Illan Meslier: Ready for the Premier League?

Illan Meslier, the French youth international, signed for Leeds United on a season-long Loan in August 2019 at the age of 19. Many fans (myself included) saw this as a last-minute panic signing after the Whites sold Bailey Peacock-Farrell to comply with FFP regulations. Yet from day one, Meslier was itching to prove his worth.

At the start of the 2019/20 season, Kiko Casilla was still the first-choice keeper for Leeds despite his playoff gaffes in the previous season, causing Leeds to crash out 4-3 on aggregate at home to Derby County. He returned in blistering form, conceding only 3 goals in his first 7 games in the Championship season. At this stage, Meslier seemed destined for a season with the Leeds Under 23s.

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Even in the Under 23s, Meslier was catching the attention of Leeds fans, as he saved penalty after penalty, and looked extremely confident with his distribution. However, it wasn’t until mid December that United fans started seriously considering him as their main option between the sticks.

It started when Leeds ended a 7-match winning streak after drawing 3-3 with Cardiff, with the Welsh side coming back from a 3-0 Leeds advantage. Casilla made a couple of errors, including a misjudged punch, he failed to even move for the second Cardiff goal and, in his defence, was left a bit in the lurch for the equaliser. This started a run for Leeds in which Casilla conceded 8 goals in the following 4 games, with United only winning one of those in a 9-goal thriller at St Andrews.

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However, in the new year, Leeds drawn Arsenal in the FA Cup third round. Bielsa announced in his pre-match press conference that Illan Meslier was making his first-team debut.

He impressed many fans with his coolness on the ball. The distribution of Casilla, but out with the nerve-shredding one-on-ones with strikers

Leeds lost 0-1 against Arsenal, with Reiss Nelson scoring with a rather lucky deflection. However, Meslier had a lot of positives to take from this game. Frankly, only conceding one goal against the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, £72m Nicolas Pépé, and Mesut Özil is a mighty achievement on your debut. He made four saves (three from inside the box), and completed 32/39 passes (82%), with 11 accurate long balls. He also received a SofaScore statistical match rating of 7.5. His confidence was staggering for a player of his age. He left the Emirates that night knowing he had put himself on the map.

Meslier, to the shock of Leeds United fans, still didn’t receive a start for Leeds when Kiko Casilla conceded 9 in Leeds’ next 5 games, with an absolute howler against promotion rivals Brentford that put Leeds on equal points with Fulham, only in 2nd place on goal difference.

However, it was on a slightly darker note that Meslier received his debut. It was announced after Leeds beat Middlesborough that Kiko Casilla was suspended for a period of 8 matches after being found guilty of Racism towards Charlton’s Jonathan Leko back in September. Enter Illan Meslier.

Meslier started against Hull, away at the KCOM Stadium, where he earned his first clean sheet in a 4-0 victory, with a 73% pass accuracy, showing his distribution at the Emirates was most certainly not a fluke. He then starred in Leeds’ 2-0 victory against local rivals Huddersfield Town at Elland Road, with an 86% pass accuracy and his second clean sheet in two league starts.

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Then, COVID-19 hit. Leeds United were on a roll and suddenly everything was left up in the air.

Upon Leeds’ return, it would be fair to say that not one player in the squad flattered themselves in the 2-0 loss at Cardiff, with both goals against United coming from failed pass-backs and defensive mistakes. So the usually unforgiving Leeds fanbase gave Meslier a pass on this one.

Leeds were then up against promotion rivals Fulham, fearing the worst after their performance at Cardiff. Leeds won this game 3-0, with Meslier racking up four saves, and two punches. Meslier started the rest of the games (except Derby County away, where Bielsa made 7 changes. The players had been celebrating their victory in the premier league over the weekend, so one can probably guess why this was) and in the 10 games he started in the league, only conceded 4 goals (2 of which could not be written down as his own errors).

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So, is Illan Meslier ready for the Premier League? I’d say he is. Leeds United signed him permanently on a 3-year deal in July 2020, meaning they have a potential future French international goalkeeper on the books. He’s got miles of runway in front of him. Being 20 years old, things can only get better for the young stopper. It is extremely unlikely that Kiko Casilla will be in the club’s future plans as the racism scandal hangs over his reputation.

I can see Leeds United signing another goalkeeper to compete with Meslier, but Bielsa has a fierce reputation of loyalty to his starting XI. So even if Leeds do sign another keeper, I can’t see him unseating Meslier in the short term. He ticks all the boxes of a Bielsa keeper. He is comfortable with the ball at his feet, has fantastic distribution, and is an extremely confident shot-stopper.

Meslier is at Leeds for the long haul.

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