Leeds United defender given 'main man' tag by Liverpool ace amid unfair analysis of mistakes

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Leeds United captain Liam Cooper is accepted and appreciated by his Scotland national team peers but still struggles to win over a section of Whites supporters. YEP chief football writer Graham Smyth explores the unfair weighting of mistakes in analysis of the centre-back.

With Scotland coming under pressure late on in their win against Spain, Steve Clarke turned to Liam Cooper, entrusting him with the clean sheet. The centre-back did not disappoint, he and his fellow defenders rebuffing Spanish attacks and balls into the box in the final stages. Only once was Cooper a little wayward, heading out for a corner instead of a throw-in but ultimately the scoreline showed that he and his Tartan Army peers got the job done.

In a broadcast interview immediately after the 2-0 win Andy Robertson spoke of how they knew they would need Cooper at some stage. ‘The main man’ was how the full-back captioned a photo of Cooper after the game – presuming of course the Liverpool ace has creative control over his own social media account.

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Regardless, the scenes after the game and the general sense that you get from observing Cooper in the national team show that he's not only accepted but appreciated among Scotland's group of leading players. The accent might say Hull but his effort and glee at full-time at Hampden Park was every bit as Scottish as his Bo'ness paternal roots.

It begs the question why he's still not as appreciated by some of his own at Leeds United. There's never been any hint of Cooper being underrated by his Whites team-mates but there remains a section of the fanbase who don't rate him.

As with any centre-back, errors that led to goals are not only a stick to beat Cooper with - the play-off semi-final mix up with Kiko Casilla was evidently a difficult one for supporters to let go - but they're a somewhat unfair barometer. Yes, centre-backs are there to do a very specific job and help prevent goals at the wrong end, yet if they're in a position where they have to make last ditch challenges then it's highly likely that something has gone wrong ahead of them.

When they are guilty of an error or cough the ball up it's generally in areas closer to goal than when say a striker miscontrols or plays a bad pass. And as Rodrigo has shown with goalscoring exploits since that dreadful, costly pass in the 1-0 defeat by Arsenal at Elland Road, strikers at least have more of an opportunity to bury those memories with what they produce at the other end.

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Cooper is listed by data and analysis firm InStat as committing several errors that led to goals this campaign alone but as is often the case with statistics when it comes to centre-backs, only half a tale is told.

MAIN MEN - Leeds United skipper and Liverpool's Andy Robertson played vital roles in keeping Spain at bay in the late stages of Scotland's famous 2-0 Hampden Park win. Pic: GettyMAIN MEN - Leeds United skipper and Liverpool's Andy Robertson played vital roles in keeping Spain at bay in the late stages of Scotland's famous 2-0 Hampden Park win. Pic: Getty
MAIN MEN - Leeds United skipper and Liverpool's Andy Robertson played vital roles in keeping Spain at bay in the late stages of Scotland's famous 2-0 Hampden Park win. Pic: Getty

Take the black mark against his name in the Manchester City game at Elland Road this season. His pass to Robin Koch was plainly undercooked but the German was also slow to react, slower than Jack Grealish at least. Given Cooper should have dealt with the pass from Pascal Struijk far better than he did, it should have gone down the line or even back to Illan Meslier so the captain takes the bulk of the blame, but Koch's lack of awareness and alertness makes it a shared culpability.

At Spurs, Dejan Kulusevski got past Cooper with painful ease in the area, but things went awry for Leeds from the throw directly preceding the goal. The Swede ran into space to receive the throw, Marc Roca failed to anticipate the run and left Brenden Aaronson, who already had a man, with too much to do. Even after Cooper was beaten, Harry Kane was given too much space and allowed to get a shot away and Illan Meslier's attempted save from Ben Davies' drive wasn't convincing.

In the same game Cooper admittedly sent a headed clearance only as far as Rodrigo Bentancur, but the goalscorer was completely unmarked on the edge of the box, Tyler Adams among those failing to pick up the Uruguayan.

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Spurs' fourth could be laid at Cooper's door, for his was again too easily bypassed by Kulusevski, whose pace took him clear of the centre-half before he also skipped past Koch and teed up the again unmarked Bentancur.

At Crystal Palace, Eberechi Eze's skill left Cooper stumbling and created space for a shot that won the game for the Eagles. Had Roca spotted Wilfried Zaha's dart towards the left sooner in the build-up to that goal, the problem might have been solved before it reached catastrophic levels.

What people tend to remember is the attempted challenges on Kulusevski or Eze, the failed firefighting attempt, and not the fuel that lit the blaze.

Cooper, at 31, is not the future of the Leeds United defence - step forward Pascal Struijk - and had it not been for Max Wober's international duty injury then it's unlikely the captain would be in with much of a shot at being the present option, either. Wober has been impressive since his arrival, stringing together largely solid, consistent displays and showing a healthy appetite for the physical side of the English game. Had he come back from Euro qualifying action unscathed then he would almost certainly have played against Arsenal at the Emirates. Leeds knew even when they got promoted that they would eventually have to upgrade in Cooper’s position and perhaps, two and a half years later, Wober was a nod in that direction.

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That said, Cooper's aerial ability, physicality, organisation, leadership and a more than decent left peg make him a good option, whether everyone of a Leeds persuasion accepts it or not. He has had his dips in form and his costly mistakes, like almost every player to pull on a pair of boots, yet his Premier League form has never been so problematic as to raise the kind of alarm seen in some quarters when news of Wober's injury came through, not even remotely. Cooper has been and remains far more than his mistakes for Leeds.

It's hard to value the unseen and so Cooper won't get the widespread credit that is deserved for playing through niggles or training just enough to pass fit for matchday in order to present his head coach with an option. Organising a back four and effectively leading a team on and off the pitch are almost as intangible and unnoticed.

But fit again, good enough and trusted to help see off a desperate Spain side, Cooper is surely good enough for a Leeds return this weekend if Javi Gracia sees fit.

If so he would be the third top flight Leeds head coach in succession to put his trust in a player whose climb from League One to play 61 Premier League games is far more worthy of air time than the third-tier jibes that have followed him since.