If Marcelo Bielsa springs a Leeds United surprise at centre-half against Liverpool it will be no surprise
Marcelo Bielsa takes Leeds United to the home of the Premier League champions this weekend with a bountiful supply of central defensive options.
Club captain Liam Cooper is nailed on to start at centre-half, as long as he returns from international duty in one piece, but who plays alongside him will be just one of the fascinating talking points ahead of the top-flight opener.
Ben White’s return to Brighton at the end of his loan spell left a hole in the middle of Bielsa’s defence, next to Cooper.
Leeds acted quickly, taking around seven days from the moment it became clear that Brighton would not sell White, to sign a replacement in SC Freiburg’s Robin Koch.
They’re taking more time over the potential addition of Joško Gvardiol, a Croatian teenager whose social-media activity suggests genuine excitement at the prospect of moving to Elland Road and whose mandate would be to study the work of Cooper and, eventually, compete with him.
It is the one they have already signed, German international Koch, who is expected to partner Cooper this season, but it would be a huge surprise to see him walk straight into the Leeds side this weekend.
He might have some weeks’ worth of theoretical understanding of what Bielsa wants from his right-sided centre-half thanks to the presentations and videos he was sent before he flew in to Yeadon yet, by the time kick-off comes at Anfield, his practical experience will consist of just a handful of days at Thorp Arch.
One week does not an adaptation period make, if we take what Bielsa has said previously on new signings and their suitability for starting roles as gospel.
The head coach feels a responsibility for the performance of his players and, if he does not believe they are equipped fully and entirely prepared to carry out his instructions and show the very best of their ability, he will not subject them to public scrutiny.
“I take the decision always thinking of the best for the player and for the team,” he said last season.
“What I think is that the manager has to help the player to make his performance to be good.
“I’m always watching, seeing if the player is in good condition to resolve the needs of the team.
“When a player cannot resolve the needs of the team, after, on the pitch, it is the player who takes responsibility in front of the supporters.
“I always try to give minutes to a player until he’s in condition to give a good response on the pitch.”
Koch would need to show prodigious, almost supernatural powers of understanding and adaptability to prove to Bielsa in less than a week that he is fit enough and sufficiently well versed in the team’s style to perform adequately against a Liverpool side who scored 85 goals en route to the 2019/20 top-flight title.
It feels far more likely and more natural that Bielsa would select a player who has earned his trust and, with that in mind, the squad is full of central defensive candidates, if not ‘recognised’ operators in that position.
Luke Ayling could take several steps to his left and stand next to Cooper, with Stuart Dallas playing a right-back role he knows very well.
Kalvin Phillips could take several steps back and partner his captain, with actual centre-half Pascal Struijk filling in the central defensive midfield position as he did so capably in the final three games of last season, having never played there at all before lockdown.
The 21-year-old featured in the role again, albeit against a mid-table Portuguese outfit with a fraction of the talent that the Reds possess, and did so solidly in Saturday’s friendly when Bielsa showcased some of his other potential centre-halves.
Oliver Casey, a centre-back by trade, started the game in the heart of the defence with Leif Davis, ordinarily a left-back, beside him.
The pair did well, Casey showing physicality and good awareness to halt opposition attacks high up the pitch, while Davis showed an ability to pop up here, there and everywhere.
Later, Barry Douglas took Davis’ place, allowing the youngster to revert to the flank.
As always with Bielsa, you should not be surprised if there is a surprise. The rest of us see White’s absence, a short, disrupted pre-season and a new signing with no time to settle in.
Bielsa sees all of the above. Then he sees solutions.