For the first two months of last season, Leeds United’s defense seemed to be up to the task of repeating 2016’s impressive defensive effort. However, this was not to be, and Leeds finished with the 10th-worst defensive record in the Championship, allowing 64 goals. Head coach Marcelo Bielsa will now have the daunting task of restoring the defense to its 2016/17 form, despite having signed only one new player to this point. His defense will use both a typical 4-man backline and Bielsa’s trademark 3-man backline flanked by two wingbacks as they try for promotion this year. So who are the defenders that will be used by Bielsa?
Luke Ayling - #2
Luke Ayling was one of the top outside backs two seasons ago, as he helped Leeds’ backline become the fourth-best defense in the Championship in goals allowed. This past year, he was again a solid first-team player until he injured his ankle in a January 1st match against Nottingham Forest. Now, he should again be the regular starter at his normal postion of right back when Leeds play in a four-man defense. When Leeds play in a three-man backline, he is an ideal fit for a center back position, though Bielsa has stated that he will likely play on the wing. Wherever he lines up, expect big things from Ayling this season.
Barry Douglas - #3
So far the biggest signing for Leeds this summer has been the addition of Barry Douglas, who comes to Elland Road from Wolverhampton for a reported £3 million, which could rise £5 million with add-ons. The 28-year-old was a crucial part of the Wolves’ first-place finish in 2018, but was told that he would not be in the team’s plans moving forward in the Premier League.
Barry Douglas on one side, Luke Ayling on the other. Assists, set-pieces. Should be a gem of a signing this one:https://t.co/MCbfnpFeDJ— Phil Hay (@PhilHayYEP) July 28, 2018
Douglas is without question a perfect addition for Leeds. At 28, he is still in his prime, and he spent last season playing in a very similar wingback role to the one that Bielsa wants for his 3-3-1-3 formation. The addition of Douglas also fills the hole at left back that was very problematic last season for Leeds, where players like Vernon Anita and Laurens de Bock saw significant playing time. Douglas makes this team’s defense much, much stronger, and he will be an essential cog for a push towards promotion.
Liam Cooper - #6
Last year, Liam Cooper was made captain by former coach Thomas Christiansen and met expectations for the first several games while helping the Whites earn six consecutive clean sheets. However, as the season dragged on, Cooper’s play declined more and more, and it became apparent that he would not be an adequate replacement for Kyle Bartley. Leeds have still failed to find another center back so far, so it would seem that Cooper will start in one of the center back positions by default. The 26-year-old will almost certainly start against Stoke with Pontus Jansson reportedly out, so we will see very soon if he has made any improvements from his subpar play towards last season.
Laurens de Bock - #12
De Bock arrived from Club Brugge in January as a highly rated left back who had helped Brugge win the Belgian top flight. Despite his pedigree, de Bock was quite awful all season, and managed to play in only 7 matches before Tom Pearce took his spot. Of the 8 defenders listed on Leeds’ roster, de Bock is very likely at the bottom of the depth chart, and may even be behind loaned out players, like Paudie O’Connor and Tyler Denton. His performance against Derby County was one of the worst by any Leeds player this year, check out these highlights and see how often de Bock is mentioned by the announcers. De Bock should not be anywhere near the first team at this point, but sadly, he still has four years left on his contract, so he may be around for quite a while. Fleetwood Town was reportedly interested in taking de Bock on loan, but manager Joey Barton quickly squashed the rumor.
Proper joke. Horrendous defending throughout. De bock is proper clueless and calamitous #lufc— Phil (@leedsunited86) February 21, 2018
Pontus Jansson - #18
The big Swede returns from the World Cup as one of the top center backs in the Championship, despite ending last season relatively poorly. Pontus will certainly be relied upon by Leeds this season to anchor the backline, though reports indicate that he will not be starting Sunday’s match against Stoke City. He will need time to reacclimate to his top form, as he had about three weeks off after playing in Russia with Sweden. Look for Jansson to have a bounce-back year as he is now surrounded by better players and a much-improved coaching situation.
Tom Pearce - #20
Tom Pearce impressed many with his play on the U-23 team last year, and was named to the bench several times by Thomas Christiansen, before making his debut in mid-March against Sheffield Wednesday. Despite only appearing in 5 matches, Pearce was a bright spot for Leeds, and was nominated for Young Player of the Year, as well as scoring his first professional goal against Barnsley.
He takes a wonderful first touch that splits two Barnsley FC players and is able to further exploit the space in the final third before taking an ambitious shot that deflects in. This creative spark will not go unnoticed by Bielsa, and though Pearce will be behind Ayling and Douglas in the pecking order, he will be able to learn and grow while also getting quality minutes with the first team.
Gaetano Berardi - #28
Berardi will be entering his fifth season at Leeds and should continue to be a valuable bench piece who can play both outside and center back. This versatility was apparent last year as he made 10 starts at right back and 19 at left back. He will likely be the fourth choice for outside back this year, behind Pearce, Douglas and Ayling, but he could see more time at center back if Leeds fail to bring in more defenders or play in the 3-3-1-3. Berardi also needs to improve his discipline, as he led the Championship with 3 red cards, the last of which saw him suspended for three games to end the season.
Conor Shaughnessy - #35
Shaughnessy is another young defender who has risen from Leeds’ U-23 team after much success. Only 22, he seemed like a likely candidate to go on loan, similar to Paudie O’Connor and Tyler Denton, but it appears that Bielsa and Victor Orta rate him highly enough to keep him as a reserve. In his 9 matches last season, the Irishman played well, but did not seem to be an improvement over Liam Cooper. Unfortunately, in late January, he injured his ankle, which knocked him out for the remainder of the year. It remains to be seen how much playing time Shaughnessy will earn this year, but he should certainly have another shot.