'He's become a key player despite his age' - Leeds United defender Diego Llorente on Marcelo Bielsa's rising star
Spanish international Diego Llorente sees his 21-year-old defensive partner Pascal Struijk as a key player for Leeds United.
Llorente joined the club in the summer transfer window from Real Sociedad to make up a trio of senior centre-halves with international experience.
Club captain Liam Cooper was expected to play the majority of games as Marcelo Bielsa’s left-sided central defender, with either Llorente or Robin Koch, another summer signing from SC Freiburg, alongside him.
Struijk, by his own admission, was staring at a season on the bench and a likely handful of Premier League appearances before being handed opportunities beyond his wildest dreams by injuries and, most recently, suspension.
Monday’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool was Struijk’s 18th top-flight start of the season and just the 20th senior league start of his young career.
Cooper’s red card against Manchester City and subsequent ban has re-opened the door for the former Ajax academy player, who has not only stood in for the captain and Leeds’ other senior centre-backs during their injury problems, but shown himself capable of handling Premier League football, in Llorente’s eyes.
“I think he’s become a key player, despite his age,” the 28-year-old told The YEP. “He’s shown what it takes at this level to help the team, in the centre of defence or in the centre of midfield. It’s come to him at a young age and, when it happens, you can only benefit from the experience it gives you.”
Struijk’s impressive passing ability was on display during Monday night’s game, when he partnered Llorente against Liverpool and helped Leeds beat the visitors’ press with diagonal balls to the flanks.
This season he has caught the eye with a number of solid performances in an ever-changing back-line, alongside various partners and rarely, if ever, looked out of place.
Llorente was 19 when he made his La Liga debut for Real Madrid and, at 22, gained a full season of regular top-tier football, out on loan at Rayo Vallecano as a team-mate of Pablo Hernandez.
Since then, Llorente has gone on to play at least 20 games a season in La Liga, until making the move to England.
Based on his own experience, he believes Struijk can only improve from his unexpected gametime this season.
“I was lucky in my career that I played quite early, at a high level, and know from experience that it helped me grow as a player,” he said.
“When you’re in at the deep end you do flourish and develop.”