Even with Robin Koch out through surgery it's not Diego Llorente or bust for Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United

NEW BOY - Diego Llorente had a baptism of fire, coming off the bench early in Leeds United's game at Chelsea to face a star-studded attacking line-up including Olivier Giroud. Pic: GettyNEW BOY - Diego Llorente had a baptism of fire, coming off the bench early in Leeds United's game at Chelsea to face a star-studded attacking line-up including Olivier Giroud. Pic: Getty
NEW BOY - Diego Llorente had a baptism of fire, coming off the bench early in Leeds United's game at Chelsea to face a star-studded attacking line-up including Olivier Giroud. Pic: Getty
When Marcelo Bielsa looks at his squad he sees more centre-halves than the casual onlooker, so with Robin Koch out of action it’s not quite Diego Llorente or bust.

The Spaniard was brought in from Real Sociedad in the summer to form part of a senior trio of central defenders, although Liam Cooper’s status as dressing room leader and the club’s most well-versed Bielsaball centre-half almost guaranteed him a starting role.

Koch began the season as Cooper’s partner, but then he did arrive at Elland Road almost a full month before Llorente, whose move was completed three games into the campaign.

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And then came the groin injuries, one apiece for Cooper and Llorente, sustained during the same international break while on Scotland and Spain duty respectively. Cooper missed just two games while Llorente was declared ‘healthy’ but not quite in ideal competitive shape, just last week.

When Koch broke down before the 10-minute mark at Chelsea, Llorente was rushed on for an ultra-difficult baptism of fire and, in a moment that was never going to go unnoticed by Whites, appeared in a little discomfort after chasing Christian Pulisic as the attacker ran in to score the Blues’ injury-time third.

Last week, before circumstance and necessity dictated otherwise, Bielsa admitted he would prefer not to rush Llorente back into senior action, preferring to ease him back through the Under 23s.

"When a player goes so long without playing, one of the ways to help his recovery is to propose an activity similar to the games in the Premier League, knowing you can manage his game time and the level is a little bit lower," he said.

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"This is the ideal process, especially when players have repeat muscle injuries, which is the case of Pablo, Shackleton and Llorente. This is also conditioned to the needs of the team. If the player is healthy and the necessity of the team requires him you may have to call on a player who is healthy but doesn't have the ideal sporting condition. If you can do it in a more progressive manner then it is better. The players' performance will progressively improve while he is playing. In this way you can verify if he is completely healed as he can manage the efforts. Sometimes you can do it this way and sometimes you can't, but always after the player is healthy."

Bielsa will issue a fitness update on his squad today but do not expect any notes of panic, even if Llorente is not 100 per cent or needs more time before another first team outing.

The Whites head coach went to lengths last season to try and explain that a player's proximity to another position and the overlapping responsibilities of players in the modern game, not only help a player to transition smoothly to another role but improve his overall ability.

In the case of Ben White, a centre-half signed on loan for the season from Brighton who went on become one of the stand-out performers in the Championship, Bielsa had no concerns about playing the youngster in the central defensive midfield position when Phillips was out. Likewise Struijk, another centre-half who, until the first lockdown period had not played in midfield but suddenly showed himself capable in training and found himself occupying the Phillips role at the end of the season.

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"When Ben White plays as a centre-back, a lot of time he does things like a central midfielder," said Bielsa.

"When Phillips plays as a midfielder, a lot of time he plays like a centre-back. A lot of time, when Ben White plays as a centre-back, he goes forward and plays like a midfielder. What doesn't happen is a centre-back playing as a centre forward, or vice versa. But this secondary function is part of the principal function, so when you change a player's position, it improves him."

So with Rodrigo waiting to come into the side, right-back Luke Ayling could move to centre-half, giving Stuart Dallas a long-awaited reunion with the right side of the back four and Gjanni Alioski, a relentlessly forward-thinking and endlessly energetic operator, a chance to improve on his left-back display against Chelsea, against a West Ham side who are likely to sit deep and counter attack.

There are other options, too.

Kalvin Phillips has played centre-half for Bielsa in the past, Pascal Struijk has too, in the Premier League this season no less, and beyond the first team lie Charlie Cresswell, who shone against Blackpool in the EFL Trophy, his partner Oliver Casey and Cody Drameh who while more naturally fills a right-back role, has featured in a back three for the 23s since arriving from Fulham.

Centre-halves galore.

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