'As a centre-back he is shining' - Marcelo Bielsa lauds qualities of Leeds United defender
Luke Ayling is shining for Marcelo Bielsa in the centre of the Leeds United defence.
The 29-year-old’s career had already gone full circle when he won promotion to the Premier League with the Whites, a decade after his release from top-flight Arsenal.
He worked his way back up the divisions, earning promotions with Yeovil Town and Bristol City, before winning the Championship with Leeds.
And now he finds himself not only competing against the very best, but doing so in the position where his career began.
He was a centre-half at Arsenal, then a central midfielder at Yeovil before being converted to a full-back, although he himself admits the arrival of Bielsa at Elland Road transformed him from a player with a good channel ball to the complete right-back he is for Leeds.
His last two outings have had to come in the centre of the back line, however, due to the unfortunate timing of injuries for three centre-halves.
Robin Koch’s knee surgery, another set-back for Diego Llorente and most recently Liam Cooper’s injury has forced Bielsa to adapt to overcome, pushing Ayling inside to partner Pascal Struijk and playing Stuart Dallas at right-back once again.
The new centre-half pairing, alongside Kalvin Phillips, defended for their lives in the 1-0 win over Burnley and were in cruise control against West Brom in a 5-0 hammering of the Baggies.
Ayling’s performance against the Clarets led former Leeds centre-half Pontus Jansson to quip on social media: “Understand why I had to leave when the right-back is better centre-back than me.”
Bielsa also expressed his delight with Ayling’s contribution in the heart of the defence, following the West Brom win, but insists he would be comfortable playing him in any of three positions.
“As a right-back he shines,” said the head coach.
“As a centre-back he’s shining.
“I think if he played as a defensive midfielder he would also be efficient. He is a player who has qualities.”
But talent alone is not what makes Ayling so important for Leeds.
His inner desire to have impact and his game management, sets him apart for Bielsa.
“Normally he uses a big percentage of his virtues because he forces it upon himself,” said the Argentine.
“He has the character to take risks without making errors which is what distinguishes the best players, they choose well, execute well and when they take risks they don’t make mistakes.”