MARCELO BIELSA often found himself quizzed as to Leeds United’s options at centre-back following his arrival as Whites head coach.
The fact that then-Swansea City centre-back Kyle Bartley was initially one of the club’s main summer transfer targets was well documented.
Bartley instead signed for West Bromwich Albion and it soon became clear that Bielsa was happy with United’s options at centre-back.
“Berardi, Jansson, Cooper, Shaughnessy, Ayling. We have these players,” said Bielsa at the beginning of August.
“Even if we have just Cooper and Jansson as centre-backs, Shaughnessy is a defensive midfielder but he can play there as can Berardi as a full-back. Kalvin Phillips too. Ayling already played as a centre-back.
“But if we could add another option it would be good too.”
Leeds were interested in re-signing Matthew Pennington on loan but Pennington would not have been given first-team football ahead of Jansson, Cooper or Berardi and instead signed on loan for Ipswich Town on August 31.
Two months on, Ipswich are three points adrift at the bottom of the table with Bielsa’s Whites second. Bielsa’s assessment of the centre-back picture has so far proved spot on.
But injuries to Ayling and Berardi at the same time are about to test the theory to the limit with Ayling’s absence also igniting a debate as to who should start on the right side of defence.
Bielsa saw his injury concerns in one area of the pitch alleviated at Thorp Arch yesterday as Barry Douglas made a welcome return from a hamstring strain for United’s under-23s.
Without him, Bielsa and Leeds have chopped and changed their options at left-back with Berardi, Stuart Dallas, Gjanni Alioski and Tom Pearce all used in the position in the Scot’s absence.
But Bielsa revealed on Friday that Douglas would be back available after Monday’s outing and the 29-year-old would seem likely to slot straight back into the side come Sunday’s clash at Wigan Athletic.
Yet there are now questions for Bielsa regarding the other defensive positions – in terms of who starts at right-back and who would cover for Jansson and Cooper at centre-back in the event of either picking up an injury or suspension that Leeds need like a hole in the head.
Dealing with the situation at right-back, Ayling has made the position his own since joining Leeds from Bristol City in August 2016 with the defender becoming one of United’s most important players.
For the second season in a row, the full-back picked up an injury in a home clash against Nottingham Forest on Saturday with the 27-year-old suffering damage to his medial collateral ligament in his right knee. Ayling is now facing two months on the sidelines.
Berardi would normally be United’s next port of call at right-back but he too is facing a likely lengthy spell out with a muscle injury picked up in the 2-0 win at home to Ipswich Town. With
Berardi and Ayling both injured, Dallas and the seemingly equally versatile Jamie Shackleton appear United’s principal alternative options in the position though Lewie Coyle remains out on loan at Fleetwood Town.
Dallas can be guaranteed to put a shift in wherever he is fielded but the Northern Ireland international is undoubtedly a winger while 19-year-old Shackleton still has only six appearances to his name.
It was also interesting to see Shackleton play in his seemingly preferred position of centre-midfield in Monday’s under-23s tie with Robbie Gotts continuing to impress in the right back role, perhaps given Bielsa food for thought.
Shackleton, Dallas or event Gotts is Bielsa’s first poser at right-back and the question as to who would replace Jansson or Cooper in the event of either being unavailable is one the 63-year-old head coach will hope he is not pushed to answer because the versatile Berardi and Ayling would be the two first ports of call.
Phillips, of course, has looked almost a ‘natural’ deployed as a centre-back by Bielsa and not in his usual centre midfield role but Phillips has so far only featured largely in a three-man defence when playing centre-back and Bielsa is keen to have the option of playing three centre-backs against a two-man strike force or a four-man back-line featuring two centre-backs against a lone striker.
After Phillips, Bielsa would probably be looking at Conor Shaughnessy as a next centre-back option.
Also still very inexperienced, Shaughnessy’s one appearance this season was a shaky one with the 22-year-old taken off at half-time of the 2-0 loss at home to Preston North End in the Carabao Cup.
That is where the six options that Bielsa highlighted in August ends before the head coach would have to start turning attention to the under-23s’ squad.
The fact Bielsa is keen on taking a patient and considered approach with the club’s young talent is clear, as highlighted by the steady introduction of 17-year-old rising wing star Jack Clarke.
Shaughnessy and Leif Davis - essentially a left back - filled the centre-back positions for United’s under-23s yesterday with Hugo Diaz and Aapo Halme other options though Halme took a knock for the under-23s in last week’s fixture against Notts County.
Leeds also have a stack of players out on loan, including centre-backs with Paudie O’Connor and Liam Kitching, who are at Blackpool and Harrogate Town respectively, among the options. But without Ayling and Berardi, senior back-up centre-back options are thin on the ground.
Bielsa can do nothing about that until the transfer window re-opens in January, should he so desire.
But it should be remembered that Bielsa has a knack of being able to unearth new options by shifting a player’s recognised position. Alioski’s stints at left-back are a case in point. Asked about the switch of Phillips to play as a centre-back, centre-midfielder Adam Forshaw admitted in a recent interview that the move was “a masterstroke”.
Like Phillips, naturally recognised as a deep-lying midfielder sitting in front of the back four, Forshaw was also asked if he would fancy playing there.
“I would like to think I could play there if needed,” said Forshaw. A potential option but Bielsa and Leeds will hope it does not come to that and a season already hit hard by injuries can ill afford to feature another one or a suspension in defence.