A brilliant Leeds United XI of players aged 23 or under: Meslier, Gelhardt…

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Joe Gelhardt #30 of Leeds United applauds the fans at the end of the game against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Elland Road, Leeds, August 6th 2022

It’s been a mixed start to the 2022-23 campaign for Leeds United as they continue to adjust to life after Marcelo Bielsa, but there are more than a few reasons to be optimistic for the future of the club.

Jesse Marsch’s Whites are the third youngest squad in the Premier League and there are plenty more promising prospects emerging in the youth ranks.

Recent Amazon documentary ‘Academy Dreams: Leeds United‘ chronicled the progress of the club’s youth players last season, while this season Michael Skubala’s Under-21s are on fire and top of the Premier League 2 Division 2.

Between Marsch’s first team and the youth team, we’ve put together a really strong XI of Leeds players that look destined for bright futures in the game.

GK: Illan Meslier

It’s easy to forget that Meslier is still just 22, such is the wealth of experience under his belt.

Having already made over a hundred senior appearances for Lorient and Leeds, the 6’3″ goalkeeper is ever-improving and gradually ironing out the raw qualities that come with youth.

Meslier has rightfully been talked up as Leeds’ biggest asset following the sales of Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha. A regular for France’s Under-21s, he’ll back himself to succeed Hugo Lloris for Les Bleus if he continues on this trajectory.

RB: Cody Drameh

“I did not think he needed to play games elsewhere. He was a player who was very necessary with all of the absences we have,” Bielsa said, like a disappointed dad, when Drameh asked to go out on loan midway through last season.

“In a situation when opportunities for youngsters have increased, Drameh would prefer to experiment outside our team. Clearly, I calculated things wrongly because what I consider a great opportunity, those who are benefiting from that position, they prefer to abandon the club looking for another type of competition.

“Evidently, what I imagined as a great chance, they don’t. Perhaps I overvalue that you’re in a 20-man squad in the best league in the world.”

Given those comments, you might have imagined the 20-year-old right-back had burned his bridges. But he went on to shine at Cardiff – named their Player of the Season for 2021-22 – and has been welcomed back into the fold at his parent club following Bielsa’s dismissal.

Still, Drameh has Luke Ayling and summer signing Rasmus Kristensen ahead of him in the pecking order. Another half-season loan may be in order for a player that evidently has the talent to be playing regular senior football.

CB: Charlie Cresswell

The 20-year-old centre-back, son of former Leeds striker Richard Cresswell, made a dream debut on loan at Millwall, keeping a clean sheet and scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory over Stoke.

He’s suffered a few bumps in the road since then, but learning to respond to setbacks will prove invaluable experience for the highly-rated defender. There’s lots of hope Cresswell will return to Elland Road next summer to stake a place back at his parent club.

CB: Pascal Struijk

Currently demonstrating his adaptability with a run at left-back in place of the injury-plagued Junior Firpo, Struijk is doing a reasonable job. But his best position is undoubtedly at centre-back.

The future of Leeds’ backline and currently on Louis Van Gaal’s radar for the Netherlands.

LB: Leo Hjelde

The defender has flown a little under the radar this season, having been out after undergoing appendix surgery, but he remains one of the most highly-rated prospects at the club.

Like Struijk, he looks a more natural centre-back than left-back – particularly due to his physicality and build – but he offers another potential solution to a long-running problem position at Leeds.

CM: Tyler Adams

Adams has been on the scene since he was 16 and a full USA international since 2017. He’s now a vital midfield presence under his mentor Jesse Marsch, who he’s played under at three different clubs in three different countries.

Somehow still just 23. The best is yet to come.

CM: Darko Gyabi

Leeds fans felt the club were stitched up when fan favourite Kalvin Phillips was sold to Manchester City for a reported fee of just £42million in the summer.

But getting Gyabi in return for approximately £5million could well prove a masterstroke. The 18-year-old was one of City’s finest prospects – he’s yet to make his senior debut for Leeds but already looks too good for Under-21s football.

Honourable mention to Sam Greenwood, who would be a worthy addition to this list after appearing to adapt his game to more of an all-action midfielder.

The Sunderland academy graduate developed his game as a striker, but demonstrated his versatility, quality and bravery when Marsch took the bold call to start him for Leeds’ sink-or-swim match on the final day at Brentford last season.

RW: Crysencio Summerville

The decision to send Dan James out on loan to Fulham can be read as a statement of faith in Dutch winger Summerville, who appears to have moved up a rung on the ladder as a result.

The 20-year-old tears it up every time he turns out for the Under-21s. Summerville is yet to truly show what he can do in his brief senior cameos to date, but there’s an increasing clamour for him to be rewarded with a proper opportunity in the form of a first Premier League start.

READ: 10 Marcelo Bielsa quotes on Leeds United: ‘Everything was so beautiful’

AMC: Brenden Aaronson

Like his USA international team-mate and fellow summer signing Adams, Aaronson has quality and experience beyond his years.

The versatile midfielder, 21, already looks like one of Marsch’s most integral players.

LW: Luis Sinisterra

Like fellow South American winger Raphinha, Sinisterra arrived at Elland Road as a 23-year-old on the rise.

It would be some feat for Leeds to replicate the success of Raphinha with his replacement, but the early signs are very promising. The Colombian suffered an early blip with a daft red card against Aston Villa, but he also scored in each of his first three starts for his new club.

Don’t be surprised if Champions League clubs are sniffing around him in a year or two.

ST: Joe Gelhardt

We were tempted to throw all footballing logic out of the window and go for a 4-2-4 formation here, such is the embarrassment of riches at Leeds’ disposal when it comes to the young attacking options at the club.

It feels harsh to leave out deadline-day signing Wilfried Gnonto, given he’s already a full Italy international and has by all accounts caught the eye in training. He’s continuing his development with the Under-21s, but it sounds like there’ll be plenty of senior involvement in the coming weeks.

It also feels harsh to leave out Spanish starlet Mateo Joseph, who has nine goals in eight appearances for Leeds’ Under-21s this season, and the even-more-prolific Sonny Perkins, who scored in 10 successive appearances for Leeds’ Under-21s and England’s Under-19s, after being nabbed from West Ham’s academy in the summer.

But we’re going with Gelhardt because of the impact he’s already made. Leeds wouldn’t still be a Premier League club were it not for the 20-year-old’s clutch contributions during his breakthrough 2021-22 season.

There’s still an awkward question of whether Marsch quite knows how to fit him or exactly what’s his best position. He’s certainly not a like-for-like replacement for Patrick Bamford at centre-forward, which is an issue with all of Leeds’ young guns, but if Leeds can find a place for Gelhardt, the sky’s the limit.

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