Leeds United: Healthy in-house rivalry hotting up – especially at the back

Centre-back Liam Cooper. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Centre-back Liam Cooper. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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LIAM COOPER was naturally frustrated to injure his hamstring in the warm-up before last month’s Championship clash at Swansea City.

Given United’s flying start – which continued with a solid 2-2 draw at Swansea – the 27-year-old stressed he would have to “work really hard to earn his place back in the side.”

Centre-back Pontus Jansson.

Centre-back Pontus Jansson.

As it was, just ten days after picking up his injury, Cooper found himself immediately restored to the team in place of Pontus Jansson for Friday night’s top-of-the-table clash with Middlesbrough.

“An unbelievable player” left on the bench admits United’s captain who says his squad are thriving on ultra-fierce competition for places in the side.

Cooper’s injury in south Wales ultimately afforded an opportunity for 18-year-old Jamie Shackleton at right-back with regular right-back Luke Ayling switching to centre-back to partner Gaetano Berardi in the absence of Jansson who also had a back injury.

Berardi is himself more naturally recognised as a full-back but has been shifted to play in the centre of defence under head coach Marcelo Bielsa with the 30-year-old having started all six of United’s league games.

Left-back-turned-centre-back Gaetano Berardi.

Left-back-turned-centre-back Gaetano Berardi.

With Cooper still injured, Jansson then returned to partner Berardi at centre-back for United’s most recent away assignment at Norwich City in which the Leeds defence proved impregnable as Cooper looked on.

The 27-year-old returned to training two days before Friday’s crunch clash with Middlesbrough, leaving Bielsa with a decision to make – two from three out of Berardi, Jansson and Cooper.

Paying a huge compliment to the early-season form of Berardi, United’s Argentinian head coach opted to leave out Jansson with Cooper immediately restored to the side as Leeds ultimately kept a clean sheet through a goalless draw to keep themselves top of the division.

Three clean sheets from Leeds’ six league games and Cooper says the battle to start is clearly bringing out the best in United’s players.

Asked about the competition for places at Leeds and in particular at centre-back, Cooper admitted: ”It’s massive. Pontus is a great lad and he’s an unbelievable player and we all push each other.

“I have been in Pontus’ shoes before and he’s been in mine and we all push each other and it’s good to know that the lads are rooting for us as well.

“It had been ten days since I picked up the injury at Swansea and we were looking at two to three weeks out.

“But the physios here go off us. If we are feeling all right they will push us and I managed to train the last two days before the game and I felt great.

“The manager spoke to me on Thursday and he said ‘are you 100 per cent’ and I said ‘yeah’ and it’s just one of those things, you can’t come out of this team at the moment, the lads are really pushing each other and even the lads that aren’t playing.

“It’s a great group and it’s great to be a part of.”

That group sits top of the Championship heading into the international break with United leading second-placed Boro on goal difference with the two teams now the only unbeaten sides in the division.

United continue to earn plaudits for their free-flowing, high-press and crisp-passing game under Bielsa which starts at the back and even farther behind than Cooper with United’s captain having been highly impressed with goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

The 21-year-old faced a stern battle to keep the no 1 jersey after Leeds signed Jamal Blackman on loan from Chelsea in July but Bielsa has started every league game with Peacock-Farrell who has rewarded his head coach with sterling work with both his hands and feet.

Cooper said: “We have got great players in the final third but the defensive lads can play as well – all of us can handle the ball and it’s all confidence.

“It’s great to be a part of. Obviously Bailey has been doing brilliant, he’s been great with his feet and we are a work in progress.

“There’s a lot more to come from us and we know that but we have got to stay motivated for every game, game by game and long may the hard work continue.

“It takes so much pressure off the lads when you know your keeper is going to come and be big and strong and even if he has to come and wipe us out we don’t mind because he is doing the right thing.

“I thought Bails was brilliant on Friday night and he has really stepped up to the plate this year.”

As too, in the first six games of the season, have Leeds with Cooper admitting his men are thriving on the atmosphere at the club under Bielsa and at Elland Road with the defender highlighting the clear link to United’s current form and the buzz of the crowd.

The Whites captain says it is now down to United’s players to continue that for the remainder of the campaign with the defender highlighting the importance of starting games on the front foot.

Cooper beamed: “There’s a real buzz and I think when we are like that it entices the fans to get like that as well and it’s a horrible place to come and play when this place is rocking and we are on top of teams.

“It’s horrible and it’s intimidating for any team. We know that and we have got to get the fans on that from the first minute.”