Four Leeds United players Jesse Marsch could turn to in problem position and one he must not

Leeds United have a vacancy at right-back so Jamie Shackleton, Diego Llorente, Robin Koch or even Dan James come on down – but not you Raphinha.

By Graham Smyth
Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 4:40 am
Updated Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 11:51 am

No sooner had the first replay been shown that it began to dawn on Leeds United supporters that Luke Ayling had not only kicked his last ball in the game at Arsenal but in the 2021/22 season.

His red card, for diving in with both feet to wipe out Gabriel Martinelli, ended his campaign with three games remaining, leaving Leeds light in the leadership department and fresh out of right-backs.

Cody Drameh’s return from his loan spell at Cardiff City was no solution because of the regulations over recalls and temporary stints at other clubs and the youngster cannot play.

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Jesse Marsch does have options in the form of a forgotten man, a pair of centre-backs – one perhaps likelier than the other – and a man who needs to be discounted altogether if Leeds are to score the goals they need to earn the points that will keep them up.

The Premier League table and the fixture list show the scale of the task but, for Leeds, it’s quite simple – out-point Burnley to remain a top-flight club.

Each of the Whites’ final games present serious difficulties – Chelsea have incredible quality, Brighton have momentum and a manager in Graham Potter who has done a number on Leeds in their last three meetings, and Brentford have a four-game unbeaten run at home and Pontus Jansson undoubtedly aching to head one in against his former team.

Burnley visit Tottenham, Aston Villa and Newcastle United in the knowledge that even a zero-point return would be enough, if Leeds fail to pick up a positive result. The onus is very much on Marsch and Leeds to win games and to do that, they must score goals. That’s why they want Raphinha in the opposition half, where he can hurt teams, not picking up possession level with the edge of his own area and trying to thread needles through opposition midfielders. Even if the head coach goes for a back-five again, which feels likelier against Chelsea than in the final two games when Leeds might expect to have more control, Raphinha’s talent must be harnessed farther forward.

SEASON OVER - Luke Ayling's red card at Arsenal has left Leeds United without a natural right-back for the final three Premier League games against Chelsea, Brighton and Brentford. Pic: Getty

In what will be a pressure-cooker environment, as expectancy, nerves and hope come to the boil, Raphinha is one of few in the Leeds squad you could envisage truly relishing the situation and coming to the fore. He’s a fierce competitor, an angry man when he crosses the white line and, even if he hasn’t shown it often enough of late, he has star quality, so his head coach must create the right environment for him to produce it and put him in a position to do so.

The Brazilian was one of the players Marsch namechecked when asked about his plan to deal with Ayling’s absence, post-Arsenal, however.

“Good question,” he began.

“We’ll evaluate exactly what we need to do in the next three days, over the next three matches. It does present us with a dilemma. We have Jamie Shackleton to play this position.

“We can play Raphinha, we can try a centre-back outside at the full-back position. We have some options, but we’ve got to figure out what’s the best scenario to get us through the next three matches.”

Raphinha isn’t the only winger Marsch could play at wing-back – Daniel James doesn’t mind putting his foot in and has the pace and energy to get up and down – but there are more natural suitors, especially if Leeds go with a back-four.

Shackleton hasn’t played since February, before Marsch’s arrival, and hasn’t started since mid-December, as injuries once again disrupted his season. But the youngster has operated almost exclusively at right-back in this campaign and possesses the quick feet, engine and workrate to at least cope with the physical demands of the position.

Whether or not he has the quality required for this level of football is not a question anyone can truly answer given his lack of involvement under successive managers but he would, at least, allow Raphinha to go and do what he does best in the opposition half.

Llorente has played at right-back as well this season, twice, adding to 14 games’ worth of experience in the position at Real Madrid, chiefly for their reserves. His distribution has not been what it can, of late, yet the job description need simply be to feed Raphinha and defend for his life. And Koch, another who can pass the ball from the back and keeps it relatively simple, popped up in the position in the second half at Arsenal on Sunday, bombing on down the flank to win a corner in one of the more unusual and unexpected sights of a campaign that has been far from ordinary. Shifting a centre-half into the position, in the way Marcelo Bielsa did with Pascal Struijk on the left, would still leave Leeds with two central defenders, even if Liam Cooper doesn’t make the Chelsea game.

Whatever Marsch tries will have an unorthodox air about it – even if it’s Shackleton, due to his lack of recent appearances – and you can be certain that Thomas Tuchel will seek to target the area with overloads.

Leeds have been suspect at full-back for some time, no matter who has played, yet all Marsch has to do is fashion a sticking plaster that holds long enough to let them pick up some more points. They can address the situation properly, along with myriad others, in the summer.

At this stage, it’s all about points and unless the plan is to shut up shop and target a hat-trick of goalless draws, which it surely won’t be, then Leeds must play to the strengths of their best players, or even just the best one – Raphinha.