to selecting Joe and others. It’s not they who have to take on the majority of the responsibility. »
In Joe Gelhardt, Leeds have a gem on their hands for the future and for the present.
Are Leeds already running cold?
One change for Leeds this season has been with their running stats, which have dropped since last term.
In general, Bielsa’s side have been averaging far less distance covered per game – highlighted by both their game-by-game returns, and six-game rolling average.
« The level of the competition hasn’t grown, » says Bielsa when reflecting on Leeds’ current position, two points above the relegation zone. « I see a lot of similarities in terms of the quality of opposition as I did last year so I wouldn’t agree that we’re now just finding the division more competitive. »
Perhaps surprisingly, the reduced distance covered has not led to any reduction of their pressing game according to the numbers, which suggest they remain among the Premier League’s more combative sides off the ball.
The defeat at Tottenham did perhaps produce signs of life in terms of distance covered.
The visitors’ 115.4km run against Spurs in their last outing was their highest total this season and since April.
That said, they were outrun by Antonio Conte’s team – the second time a side has covered more distance them this term. It happened just once in all of last season.
Leeds thinking outside the box
An area Bielsa will want to improve this season is the location of his side’s shots.
Since the start of the last campaign, no team has scored more goals from outside the box than Leeds’ 19 with the club also boasting the highest conversion of such shots since promotion (eight per cent) – a goal every 13.3 attempts compared to the Premier League average of 27 shots per goal from outside of the box.
That said, this season almost half (47 per cent) of Leeds’ overall shots have come from outside the box – the second highest proportion in the Premier League, and no team shoots from distance as frequently.
Last season just 33 per cent of their shots were from range, the second lowest proportion in Premier League.
Bielsa’s attack has been shorn of a penalty-box poacher given Bamford’s continued absence, but having already scored five goals so far this term from outside the box, Leeds have more reason than most to shoot from distance.
This was seen during the game against Tottenham when both Stuart Dallas and Adam Forshaw had attempts from outside the box veer just wide, but it highlights the difficulties Leeds are having in finding the back of the net. Bielsa will hope his problems ease on the south coast ahead of the hectic festive period.
Watch Brighton vs Leeds on Sky Sports
Brighton vs Leeds is live on Saturday Night Football on Sky Sports Premier League from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm. Sky Sports customers can watch in-game clips in the live match blog on the Sky Sports website and app.
Highlights will also be published on the Sky Sports digital platforms and the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel shortly after the final whistle.