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Charlie Cresswell: Leeds' teenage leader who is already impressing Bielsa

12:00 GMT 02/11/2021
Charlie Cresswell NXGN GFX
The 19-year-old defender has already earned a call-up to the England U21s squad despite only having made three first-team appearances at Elland Road

“People from the outside can drive you to be ambitious, but it’s all down to you and whether you’ve got that within you.”

Those were the words of Leeds United’s 19-year-old centre back Charlie Cresswell when addressing a group of Leeds school children alongside his team-mate, Joe Gelhardt, in late-September.

The two young stars were speaking following big weeks for them both. Gelhardt had just made his first-team debut for the club, coming on as a second-half substitute in the Carabao Cup tie against Fulham, which Leeds won on penalties. 

Cresswell, meanwhile, seems to have that stated ambition within him, and he had been able to celebrate the bigger landmark moment of the two a few days earlier. 

Not only did he play 90 minutes in the match against Fulham, he followed that up by being given a start and his Premier League debut against West Ham at Elland Road a few days later. The Whites fell to a late Michail Antonio winner, but Cresswell's performance earned rave reviews.

The way he faced up against Antonio – a man with a reputation as one of the most difficult centre forwards to face in the division – was particularly impressive.

The son of former Leeds striker and regular goalscorer in the English Football League, Richard, Cresswell has grown up in the Leeds academy.

His father was head of academy coaching at the club between 2018-2020, but there was no nepotism at play, as Charlie had been with Leeds since 2013.

Cresswell's performances on the pitch won him awards at Under-18 level, while U23s manager Mark Jackson immediately made him captain once he took over the job in September 2020.

He has also been included in Lee Carsley’s first two England U21 squads, with Cresswell's maiden call-up in September coming despite him having played just 90 minutes of senior football.

Listening to the 19-year-old speak to a group of school children, it is clear to see why Cresswell has been captain of Leeds U23s since the age of 18. He has a maturity beyond his years and speaks with authority.

His obvious leadership capability is demonstrated by the fact that he leads by example on the field, as well as bellowing instructions for his team-mates. He has not been afraid to do that in his appearances in the first-team, either. 

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Cresswell has an aura of confidence and calmness about him, which he displayed very early in his Premier League debut.  Receiving the ball inside his own penalty area, he took a touch and looked up to find Angelo Ogbonna bearing down on him.

Rather than panic and launch the ball up field, the teenager faked to play the pass to the right, before he knocked it past the West Ham man the other way, calmly advanced with the ball and played a pass into midfield. 

The home fans roared their approval, and any nerves around how the debutant would cope with life in the top flight quickly began to fade.

“When I think about it, I probably felt more nervous before West Ham — just because it was the Premier League with a packed Elland Road,” Cresswell later admitted to The Athletic. “I can’t pretend I wasn’t, but there was more excitement than nervousness.

"Nerves are good, though. They make you alert. They sharpen you up. Everyone gets them.”

Marcelo Bielsa himself explained that before the youngster’s performance against Fulham, he had deemed moving Kalvin Phillips from defensive midfield into centre-back the better option than playing Cresswell amid a mounting injury crisis in central defence.

However, he was convinced that Cresswell could make the step up after his showing at Craven Cottage, saying: “The performance from the other day is not a definitive performance, but it has a lot of arguments to say he took advantage of the opportunity he was given, and he deserved it.

“After the game against Fulham, he’s taken a significant step forward. I have to read that message.”

Throughout the West Ham game, the young defender repaid the faith shown in him by his manager. He followed his man-marking brief to the letter, shadowing Antonio all the way into the West Ham half if needs be.

At times, Antonio got the better of him – as was to be expected – but Cresswell stuck to him like glue and came out on top on many occasions.

“He’s so big and strong and quick,” Cresswell said of Antonio. “It’s weird in the Premier League, because the players are all like robots – they know exactly what to do, and they do the right things over and over again.

"I couldn’t afford one mistake. I could tell straight away that if I made one, Antonio was going to score."

Afterwards, Bielsa called the debutant’s performance one of “personality and character", saying he made “very few mistakes".

And though the teenager might have to wait a while before his next Premier League appearance, with Diego Llorente and Pascal Struijk back from injury and suspension, respectively, next time Bielsa turns to him, he will know that Creswell is more than ready.

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