LEEDS UNITED are likely to establish the length of Liam Cooper’s absence later today but there is little prospect of the defender playing again this side of January. The never-ending run of injuries at Elland Road caught up with him on Saturday, depriving Marcelo Bielsa of his club captain.
There are few members of Bielsa’s squad who have not managed one ailment or another this season – just five of the 18 players involved in Leeds’ opening game against Stoke City escaping – and the knee injury which forced Cooper from the pitch during a 1-0 win over Sheffield United left an unrecognisable defence in front of goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Bielsa ruled out the possibility of ligament damage after full-time at Bramall Lane, indicating that Cooper had avoided the most serious of injuries, but the centre-back’s immediate reaction – punching the ground in frustration having pulled up off the ball – highlighted his concern about the absence in front of him and he was barely able to limp from the pitch. “It would be an important loss for the team,” Bielsa admitted.
Cooper has been one of Bielsa’s most trusted players, a pillar in his defence and a supportive presence off it. The 27-year-old carried the armband last season but was not certain of retaining it after Bielsa’s arrival as head coach, an appointment which meant all bets were off.
Bielsa saw the captaincy as important but did not want to issue it himself, preferring to leave his players to make a collective decision. En masse they agreed that Cooper should keep the role.
Cooper has taken the position seriously, acting as a go-between with Bielsa and his staff. He has been at the front of the fund-raising for Toby Nye, the young Leeds fan who required treatment for Neuroblastoma, and was behind the decision to hold up a shirt with a message of support for Jamal Blackman – the on loan Chelsea goalkeeper who broke his leg last month – during Leeds’ 2-0 win over Bristol City.
Izzy Brown revealed recently that when he came to United on loan from Stamford Bridge in August, with weeks of rehabilitation from an ACL ahead of him, one of the first text messages he received was from Cooper. Earlier this year, Stuart Dallas asked Cooper to be godfather to his son and, in general, he cuts a popular figure at Thorp Arch.
Bielsa sought to change his style of play in the summer, encouraging Cooper to trust his passing, to stretch and probe from the back and to meet the ball on the move. Cooper heeded the instructions and, 20 games into the season, lies fifth in the list of central defenders in the Championship for passes made and sixth for short passes completed.
His accuracy has jumped from 77 per cent last year to more than 80 per cent and the best of his passing, like much of Leeds’ football was seen in August when the Championship was caught cold by the intensity of ‘Bielsa-ball’.
There are defensive aspects of Cooper’s game which have improved too: 40 interceptions at a rate of more than two a game and 21 shots blocked, by some distance the highest tally in United’s squad.
There were times, particularly under Garry Monk, when Leeds relied heavily on their centre-backs for multiple clearances in every game but Bielsa’s insistence on dominating possession – as his squad have in all but one league fixture – has reduced that dependance.
Cooper’s partnership with Pontus Jansson came together in the second month of the season, following the first of two injuries suffered by Gaetano Berardi, but Cooper’s injury on Saturday pushed Bielsa into a using a back three which was not even on the radar in August: Jansson, Kalvin Phillips and Aapo Halme.
That choice will be all that Bielsa has until absentees begin trickling back after the turn of the year.
Jansson’s individual statistics are impressively high and Phillips has adapted with unexpected ease to an unfamiliar position. He came up with seven clearances against Sheffield United but used his anticipation to deal with a number of the Blades’ other attacks.
Bielsa sought to change his style of play in the summer, encouraging Cooper to trust his passing, to stretch and probe from the back and to meet the ball on the move. Cooper heeded the instructions
Bielsa sacrificed the full range of the 22-year-old’s distribution by playing Jansson as the middle of three centre-backs but the Argentinian admitted that he has been impressed by Phillips’s ability to exert influence in different roles.
“Usually, the defensive midfielder is the third centre-back in the team,” Bielsa said. “When a defensive midfielder plays as a centre-back, he does actions he’s used to doing.
“But it’s one thing to take a decision when you know you have three team-mates behind you. It’s another thing to take a decision knowing you only have one player behind you. You sometimes see defensive midfielders recover the ball without being sure they can do so. A centre-back doesn’t take these risks.”
Halme is the unknown factor despite a disciplined performance. Leeds have other centre-backs in their development squad – Pascal Struijk, Hugo Diaz and Conor Shaughnessy – but it was Halme, the Finland Under-21 international, who Bielsa turned to.
Halme was beset by injuries after signing from HJK Helsinki and admitted that a disrupted start had left doubts in his head about his prospects.
“It’s all in the mind,” Halme said. “Can I still play? And when I come back, how will it feel again? I predict that I’m mentally stronger but it’s been a difficult time for me.”
Cooper’s absence puts him front and centre.