Marcelo Bielsa finally has all four central defenders to choose from for, what has to be, one of the first times this season – if not the first. Last weekend, Liam Cooper returned from illness and was given the nod above Pascal Struijk, while Robin Koch and Diego Llorente are both available. Nigel Martyn gave his opinion on who have been the club’s best two centre-backs this season, and who will continue to play for the rest of the season.
It was deemed a crisis at one point. With Cooper pulling up against Manchester United, Leeds had Koch, Llorente and Cooper all on the sidelines and the Whites were forced to combine Luke Ayling and Struijk at centre-back. But it was the making of Struijk and now the Dutchman is considered a crucial member of the first team – rather than an U23 player.
Martyn believes that while he has been impressed with Struijk, he stated he was not surprised to see captain Cooper come back into the side after the Scotland international returned from illness – which ruled him out of Scotland’s 2022 World Cup qualifying fixtures in March. Martyn also explained why he believes summer signing Llorente has been lucky.
“Struijk has been good, I’ve been impressed with him,” Martyn told LeedsUnited.News. “But then you would say, did Cooper do anything wrong? Had he done enough not to be in the team? The lucky one is Llorente, who has got himself into the team and stayed there when others haven’t been fit. That’s good for him. Bielsa wants to see him play alongside both of them, if he thinks he is his best CB. The skipper’s armband makes it more difficult to leave him out for a prolonged period of time. Then you have to have someone else to captain in his absence, that helps him start.”
Leeds take on Manchester City this weekend and come into the match with their tails up, having beaten both Fulham and Sheffield United in their last two outings. But City are a different kettle of fish – currently at the top of the Premier League table and expected to go on and win the title. However, they face Leeds in between quarter-final fixtures against Gladbach.
Asked who he believes will continue to play at centre-back for the rest of the season, Martyn says he expects Koch and Struijk to miss out if all remain fit – but does admit that he does have reservations about £22,000-a-week (Spotrac) Llorente and that he needs to toughen up quickly if he is to adapt to English football.
“I imagine he will continue to start Llorente and Cooper. It is harsh on Struijk, I don’t see him as a holding midfielder. We haven’t seen enough of Llorente or Koch yet. This season, the best if probably Struijk and Cooper based on his season. Llorente is very good on the ball, passing, which is what Bielsa likes. But he has a way to go in his defensive duties. Winning headers, making blocks. He got beaten up in the box against Chelsea, with Olivier Giroud. He’s not a dominant centre-back, in England and the Premier League you’ve got to be able to win your own headers. He needs to strengthen up on that.”