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Why three at the back could be the magic number for Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa

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THE trail from Leeds United to Kyle Bartley’s door went unexpectedly cold several weeks ago. A transfer which Bartley himself anticipated fell away quietly as June wore on, taking the defender on a different path to West Bromwich Albion.

Leeds wanted a high-calibre centre-back at the start of the summer window and saw Bartley, for a fee of around £4m, as part of the solution to the defensive woe which plagued them from the second month of last season onwards. Bartley had proven himself on loan from Swansea City during the 2016-17 term and Leeds’ frailty in his absence begged the question of why the club had not at least tabled an offer for him when that campaign drew to an end.

West Brom are in for Bartley now and, with no sign of a counter-offer coming from Elland Road, seem in prime position to sign him if Swansea agree to part company with one of a number of defenders who want to leave the Liberty Stadium.

In the meantime, United’s head coach, Marcelo Bielsa, is pondering the make-up of the three-man defence which will provide the base for the formation he wants to employ in the Championship next season.

Leeds have two out-and-out centre-backs with meaningful experience of the division: Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson. Cooper, the club’s captain, was a player who Bielsa chose to keep and he has been in the thick of pre-season training since the majority of United’s squad reported back last month.

Jansson has been given additional time off after his World Cup campaign with Sweden ended at the hands of England on Saturday and he is expected to be back at Thorp Arch next week. It is not yet clear if he will be involved in Leeds’ initial friendly against Forest Green Rovers.

A younger centre-back, Paudie O’Connor, moved away from Leeds last Friday to join Blackpool on a season-long loan and Conor Shaughnessy, the 22-year-old midfielder who reinvented himself as a defender last term, has been recovering from ankle surgery performed on him in April. Bielsa’s backline will require some improvisation when the first of United’s pre-season games come around.

The Argentinian has a tendency to be inventive when it comes to defensive structure. In previous jobs, the 62-year-old employed midfielders as auxiliary centre-backs as a way of improving the quality of passing from the back.

Luke Ayling has the physique and capacity to occupy a central role next season but the indications after Bielsa’s appointment as head coach were that Ayling was more likely to operate as a right wing-back with Gjanni Alioski wide on the left, reprising a role given to him by Macedonia’s national side.

In the background it leaves Gaetano Berardi, the Swiss firebrand whose future at Leeds was called into question by a tally of three red cards last season. Bielsa quickly removed any doubt about him by making it clear that he would remain at the club and hinted at making use of his versatility by saying: “Berardi has played on either side of defence and has filled in at centre-half as well.”

Dynamic double act, Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley. PIC: Simon Hulme

Dynamic double act, Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley. PIC: Simon Hulme

Berardi made the odd appearance at centre-back last season, most notably in Leeds’ FA Cup defeat at Newport County. Using him on the right side of Bielsa’s three is a possible experiment in the weeks ahead as United’s boss awaits Jansson’s return to the fray and Leeds, for a second year, prepare to move on without Bartley.

Bielsa’s backline will require some improvisation when the first of United’s pre-season games come around.

United's Pontus Jansson in action for Sweden at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

United's Pontus Jansson in action for Sweden at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Leeds United's Gaetano Berardi. PIC: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

Leeds United's Gaetano Berardi. PIC: Richard Sellers/PA Wire