Leeds United rising star Pascal Struijk is proof of Marcelo Bielsa's theory that will never catch on

Pascal Struijk is Marcelo Bielsa’s proof that coaching instead of spending your way out of problems is possible - but it’ll never catch on.

Thursday, 4th February 2021, 5:47 am
RISING STAR - Pascal Struijk has been developed by Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United to fill two positions, so the Whites didn't have to spend in January. Pic: Getty

In the discussion surrounding the lack of business done in the transfer window just closed there was a little too much lamenting.

It was a ‘boring’ window, a ‘rubbish’ and ‘unfashionable’ one because clubs did not throw money around wildly in order to ‘announce a striker.’

Clubs just didn’t have the money to throw around because Covid-19 has bitten them all, removing matchday revenue streams entirely, reducing broadcast income and exposing the weakness in football’s financial model.

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The huge operating costs are still there, the massive wage bills have not gone away and money is still owed on previous transfers, so spending millions more for defensive cover suddenly wasn’t such an easy decision when the January window opened.

Leeds were one of the clubs with injury problems to overcome as 2021 began.

One of their shiny new international centre-halves purchased in the summer, Robin Koch, had knee surgery and is not expected back until the spring.

Diego Llorente was working his way back to fitness during the month of January until yet another injury took him out of the equation with six days left in the window.

There was no panic and no attempt to scrape together the necessary money for a replacement because Leeds have Struijk, a 21-year-old who prior to this season had just 215 minutes of senior second tier league action to his name.

Bielsa’s way is not to go out and buy a mid-season replacement in the market, but to fashion one from the tools already at his disposal.

Struijk produced a very solid defensive display against Leicester City on Sunday, alongside Liam Cooper, and did not look out of place whatsoever against Everton last night.

His age and inexperience mean there may well be dips in form and erratic performances on the road ahead, yet he is already a triumph, of both recruitment and coaching.

An academy player Ajax were quite happy to let go, he was recommended to Victor Orta and given a trial, in which he showed enough to earn himself a deal.

Three years later he is trusted to defend against world-class opponents, for a team whose style necessitates a lot of vital defensive interventions.

Bielsa would give all the credit to the player.

“I am joined with a player to get the best out of him and show his capabilities,” he said.

“There are many virtues players don’t use because it is more comfortable not to use them.

“But to leave the state of comfort and go above and beyond is not linked to the manager but the ambition of the player.”

Yet if you speak to the 2019-20 Championship title winning squad they will, to a man, tell you Bielsa made them better players, highlighting details of their game they were previously unaware of and creating, at Thorp Arch, an environment in which they could improve physically, tactically and technically.

The net result for the Whites, in the case of Struijk, is a player who has cost a fraction of what a new centre-half would have in January.

Leeds, obviously, invested a significant amount last summer, could not have done so again last month and would not lay claim to some moral high ground when it comes to expenditure, but the huge strides many individuals have taken under Bielsa and his staff meant their summer spend was targeted on a small number of experienced, high-quality additions.

Players like Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling, obtained for very little outlay, have become priceless because of their incredible improvements.

“The construction of the team me and Victor [Orta] did together,” said Bielsa.

“With Angus [Kinnear, CEO] and the president [Andrea Radrizzani] we decided the economic way to build the team.”

An entirely new squad was not required because Bielsa is content to have local lads like Jamie Shackleton among his Premier League substitutes.

Coaching Shackleton to play right-back or central midfield in his system is part of the battle, showing complete faith in him helps the player to go on and win it.

The time Bielsa has been able to spend improving this squad has also been key and that is not something many clubs are willing to give managers. But would Leeds have given it to Bielsa had he not obtained such good results so quickly?

A global pandemic has given football the chance to reset and introduce patience to their strategies, but don’t hold your breath. Fans are just as demanding when it comes to results and patience and tolerance feel, thanks to a pandemic, at an all-time low. It would take a lengthy process of re-education, bought into by all Premier League clubs, the media and pundits, and not just the suggestions and actions of one fascinating coach with relatively few top-flight honours to his name, to turn the ship around.

So as soon as spending big to quickly fix problems is once again an option, expect transfer windows to once again excite and delight broadcasters and their viewers alike.