'New start' - Surprise package Pascal Struijk on imminent Leeds United season and Manchester United clash

When Pascal Struijk last ran out against Manchester United at Old Trafford it was just his fifth Premier League appearance and his 10th outing as a senior professional.

Wednesday, 11th August 2021, 4:45 am
SURPRISE PACKAGE - Pascal Struijk and Leeds United had a fine first season in the Premier League and kick off their second season at Manchester United on Saturday. Pic: Getty

Leeds United were 4-1 down having suffered a calamitous start to the game, conceding twice in the opening three minutes, on one of the darkest days of their return to the top flight.

Struijk was sent on at half-time as Marcelo Bielsa hooked both Kalvin Phillips and Matuesz Klich, but he and Leeds were unable to rescue the situation. In fact, the 21-year-old gave away a penalty and was hit and miss on the ball in the defensive midfield role.

The 6-2 defeat, which came on December 20, capped a first half of the season that was a baptism of fire for the young defender. He started the season opener against Liverpool, a thrilling 4-3 defeat that showcased the best and worst of Leeds, played 75 minutes of a 1-0 defeat by Wolves and was dragged off, on a booking, after 21 minutes at Aston Villa.

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After a 4-1 defeat at Crystal Palace, when he was unable to make much of an impact at all in front of the back line, Struijk sat out for five games and returned as a substitute at the home of Leeds’ bitter rivals from along the M62.

From there, his season took a turn, however. The road became a lot less bumpy and he began to shine.

By the time he started in the return fixture against Manchester United there were 16 more Premier League appearances under his belt, 13 of which came in his more natural centre-half position.

The road to redemption boasted clean sheets against Burnley, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Southampton and a stellar defensive effort in a famous 10-man win at Manchester City.

Against the Red Devils he was magnificent, tackling, heading and passing it well, hassling defenders and earning a deserved clean sheet in as cool a performance as any put together by a Leeds defender all season.

That 0-0 draw told the story of Struijk’s potential and Leeds’ adaptation to the Premier League far better than the 6-2 defeat.

Ahead of Saturday’s return to Old Trafford in the 2021/22 curtain raiser, it is the Elland Road game that Struijk is keeping in mind.

“New season, new start,” he told The Yorkshire Evening Post.

“Again, I am looking forward to the first game and really looking forward to playing the best teams because that makes you better as a player and as a team.

“The 6-2, that was last year. This year it’s zero-zero and we will go from there.”

Becoming ‘everyone’s second favourite team’ was not something Leeds set out to achieve last season and yet their participation in so many thrilling games gave them popularity and profile far beyond their fellow new boys.

The football they played was the same free-flowing, relentless all-out attack that took the Championship by storm but, for the first half of the season at least, the defensive solidity that played such a big part in their second-tier title went missing far too often.

Bielsa and his men tightened up at the back however and Struijk hopes they will continue in that vein from the off this time round.

“[We’ll] try and do the same I think, well, even better, but just try and play the good football that we did last year,” he said.

“In the first half of the season we conceded way too many goals so we need to try and keep that down and then try also to get the results coming our way.

“I think if you look at the results from last season, especially the end, we were conceding way less than in the first half of the season so if we can continue that form, that’s great.”

Struijk was as big a surprise package for Leeds as the Whites were for the division.

His pre-season expectation, given the arrival of two senior international central defenders, was to play in a couple of games.

The general expectation at Leeds was to stay up, by hook or by crook. Yet Struijk played in 27 of the 38 Premier League fixtures as Leeds finished ninth, three points off a European place.

“Last year was a big surprise for me,” he said. “I was never expecting to play the first game and then I did and then obviously I got more minutes because some people got injured and then slowly worked my way into the team.

“My goal for this year is to do the exact same, try and get as many minutes as possible, play as many games well and just try and get my spot in the team.”

The way he settled into life as a top-flight defender has made Struijk something of a luxury for the Whites.

Bielsa knows that when one of his defenders goes down with an injury, he can call on the youngster without concern. The knock sustained by Diego Llorente on the eve of the season was unfortunately timed but is causing no panic at Leeds, not only because it is minor and unrelated to last season’s problems, but because Liam Cooper, Robin Koch and Struijk are at the head coach’s disposal.

Struijk turns 22 today and is already well on course to become a long-term successor to club captain Cooper but believes there is much more to come from him.

“I think I am improving every single game,” he said.

“Basically my whole progression over the last year was pretty good.

“My confidence started growing with the more games that I played.

“I got used to certain strikers and the skill the players have so it’s only good for me and I think I still have a lot of space to improve.”

The future is undoubtedly bright, yet the Premier League is the toughest of paper rounds, so Struijk has his work cut out to deliver something better than last season.

First stop is Old Trafford, where it will not be beyond his and Leeds’ ability to produce an improvement on their last visit.