Pascal Struijk exclusive - Leeds United man on Cardiff City cameo, his secret Liverpool debut, shackling Harry Kane and shyness
You see Pascal Struijk before you hear him.
Leeds United’s 6ft 3ins centre-half has plenty of presence and a huge amount of potential but doesn’t make a lot of noise about it.
The antithesis of Gjanni Alioski, Struijk is the quiet man of the Thorp Arch changing room, a youngster of few words who says just what he wants to and no more.
He is as efficient with his responses as he is with his passing. Why exchange many when one can cut to the chase, or through an opposition midfield? You don’t get chapter and verse but you get honesty and matter-of-factness.
Despite describing himself as ‘a bit too shy’ at times, he’s friendly, holding eye contact throughout as his face lights up at the mention of family or proud moments in his short but eventful career.
Recovering from a disastrous cameo against Cardiff City in December 2019, he returned to Marcelo Bielsa’s side in the second half of a win over Barnsley that put Leeds on the cusp of promotion.
In the summer that followed Leeds signed two right-sided international centre-backs and with club captain Liam Cooper expected to remain Bielsa’s first choice left-sided central defender, Struijk was staring a bit-part role in the eye.
Twenty-one Premier League starts later, he has wrestled Harry Kane and a host of elite strikers and played a leading role in the highly entertaining story of Leeds’ return to the top flight.
Shyness is not to be confused for weakness.
“I’m feeling pretty good about the season,” he told the YEP.
“I said in another interview, I was expecting to start only three games and maybe a couple as sub. It’s crazy how it turned out.”
The Struijk who produced such a composed performance against the world-class attacking menace of Tottenham Hotspur looked a different player altogether from the one who struggled against Cardiff.
“That wasn’t a good feeling,” he recalled.
“I wasn’t very happy about my performance but it didn’t affect me too much because it’s just one game. You try and go again the next day.
“The only thing I did was focus on myself and try and work as hard as possible to get back in the team.”
That he did, changing perceptions of his ability late in the season. When the summer arrived, along with new faces at centre-half, Struijk continued to focus on himself.
“It did not change my approach,” he said.
“I knew they were both right footed, not that they can’t play on the left, but it didn’t change my approach of trying to get my spot in the first team.”
When Cooper picked up an injury on the eve of the season, Struijk suddenly found himself front and centre at Anfield.
A proud moment for the family of any footballer but a big one. So big, in fact, that it required tunnel vision.
“I didn’t tell my family on the day of Liverpool that I was going to play,” he said.
“I was a bit nervous so I tried not to tell them and just waited for the comments and reaction after the game. It turned out great and they were happy for me.”
It was a quietish start to the season for Struijk but it got going with a bang from December.
Injuries to Robin Koch, Diego Llorente and Cooper saw Struijk partnering right-back Luke Ayling at centre-half, playing all but 10 minutes of the next 10 games.
Struijk looked right at home and the more he played the more he felt it, too, in his own quiet way.
“For everyone that plays, not just me, whenever you play and you see you can match up with the players you’re playing against it’s a great feeling, it makes you more comfortable,” he said.
“I’ve got a bit more comfortable with the lads, talking and everything, but I still won’t be the guy with the very big, arrogant attitude. I would say I’m a very humble guy, sometimes a bit too shy as well. I don’t think that’s changed.”
When there’s something to say, however, he says it. The recent defeat at Brighton featured a lengthy, animated exchange between Ayling and Struijk, who gave just as good as he got.
“I think that’s what they’re expecting from me,” he said.
“They will accept whatever I have to say. That’s what I have to do in my position because I can see the whole pitch.”
It’s no secret that Thorp Arch leaders set the culture and do their utmost to help the younger men around them and Cooper, the player he is tipped to succeed long term, is one Struijk is particularly grateful to.
“He’s a club skipper that gives a lot of confidence to players who have just started playing, like me,” he said.
“Playing with him, he helps me out, position wise, what to do, being smart and thinking about the game. He has helped me a lot throughout the whole process of me growing this year.”
The Premier League is an unforgiving nursery but Struijk can look back at his first top flight steps with pride. Among the tough lessons dished out by classy operators – he picks out Mo Salah at Anfield without hesitation – are performances he is fond of.
“I think the Man Utd game at home was a good game for me and the last one, against Spurs,” he said.
“I think me, and the whole team, did an amazing job keeping them quiet.
“We kept Harry Kane a bit more quiet than in the first game. It’s really difficult because he likes to drop off and play everywhere he wants to play so that makes it a bit more uncomfortable for us defenders to get that high up the pitch. In the second game we did it a lot better than the first game.”
Ahead of a ‘very, very tough game’ at Burnley today, featuring physical play and ‘lots of headers’ Struijk is craving more football but knows all too well that with Cooper fit again, Bielsa may plump for experience at Turf Moor.
“I would like to play every single game if possible, but that’s not always going to happen,” he said.
“You have to be aware of that. My main mentality is just to get myself on the first-team sheet as much as possible.
“My main goal is just to play.”
Leeds’ quiet man is, ironically enough, looking forward to noise returning at Elland Road for the final game of the season and beyond that admits to harbouring a little hope for the European Championships.
His international future will lie with Belgium or the Netherlands but that is yet to be decided and he doesn’t have too much to say on the matter.
His future at club level looks very bright. All at Elland Road are in agreement that this is a player who could make a lot of noise. We won’t hear a lot from him, but we’re going to hear a lot about him.