Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa vowed to stand by Luke Ayling amid a dip in the right-back’s form after confirming that Ayling would start again at home to Swansea City tomorrow.
Ayling cut a frustrated figure in parts of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough and was substituted during the second half having struggled to make an impact going forward.
Youngster Jamie Shackleton saw out the final 10 minutes and was occupying the right side of defence when Kalvin Phillips scored in the 11th minute of injury-time to snatch a valuable point.
Ayling, who was forced to miss the second half of last season through ankle surgery, has failed to rediscover top form since returning from a knee ligament problem suffered in October.
Bielsa, though, has started Ayling - nicknamed ‘Bill’ since his days as an Arsenal trainee - in every league game which the the 27-year-old has been fit to feature in and insisted that a drop in the full-back’s attacking influence was no reason to consider replacing him.
“For me, Bill Ayling is a great player, a complete player,” Bielsa said. “When I say complete I mean he can manage all the aspects of the game.
“He can defend as a full-back and as a centre-back. He has an aerial game which is not very common for full-backs. If we divide the pitch into three segments on the right hand side of the pitch, he defends well, he is very good at playing out, he takes risks when we have to use the ball and the only thing that’s decreased a little bit is his offensive impact.”
Leeds signed Ayling for a six-figure fee from Bristol City in 2016 and he shone during his first season under former United head coach Garry Monk. Injury, however, cut short his second campaign at Elland Road and troubled him again in the first half of this term.
Bielsa and his staff mark individual players after every competitive fixture and the Argentinian said the deterioration in Ayling’s performances had been slight. Ayling will retain his starting place ahead of Shackleton tomorrow evening.
“He usually gets a grade of about seven points and now he’s getting a grade of over six points,” Bielsa said. “The only thing I can tell you about Ayling is that he contributes a little less in attack. Usually he was getting a grade of more than seven, now it’s more than six.
“But for me he’s a very important player for the team. He’s a player who is an example for his team-mates, the public and the fans. In football you have very few players who don’t have ups and downs.
“Even when Bill has less impact, he always scores more than six points. Even in his downs he’s over six points.
Maybe I’m not objective because I have a very special respect for him, for what he gives to the team. He always assumes risks and for this feature I admire him.”