Exciting Leeds United prospect can benefit from lower league experience but doesn't have to leave on loan
Pascal Struijk will never see the things Liam Cooper has seen.
There are no guarantees in football and 17 Premier League appearances make for a small sample size, but at 21 years of age, on the evidence of this season, there seems little reason why he cannot carve out a career at the top level.
Solid defensive performances, aerial ability, a good reading of the game and a terrific passing range make him as exciting a prospect as any in the Leeds United squad.
He’s a different animal altogether from the rabbit in headlights we saw against Cardiff City in December 2019.
Thrown in at the deep end, with just a minute of previous Championship experience to his name, in a game Leeds United were leading 3-2, Struijk looked like he was flailing.
As the Blues pumped the ball forward, Struijk looked lost, bumping into Ben White as the loanee jumped for a header outside the area. The pair jumped for the same ball seconds later inside the area and then both watched, aghast, as Lee Tomlin’s flick allowed Robert Glatzel to run between them and score an equaliser for the side with 10 men.
Glatzel was in front of White and behind Struijk and neither could prevent a goal that completed a comeback from 3-0 down.
The young substitute could, quite easily, have sank without a trace.
As it was, he didn’t play again until the very latter stages of the season, when a pair of assured performances as a defensive midfielder allowed him to rewrite the first chapter of his Leeds United story.
The second chapter has been an eye opener.
Injury to Cooper handed him a dream come true and a nightmare rolled into one, with a Premier League debut at Anfield against a world-class attack.
And injuries to Leeds’ shiny, expensive new centre-back pair Diego Llorente and Robin Koch, have presented him further opportunities at a scale that must leave him pinching himself.
He’s claimed clean sheets in four different back lines, made as many interceptions per game as Cooper – at a rate that puts him right up there in the top-flight rankings – become a threat from set-pieces and one of the stories of the season. Cooper too made his Premier League debut at Anfield, in Hull City’s 6-1 defeat in September 2009.
A little over three years later he was playing in League Two, for Chesterfield.
Now a Scottish international and the captain of a mid-table Premier League club, Cooper is one of few top-flight defenders who knows that Boundary Park’s ‘Ice Station Zebra’ reputation is well earned. He’s sampled the rustic delights of Field Mill and Huish Park and the midweek treks to Torquay and Plymouth. These are all experiences that Struijk, on the radar of Belgium boss Robert Martinez, is unlikely to enjoy or endure unless something goes horribly awry.
FA Cup games can offer brief glimpses of that level but it should never become his weekly reality.
Yet he will still feel the benefit of the lower-league life led by Cooper in his post-Hull and pre-Leeds days.
All the tricks of the trade picked up along the hard, bumpy road back to the top flight are things Struijk can learn from his captain and the man next to him in Marcelo Bielsa’s defence, when selected.
Cooper’s 300-plus senior appearances have pitted him against strikers of every shape, size and profile, making him the perfect mentor for a player with 25 first-team games under his belt.
There was wild excitement around Leeds when Koch and Llorente arrived in big-money moves, with international careers well under way and plenty of big-league experience.
Yet Struijk can regard himself as the leading candidate to be Cooper’s long-term successor as an aerially-dominant, left-footed, left-sided centre-half at Leeds.
The return to fitness of Llorente and, in time, Koch is likely to see Struijk slip back down the pecking order but, if he can remain patient – because there will surely be interest and attempts to turn his head – and if he can tuck himself under Cooper’s wing, a big future awaits.
God only knows how good a player Cooper would be now had Bielsa got his hands on him at 18, as he did with Struijk, who was playing in the academy when the Argentine arrived at Leeds.
It would be a surprise if Cooper had not already reminded his junior just how lucky he is to be positioned where he is right now.
Thorp Arch is exactly the right place for him, if he wants to avoid the places his captain had to go. Bielsa is the right coach for him if he wants to see things Cooper may not.