With the departure of Kyle Bartley back to parent club Swansea City and the expected departure of Giuseppe Bellusci to Empoli after a loan deal, the only first team central defenders on the roster at the start of the season were Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson. Unlike Bartley, Jansson’s loan was made permanent earlier in the season, so his presence was already guaranteed for this season.
Of course, with Empoli’s relegation and the return, and subsequent release, of Bellusci causing a bit of havoc, the central defence is still a work in progress. Jansson is returning, and Liam Cooper is still on the roster, but the only other acquisition at centre back has been yet another loanee, this time Matthew Pennington from Everton. While Pennington has show flashes of brilliance at Everton and out on loan at Tranmere Rovers and at Coventry City, he is still only 22 years old and hasn’t held down a full-time starting role at a level as high as the Championship before. Counting on him to start 35 or more games in the upcoming season is risky.
The other position that was up in the air at the start of the summer was left back. With Charlie Taylor lighting his bridge aflame on the last day of the season at Wigan Athletic and Leeds being forced to use Gaetano Berardi, nominally a right back, at left back for many games during the season, most expected the club to sort out the position by getting a first team left back. However, the club has only signed Vurnon Anita from Newcastle, a defensive midfielder who is able to play at fullback. 21 year old Tyler Denton is the only proper left footed fullback on the roster.
While those question marks remain, with the transfer activity mainly focusing on attacking options so far, the defense for the opening day has even more question marks with Pontuss Jansson suspended for the first two games of the season, the opening match at Bolton and the League Cup match against Port Vale.
Thomas Christiansen told the Yorkshire Evening Post that “I have my ideas of the team that I can put out but there’s still almost 10 days until the first game in the league and everyone will show that they want to play. This week we will start our countdown to the beginning of the season. We will work a lot to be in the best condition.” Assuming that even if more players are brought in to the squad, without a proper preseason or weeks of training Christiansen might well decide to go with the players he already has on roster for the opening day at Bolton.
So what will the defense look like opening day at Bolton?
The best guess is that Cooper and Pennington will start as the central defense partnership, with Anita at left back and Ayling at right back, but with Cooper’s limitations, Ayling might be preferred at central defense, and Anita would shift to right back and Berardi would play on the left. It would be quite shocking to see Denton start at left back, and it would also be surprising to not see Ayling starting. Everything else is up in the air.
Bolton is back in the Championship after a successful campaign in League One, and they are kind of a mess right now. While it’s unfortunate to see the team in the state that they are in, it might be the best situation for a Leeds squad that has a more question marks than answers on defence. It is also good for Pennington to start his competitive debut for Leeds against a team that is looking for consolidation at the Championship level rather than starting against a promotion rival or a derby match against one of the Sheffield clubs.
We’ll get a better idea of what the lineup will look like after Saturday’s final preseason match against Oxford United, as most will expect to see the players who will be starting against Bolton Wanderers to get a bulk of the time in the match. It will also give a preview into which positions the players will play, with both Anita and Berardi being able to play at either fullback position. So unless Christiansen and the Director of Football Victor Orta have some tricks up their sleeves, the starting lineup at Bolton will likely be the players that area already on the roster, it’s just a question of what positions that everyone will play on opening day.