Promising signs for Leeds United in Pascal Struijk's performances since suspension for tackle that injured Liverpool's Harvey Elliott
Pascal Struijk looked as if he’d seen a ghost as Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott was strapped to a stretcher, but the early evidence suggests the incident is not haunting the Leeds United defender.
The memory of unintentionally leaving a fellow young professional with such a grotesquely dislocated and fractured ankle will live with the 22-year-old for the rest of his career and beyond but he cannot afford to take that onto the pitch or let it change the way he plays.
Initially, his challenge on the Reds teenager was deemed a clean one by referee Craig Pawson, who produced a red card after the game had been stopped so Elliott could be treated. Struijk was spoken to by players from both sides, including Liam Cooper and Virgin van Dijk, who appeared to be consoling him before a disconsolate walk to the tunnel.
After the game Elliott’s conduct was mature beyond his years, quickly absolving Struijk of any blame, insisting it was not a sending off and reaching out to the Leeds player on social media. The injured party had no duty to look out for the man who put him on the operating table, but by doing so he ensured Struijk was not left swinging in the breeze as an open target for anyone angered by the challenge. Happily, Elliott has recently shared positive updates on his rehabilitation.
Marcelo Bielsa did his bit too, speaking at uncharacteristic length about the decision to send Struijk off and putting on record his firm belief that no malice was involved.
Struijk, in his own words, can be ‘a bit too shy’ and any time spent in his company leaves a distinct impression that he wouldn’t say boo to a goose, so the entire incident and the attention it drew must have been mortifying.
Those supportive voices, and maybe even the lone independent voice who took his corner on the FA disciplinary panel that presided over Leeds’ red card appeal, will have been hugely important in helping Struijk to avoid a period of self torment during his suspension.
There was already a strong hint that the youngster had not fallen into a pit of second guessing his on-pitch decisions when Bielsa played him so soon after the suspension was over.
Leeds might have injury problems but the Argentine simply wouldn’t field a player who had not shown himself to be mentally ready in training.
Against Southampton, there were nervy moments but when the ball was there to be won, even if the odds of him winning it were not entirely in his favour, there was no hesitation. Five minutes into his first start since the red card he found himself charging into a certain collision with Oriol Romeu and he might not have got the ball but he did not flinch. In the second half when Ibrahima Diallo broke free to start a counter attack from deep, Struijk had enough time to think about a challenge, enough time to second guess his decision but still engaged. The result, again, was a free-kick to Southampton and a yellow card. He was committed and aggressive, but not reckless. These were challenges that had to be made.
At home to Wolves on Saturday he was in quickly to stop Adama Traore at source with a firm tackle near the touchline. It was evidently Leeds’ gameplan to challenge the pacey winger as quickly as possible to stop him building up a head of steam and Struijk had no option but to carry out instructions. He evidently had no qualms or second thoughts about doing so, as his physical battle with Leander Dendoncker further proved.
On the ball Struijk was calm and efficient, off it he was a willing combatant - he made a season-high total of five tackles, a tally he has only bettered in one game in Leeds colours - and for Bielsa's style of defending that is crucial.
Being on the front foot and pressing with intensity by its very nature brings physical conflict and contact. Liam Cooper embodied it on Saturday and by doing so largely nullified Traore’s threat, with the help of Stuart Dallas.
Struijk is an imposing physical presence and has to bring bite to the centre of the pitch, whether a centre-half or a defensive midfielder. This season his defensive influence appears to be growing. He's making more tackles per 90 minutes than last season, being beaten by fewer dribbles and making more successful pressures, blocks and interceptions. According to fbref.com he's in the 93rd percentile among his peers for winning tackles and the 99th for pressures. Aggression will be key to further development as a top flight defender.
In the two games since the Elliott incident, Struijk is yet to make a tackle like that one and ideally he will read games so well he doesn’t have to go to ground but the chances are that soon enough such a need will present itself. That will be another test of how he has processed the first red card of his career, but so far the signs for Leeds and a young, inexperienced player with a considerably high ceiling are very good.