Joel Robles is used to the supporting-cast role in a way that Illan Meslier would not want to replicate. Meslier is 10 years Robles’ junior but the Frenchman’s league appearances are coming up on the rails, short of Robles by fewer than 30 despite the gulf in age.
There is a tradition in goalkeeping of certain players building a career by sitting in the wings, some through choice and some by default, and Robles was promised very little when Leeds United signed him in August. He was older and more world-wise than the club’s other keepers, the veteran they did not otherwise have, but Meslier was their boy and barring any unforeseen problems, Robles would not be altering that.
The art of being a spare keeper, though, is to anticipate the unforeseen and be ready regardless. Meslier has been ever-present this season, No 1 and first name on the teamsheet, but this month he was diagnosed with glandular fever, an illness which can require concerted amounts of rest. From nowhere, Robles, 32, is mobilising to step in for the most perilous home game of Leeds’ season, a potentially unforgiving call to arms.
Selection talk around Manchester City’s forthcoming visit to Elland Road on December 28 has focused on the absence of the suspended Tyler Adams and how Jesse Marsch will manage without the Duracell Bunny in midfield but depending on Meslier’s condition, there is a distinct possibility that Leeds will host City and Erling Haaland without their first-choice keeper too.
Leeds regarded Robles as a safe pair of hands, enough to recruit him as back-up as a free agent, and a league debut in that particular fixture would test their confidence in him thoroughly.
Robles is not in the habit of starting matches and Leeds are not in the habit of setting up without Meslier, 22. Robles’ last competitive league appearance came in March 2021, back in the penultimate year of his contract with Real Betis.
Meslier has not missed a league game of any real consequence at Leeds since the early weeks of that same year when COVID-19 forced him to sit out a 1-0 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion. This, though, was why the club and Marsch wanted more in reserve, to try and mitigate the impact of Meslier dropping out and vacating a position which picks itself.
Leeds have Kristoffer Klaesson to work with too but the weeks before the World Cup break sent a message about Marsch’s hierarchy. Robles, who had been in the background initially having signed towards the end of the summer window, came on to the bench latterly and played ahead of 22-year-old Klaesson in a Carabao Cup defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers. He started again in a friendly against Real Sociedad at Elland Road last night and, with Meslier’s recovery period set to run close to the Premier League clash with City, all fingers point to him stepping in if Meslier sits out on December 28.
Marsch is hopeful that Meslier will return at some stage of the Christmas period and is yet to rule him out of the City game but glandular fever is not an illness clubs can rush or take chances with. Other players who have contracted it in the past have spoken about the temporary toll it can take on weight and energy, alongside the risks involved in returning to competitive football too soon. Glandular fever can lead to a swollen spleen, making it vulnerable to in-game collisions. Meslier, in his position, would be as prone to those as anyone else.
Robles is standing by and for him, the most active years of his career have come since he reached his 30s. He was at Everton for five seasons without settling as first choice, a move he earned after winning the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic on loan from Atletico Madrid.
It took a transfer to Betis in 2018 for him to experience a full season as first choice. His data in Spain was steady and in general, he conceded as many goals as the statistics said he should have done in a bottom-half La Liga team. Leeds regarded him as good at commanding his box and a strong communicator, a modern form of keeper who was proactive defensively. They had been without experienced cover for Meslier since dispensing with Kiko Casilla and Robles in the camp was adding a little more competition for Meslier’s place.
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— Leeds United (@LUFC) December 6, 2022
His appearance against Wolves last month was the definition of a safe pair of hands, before he was beaten by a wicked finish from Boubacar Traore. There was less to be taken from a 2-1 win over Sociedad last night, the opening goal headed past him powerfully before he could react and the rest of his outing asking only a tidy application of the basics. Marsch withdrew him and four others players at half-time, giving Klaesson the second 45 minutes with a clutch of other youngsters.
Robles, as Leeds see him, is not the archetypal understudy, even if his track record makes him look like one. The club’s staff have found him to be a listener and a learner who was open to analysis from the start and minded to improve himself, however much he was likely to appear over the duration of a one-year contract at Elland Road.
The message to him when he signed was that he might not be needed much but he should not consider himself the equivalent of a bystander either. Depending on circumstances, his league debut could come at the sharpest end of the stick, against City and the nigh-on unstoppable train that is Haaland. Merry Christmas.
(Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)