Marcelo Bielsa could soon have five centre-backs in Leeds United squad - so who will play?

Marcelo Bielsa, the head coach who sees makeshift centre-backs everywhere he looks, soon won’t be able to move for proper ones.

Wednesday, 3rd March 2021, 7:01 pm
PECKING ORDER - Liam Cooper has been backed to retain his place by former Leeds United defender Ben Parker, if all five of Marcelo Bielsa's centre-backs are fit. Pic: Getty

The Leeds United boss has used 12 different central defensive partnerships this season but has only once had what you might consider his top three fit and available at the same time. And that lasted just nine minutes.

Liverpool might have more reason than most to complain about player availability but newly promoted and less well-equipped Leeds have had more than their fair share of issues.

Injuries to Liam Cooper and new signings Robin Koch and Diego Llorente have given Pascal Struijk more Premier League game time than he would have dared dream of last summer and given right-back Luke Ayling more time at centre-half than he would have liked.

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Struijk, a fine passer and a genuinely exciting prospect, has played with Cooper, Llorente, Ayling, Koch and Kalvin Phillips.

Cooper, the dominant aerial specialist and leader, has played with Koch, Llorente, Struijk, Ayling and Leif Davis.

Koch, good in the air and on the ball, has played with Cooper, Ayling, Struijk and Phillips.

Llorente, a ball winner with the ability to fire passes into attackers’ feet, has played with Cooper and Struijk.

A series of injuries have kept the Spaniard out for much of the season, but he came through the last two games unscathed, defending solidly, passing it well and, touch wood, suggesting his niggles are behind him.

Gaetano Berardi made a welcome return from knee surgery in Monday’s Under-23s game at Crystal Palace and this was the week when Koch was due to rejoin training after his own post-knee-op’ rehabilitation.

Bielsa believes the demands of the Premier League necessitate three players to cover two positions but suddenly he’s facing the possibility of having five for two.

Who will play?

Former Leeds defender Ben Parker expects Cooper to retain his place.

“It would be a breath of fresh air to have five to choose from,” he said.

“You think back to the games where Ayling partnered Struijk and although they did well together, now we’re talking about seasoned, international centre-backs, which just makes us stronger.

“I thought after all of his injuries Llorente hit the ground running and when Robin Koch was playing I liked how comfortable he was in possession. He had the worst possible start at Anfield but his reaction was great and he seemed to grow as well.

“I think Bielsa likes the balance of having Liam Cooper, the left-sided defender, on the left side of the defence and with him being captain he’s got the respect of the manager. To go alongside him you’ve got a Spanish international, a German international, a club legend in Berardi and Struijk who has been superb.

“For me it’s going to be Liam Cooper and someone else. When he gets the chance to play three at the back it gives him more options.”

The problem was once finding a fit centre-half, it might soon be finding enough minutes to satisfy them all.

Someone is going to be unhappy and, if Parker is correct, that someone will be a fully-fledged international defender in Koch or Llorente, a future international in Struijk and a player accustomed to a supporting role, in Berardi.

They all knew the situation before the season began, however, and only injuries have delayed such a scenario cropping up more often.

“We’re a club who take training into account when it comes to picking a team for matchday, everything is scrutinised and if someone is not bang at it they might find themselves out of the team,” said Parker. “Players know they’ve got to perform. But sometimes you know there’s a pecking order. Going back to my team, we knew the two centre-halves, if fit and available, were Richard Naylor and Paddy Kisnorbo.

“If you have your strongest XI, I think you go with that. We’ve seen it at Leeds, Berardi came in last season and didn’t put a foot wrong but any time Cooper and White were fit and available Berra dropped to the bench. Players know that. It’s a squad game, gone are the days when you’d play every game of the season, there are always niggles and a bit of rotation.

“It’s going to make us stronger and give us competition for places that could help push us into the top half.”