Marcelo Bielsa's defence in need of a centre back partnership
21 Jan 2021 07:37 pm, by SLadley17
10 days in January without a fixture feels like a good time to reflect on the season so far: 18 games, 23 points, 12th place. As the Premier League reaches its half way point in a truly unique season, Leeds find themselves huddled up in the middle pack just above Wolves, Crystal Palace and Newcastle. Despite their relatively comfortable league position every defeat currently seems to bring a fresh wave of criticism, and every victory the opposite. Some of the criticism seem to be driven by the annoyance people felt at Leeds being praised in the early parts of the season by sections of the media for their ambitious approach, even in games they came away with no points from. Regardless of the outside noise, 12th place and 23 points represents a very good return to Premier League life so far and places Leeds above a number of established premier league teams, as well as their fellow promoted newbies with whom they shared a desire and goal to end this season still a Premier League outfit.
The need to continue collecting points is self-explanatory in a business ultimately judged on results. However, the very healthy gap between Leeds and the bottom 3 is one that won’t be bridged by a small run of defeats and the reality of Leeds probably needing to win 5 games out of their next 20 to all but ensure their Premier League status should fill them with belief and confidence. Besides ensuring their final points tally merits another season in the Premier League, establishing which areas of the team require improvement will be crucial in enabling Leeds to kick on and grow as time ticks by. A core group of Bielsa’s trusted lieutenants have had games of both collective brilliance and collective struggles this season but on the whole many have proven they can compete at this level.
There are certainly areas of the Leeds United squad that most would agree need strengthening; Another number 9 to both support and compete with Patrick Bamford, an understudy to the currently irreplaceable Kalvin Phillips and an alternative option in central midfield for the days where Mateusz Klich is below his best or needs a rest. If those 3 are positions where depth is needed as much as quality, then left back feels like the one position an upgrade on the current options is required. Ezgjan Alioski’s performance at left back against Brighton highlighted why he has struggled to hold down a regular place, when everyone is fit, since Marcelo Bielsa took charge. The fact he was playing was down to Stuart Dallas’ incredible versatility and this trait will ensure Dallas remains a regular for Bielsa in the future wherever he is required. However, Dallas doing a job at left back has always felt a short-term solution and something that the transfer market should put a stop too at some point before the start of next season.
In a team that is positioned near the bottom of the league for just about every defensive metric, it perhaps feels strange to some that the areas mentioned above relate to neither the goalkeeper or the centre of defence. Surely the two key components of an organised and strong back line? Well, a piece I wrote last week examining the goalkeeping situation in more depth and why Meslier is certain to retain the faith of Bielsa moving forward as his number 1. That just leaves the centre of defence to be discussed and it is worth noting how many of Leeds’ critics this season have either been unaware or failed to mention the defensive injury crisis Leeds have been playing through. Leeds are up to 6 different centre back pairings used this season (7 including the brief Cooper Strujik combo at the end of Saturday’s match) and this area of the pitch, more so than any other, is always sturdier when a settled and balanced selection is possible.
Leeds have 4 experienced centre halves on their books: Robin Koch, Diego Llorente, Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi. 2 of these 4 are players who have been at Leeds for a number of years without any Premier League experience and the other 2 are new signings brought into the club in the summer at a combined cost of around £30 million. There is also a 5th option in Pascal Strujik, the 21-year-old Belgian brough to the club from the Ajax academy in 2018. Blessed with a good blend of aerial ability and a calmness on the ball, Strujik has filled in for Leeds at both centre half and holding midfield this season but his long-term future seems more likely to be at the heart of the defence. Whilst the Belgian is seen as having a lot of potential, he is unlikely to be seen as a first team regular this season or possibly next due to both the signings made and the club captain currently playing in his position. Similarly, Berardi was injured in the penultimate game of last season at Derby and the club knew he would miss the first half of this season at the very least. He was retained and offered a new one-year contract as recognition of his service to the club, and to be a back-up player in the Premier League with his character and leadership of great benefit to the dressing room.
Rather than the youth of Strujik or the known injury to Berardi, it is injuries to all 3 of the other established centre halves at Biela’s disposal that has disrupted Leeds’ ability to establish a strong centre back partnership in the Premier League. Luke Ayling is not listed above as one of Leeds’ five centre back options but has now started 8 Premier League games at the heart of the defence this season due to the injuries to others. As much as Leeds’ general performance against Brighton was flat it must be remembered they had their second-choice goalkeeper playing behind a right back and a player just returning from injury in central defence. They were also missing the shield in front of them that is Phillips. Being able to select a settled side in their natural positions is key for any team, especially a newly promoted one with virtually no Premier League experience and only when Leeds are able to do so can we truly judge what their defensive deficiencies are.
Robin Koch had a tough start to life in England, with penalties conceded in Leeds’ first two league games against Liverpool and Fulham but was becoming more and more accustomed to life at Leeds before coming off injured early in the 3-1 defeat at Chelsea in early December. The knee surgery that was required is expected to keep him out until late February and his aerial ability and pace, which is invaluable in such a high defensive line, have been missed sorely. Similarly, club captain Liam Cooper has had 3 different spells out of the team through injury which have disrupted the Leeds’ backline and their ability to build partnerships and cohesion. Cooper’s character and leadership as well as him being left footed all appeal to Bielsa greatly and now he is back fit the next 5 months may well determine whether Cooper is seen as a Premier League starter next season. The difference in quality from the Championship to the Premier League is clear to see and Cooper’s performance levels have varied playing at a level many would never have seen him reaching.
A Leeds United Under 23s game against Stoke Under 23s on a Monday afternoon at the Leeds training ground is an unlikely game to attract much attention, regardless of the way Marcelo Bielsa utilises the Development team. The Argentine has always seen the Under 23’s fixtures as a way of keeping players on the fringes of his starting XI sharp as well as getting new players or players returning from injury up to speed. As good as the Leeds youth side is it also partly has Biela’s use of it to thank for them being currently 8 points clear at the top of their league table. The team on Monday included Kalvin Phillips, Helder Costa, Ian Poveda and Tyler Roberts; 3 of whom had been on the bench against Brighton on Saturday and the other is an England international Bielsa wanted to keep sharp due to missing Saturday’s lacklustre defeat due to suspension. The 5th name of note in the Under 23 starting line-up was centre back Diego Llorente, the final first team signing Leeds made last summer. The £18 million signing from Real Sociedad was clearly coming to Yorkshire with the intention of establishing himself in the Premier League.
Since signing for the club the only talking points for Leeds fans to discuss about the Spaniard have been his strong performance in Spain’s 0-0 draw against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the Nations League and the howling cries of the Chelsea fans every time he touched the ball in his one and only premier league appearance in early December. These are the only 2 competitive fixtures he has featured in since joining Leeds and whether the Spaniard can adjust to the speed of the Premier League and remain fit may well shape Leeds summer transfer plans. Leeds fans were united in their praise of Llorente’s goal and performance in the 1-0 win on Monday (the game being streamed live on Leeds’ official social media accounts), but he has been brought to the club for far bigger games than one against a youth team at Thorp Arch. A key performer for Sociedad and a regular in recent Spain squads, his ability to read the game and play out from the back has seen him rewarded with 6 caps for his National team so far and it is this calibre of player that Leeds surely need to move forward.
With 9 days to prepare in between the Development team’s win over Stoke and Leeds’ next Premier League fixture, the time is surely approaching to see how Llorente fairs in the first team. As admirably as Luke Ayling has performed at centre back when called upon this season Leeds do miss his driving runs forward from right back, and his marking of Neil Maupay for the Brighton goal last weekend made him look what he was; a player playing in a position that wasn’t his strongest. Leeds preferred starting centre back pairing is unclear due to the injuries highlighted above but it appears to be a straight choice of 2 from 3 out of Koch, Llorente and Cooper. So far this season Leeds have been able to play 2 of those players together for a full 90 minutes on just 7 occasions, picking up 11 points and 3 clean sheets in those games. For all the talk of Bielsa’s ambitious and attacking approach, his sides are still built with a need for defensive shape and organisation, albeit in a different and less cautious way than most, and if Leeds are to give themselves a chance to improve they first need to analyse what they have at their disposal. Whilst there are areas Leeds need to strengthen; the solution to their perceived weakness at the back may be closer to home than people think but it is up to them to show it.