Leeds United centre-back situation back under microscope as Pontus Jansson exits for Brentford

MARCELO BIELSA regularly found himself probed about Leeds United’s options at centre-back last term.

By Lee Sobot
Monday, 8th July 2019, 5:51 pm
Leeds United captain and centre-back Liam Cooper.
Leeds United captain and centre-back Liam Cooper.

Kyle Bartley was initially identified as a key transfer target before the arrival of Bielsa last summer but the former Whites loanee joined West Brom.

Leeds looked to be approaching the season with just two natural centre-backs in Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson and the topic was one that Bielsa was naturally quizzed about over the first half of the campaign.

The former Argentina head coach didn’t see the situation as a problem – especially with his own masterplan to play Kalvin Phillips in the position when required.

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“Berardi, Jansson, Cooper, Shaughnessy, Ayling. We have these players,” said Bielsa last August.

“Even if we have just Cooper and Jansson as centre-backs, Shaughnessy is a defensive midfielder but he can play there as can Berardi as a full-back. Kalvin Phillips too. Ayling already played as a centre-back. But if we could add another option it would be good too.”

Just under one year on, Pontus Jansson’s confirmed switch to Brentford on Monday night means Bielsa has lost another option in the position, no sooner than one week after adding one in Ben White on loan from Brighton.

A new season but the same situation with the centre-back picture firmly back under the magnifying glass with White now looking the most likely partner to Liam Cooper at the heart of the Leeds defence, less than one week after his move to the club.

A breakdown in the relationship between Jansson and Bielsa means that United’s Swedish centre-back is on the way out of the club with the 28-year-old sealing a quick switch to Brentford on Monday evening for a fee of £5.5m plus add ons.

Love him or loathe him in the personality stakes, Jansson had more or less made one of the two centre-back slots his own since his switch from Torino in August 2016.

The Swede wore his heart on his sleeve with passion always at the fore, typified by the defender’s refusal to allow Aston Villa a walk-in equaliser after Mateusz Klich’s controversial opener in the 1-1 draw at Elland Road at the end of April, effectively going against Bielsa’s orders.

That did not look wise but Bielsa then admitted himself that Jansson had been United’s best player over the whole campaign. Those two episodes essentially sum up the Swede.

But the prospects of Jansson returning for a fourth season at Elland Road next term suddenly appeared doubtful as news emerged that the defender had been given until July 12 to report back for training.

Now, with the club viewing Jansson as a disruptive influence, the Swede is on his way out one week short even of that envisaged return, again opening up another centre-back conundrum at Elland Road.

Just one week earlier, United had bolstered their options in that position with the loan signing of White who looked to have been brought in to provide competition and cover to Cooper and Jansson.

Just over three weeks until the start of the season, White could now be viewed as one of the two first choices in the position which is naturally coming back under the microscope in light of the shock departure of Jansson.

And it remains to be seen whether or not the Swedish defender is replaced like for like or if Bielsa again produces another masterstroke.

As it stands, White is clearly looking like the player with most to gain from Jansson’s departure while Pascal Struijk appears the most obvious contender to progress up the ladder from within United’s ranks.

Jansson’s departure clearly leaves club captain Cooper as the first port of call in what will now be his sixth season at the Whites following his £600,000 switch from Chesterfield in August 2014 under the Massimo Cellino era with David Hockaday in the managerial hotseat before his imminent departure.

Cooper has since worked under another eight head coaches at the Whites and the eighth of those in Bielsa took his game to ‘another level’ last term with the defender named in the PFA and EFL's Championship team of the year.

Under the guidance of Bielsa, everything again points towards Cooper’s sixth season at Leeds being his best yet.

The ‘million dollar question’ following Jansson’s exit is who will be partnering him and White now appears in pole position.

The 21-year-old is spoken about in glowing terms by those who have worked with him and the defender checked in at Leeds looking to take the next step up after making 16 appearances on loan at Peterborough United in League One last term, one season after a mammoth campaign in League Two with Newport County featured 51 outings in league and cup.

“I’ve heard loads about Marcelo Bielsa,” said White following his switch to Leeds.

“He is an amazing manager, especially with young players and I’m sure he is going to really improve me, which is what I am looking to do this season.

“I’m cool and calm on the ball, I like to play out from the back and I want to try and play as many games as I can.”

White now looks in pole position to start that first game at Bristol City alongside Cooper with Luke Ayling, Gaetano Berardi and Kalvin Phillips looking the other alternatives before dipping into the Under-23s.

All three excelled in the position when called upon by Bielsa last term though Ayling is clearly at his best in his more natural position of right-back and the same applies to Berardi whose season ended with big questions to answer after his red card against Derby.

Natural, deep-lying midfielder Phillips, meanwhile, proved one of the surprises of the season last term when excelling at centre-back when called upon by Bielsa having previously been used as far forward as a no 10 under previous managers.

Conor Shaughnessy – mentioned by Bielsa last August as one of his viable options there – has not featured for Leeds for 11 months and spent last season on loan at Hearts while another more recently emerging option in Aapo Halme recently sealed a switch to Barnsley.

Hugo Diaz – another potential option from the 23s – and also Paudie O'Connor, have also left Elland Road.

And, as it stands, Cooper and White are the only two natural centre-backs though it would be no surprise to see Struijk take a big step forward this term having excelled for United’s under-23s last term and having ended the campaign making United’s first-team bench.

Either way, Bielsa can certainly again be expected to be quizzed about his options in the position once again come the start of the new campaign.

One year ago, Leeds were also keen on signing Everton’s Matthew Pennington back on loan but the move never materialised with Bielsa and his Whites making light of the apparent shortage of options in the position and looking certain to seal automatic promotion until the last month of the campaign.

Leeds and Bielsa have now made a big call in off-loading Jansson ahead of their quest to finally ‘get it right’ one year on.

A new season but the same questions asked about the same position with Bielsa again hoping to work the answers and a similar outcome but a very different final month.