Today, a few weeks into the summer of Garry Monk, we kick off our end-of-season Leeds United player grades for 2015/16, where we evaluate the Whites playing roster, one-by-one. Should we have done this last month? Probably. Do we care? Not really. We still enjoy looking at our roster from last season, and maybe it'll give us some ideas of where we need to go in 2016/17.
First up are the defenders, and let's get things going by talking about our skipper.
Sol Bamba (30 league appearances)
The 31 year-old Ivorian international enjoyed a successful first full campaign with United. Bamba was appointed captain by our old friend Uwe Rosler back in August and it proved to be an inspired selection.
When on the pitch, Bamba was clearly United’s most important defender and a rock in the centre of defence. He was rarely beaten, and his leadership skills proved to be a unifying force over a season that could have been much worse.
A large problem with Bamba’s campaign was his inability to stay on the pitch. Due to a number of foot and leg injuries, he missed over a third of the league season. Luckily for us all, Bamba is over these ailments and looks set for a big 2016-17 season.
An unexpected feature of Bamba’s season was his ability in the forward half. The defender scored four times this season, with the ultimate highlight being a juicy finish against Wolverhampton. For a man who entered the season with only one goal since 2012, this scoring binge was an added bonus to his customary leadership and toughness.
Season rating: 7 / 10
Scott Wootton (23 league appearances)
Is it ok to feel sorry for Scott Wootton? The Englishman struggled greatly this season, suffered an array of embarrassing moments and was forced out of the club due to an invisible contract. Not the best 12 months for a man that proclaimed he was coming for the job of incumbents Tom Lees and Jason Pearce when he arrived at the club.
On the pitch, there's no doubt Wootton had a disappointing season. There's just no other way to put it. Having started the season in the first eleven, Wootton never found his best football and was replaced by Lewie Coyle in the season’s second half. Despite public support from Steve Evans and the playing group, Wootton was short on confidence throughout, with the occasional highlight cancelled out by a number of uncomfortable blunders.
Season rating: 3 / 10
Giuseppe Bellusci (27 league appearances)
Bellusci endured another turbulent season at Elland Road. The 26 year-old struggled for form and fell out of favour with Steve Evans. The centre-back was omitted from United’s last three league matches, and was said to have been visibly disgusted after learning he wasn’t in the side to face Hull City in late April.
Whether Bellusci had a successful season is open to personal interpretation. The Italian had some good moments but he was too often involved with moments of insanity. The contest with Rotherham in April was a classic example of the full Bellusci experience. For those who missed it, Bellusci bizarrely tried to clear a ball via an overhead kick, completely missed the ball, and enabled the Rotherham attacker to go clear on goal with Marco Silvestri.
Silvestri fouled the striker, got sent off, conceded a penalty, and then Bellusci went in goal to try to save the spot kick but conceded the goal. I mean, just why? It was just stranger than fiction.
You’ve got to hand it to Bellusci though, his season was anything but boring. Neither was his twitter feed. The great man posted this cryptic tweet suggesting Leeds were better with him on the field. My rusty old Italian skills seem to think ‘Media Punti’ translates to average points, trust me on this!
With rumoured interest from Italian clubs, now may be a good time to cut bait with Bellusci. He is, as one of the great Leeds United fans put it, the magic man!
Bellusci's a magician on the field. In the blink of an eye he can turn 3pts in to zero. Stop the showboating, take the easy option. #lufc— Prokyp (@Prokyp) April 3, 2016
Season rating: 5 / 10
Liam Cooper (39 league appearances)
Enough of the bad news and onto Liam Cooper, who has just completed the best season of his young career. The towering centre-back enjoyed a stellar season and established himself as a key cog of United’s starting eleven.
Cooper utilised his uncompromising style to quickly become a favourite of Evans and was arguably Leeds’ best centre-back as the season wound down. His performance’s against Burnley and Birmingham in April were among his best, and led to a surprising, but well deserved, national team call up. Heck, Scotland boss Gordon Strachan even texted Evans to state how impressed he was with the former Chesterfield man.
The 24 year-old saw his importance rise with each match and will be a vital part of our playoff push for the upcoming season. Cooper told United’s official website that he is buzzing with the appointment of Monk and that he has already commenced pre-season training. Onward and upward.
Season rating: 8 / 10
Charlie Taylor (39 league appearances)
Taylor enjoyed a breakthrough season and collected every award possible for a Leeds United player. He won the club’s official Player of the Year award along with the Yorkshire Evening Post’s version of the same award.
What made his campaign so wonderful was that Taylor was a force all over the pitch. The left-back was masterful in completing his defensive duties, with his commitment and resiliency on show through a trying season. This highlight from the Derby game optimises the never say die attitude that Taylor brought to the table.
Before his sacking in October, Rosler called Taylor ‘a machine’ and this description proved to be fitting in every way. Despite missing chunks of the season with glandular fever, Taylor was constantly going beyond the call of duty and barely missed a match after recovering from his illness.
The major downside from his outstanding campaign is that Premier League clubs are circling for his services. Taylor showed this season that he is undoubtedly a Premier League talent, let’s just hope he sticks around and fulfills that potential with Leeds.
Season rating: 9 / 10
Gaetano Berardi (28 league appearances)
Berardi started the season as United’s first choice right-back and prior to Christmas he was performing like a player of the season candidate at Elland Road. The ambidextrous defender was regularly among United’s best players and his form could not be questioned.
Unfortunately for Berardi, his season was interrupted by a torn ankle ligament suffered in December’s contest against Charlton Athletic. The former Swiss international returned to football in February but succumbed to additional injuries to his ankle and could never recapture his pre-Christmas form.
On the whole, Berardi enjoyed a very good season when on the field and it feels great knowing he is under contract through 2018. Berardi showed us all that he is a fantastic professional who adds defensive prowess to the squad, without depriving a much needed attacking impetus - Berardi showed a great willingness to get forward when at his best.
Season rating: 6 / 10
Lewie Coyle (11 league appearances)
Coyle has long been touted as a future cornerstone of the Leeds United defence and started to justify his reputation this season. The former under-21 captain began the campaign as the fourth choice right-back behind Berardi, Wootton and the now departed Sam Byram, but was in the starting lineup by the end of the season.
Injuries to Berardi and Wootton’s form slump allowed Coyle to see increased game time, and he made every second count. The 20 year-old made his professional debut against Nottingham Forest in December and performed strongly when given the chance. Coyle showed an ability to control the football with ease across the backline and gave me flashbacks to what Charlie Taylor achieved in 2014 when given the chance after Stephen Warnock was sold.
Coyle is the future of United’s defence and will likely push for a regular starting spot even when Berardi is back and healthy to start the new campaign.
He is back in training for the upcoming season, going through an arduous sparring session with brother Tommy, who only happens to be the current IBF International lightweight champion. Brother or not, not sure I’d be volunteering for this!
Season rating: 7 / 10
There you have it. Despite another season spent lingering around the middle of the table, there were some outstanding performances in defence. A defensive rotation of Bamba, Berardi, Cooper, Coyle and Taylor for the 2016-17 season is an exciting thought. Let’s just hope they remain in place for our saviour Garry Monk to work with.
What did you think of our rankings? Let us know in the comments below.