This last week seemed an incredibly pertinent one for Leeds. After their 6-2 defeat at the hands of bitter rivals Manchester United, they - and Marcelo Bielsa - were labelled ‘naive’ and ‘kamikaze’. Calls from several pundits were that there was no plan B, no other way of playing apart from all-out-attack, a playing style not sustainable in the top-flight.
On the Sunday following that heavy defeat, the 27th of December, Leeds hosted Burnley, and last night they went down to West Brom. Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce: two of Englands most ‘traditional’ managers, and the antitheses of Bielsa.
What was correctly pointed out by pundits and journalists alike - and wholly backed by the collective of Leeds fans - was the defensive frailties. Prior to the last two fixtures, the Whites had conceded 13 goals in 4 games, they had also conceded directly from a set-piece at least once in each of those.
So the prospect of coming up against Dyche’s Burnley and Allardyce’s Albion was cause for a fair amount of concern. Two of the league’s most physical sides, two of the league’s most set-play focused managers, and no natural senior centre-backs to feature. Problem? Not one bit.
At home to Burnley, Bielsa - “surprisingly” for some (Hey Leon Osman, how you doing?) - went with a back 3, in which Ayling and Struijk had Kalvin Phillips in the sweeper role. Up against the physical pairing of Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood, and having to deal with the constant pumping of long-balls towards the box, the trio put in an incredibly dogged performance, battling pound-for-pound throughout the game, and more than earning their clean sheet - albeit with just a hint of good luck.
Ayling put in an incredible captain’s performance, recording 7 ball recoveries, 3 interceptions, 4 blocks, 2 headed clearances and winning 2 aerial duels. He fought tooth and nail against two of the league’s most physical forwards and came out on top. Struijk wasn’t too far behind his captain either, recording the below numbers:
Pascal Struijk vs. Burnley:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) December 27, 2020
90 mins played
36/46 successful passes
8 total duels won
4 aerial duels won
4 headed clearances
4 ball recoveries
3 tackles won
1 blocked shot
0 times dribbled past
Stepped up and performed brilliantly. #LUFC pic.twitter.com/u7cbXbjkiG
Last night against West Bromwich Albion Bielsa switched back to a flat 4, with Ayling and Struijk dominating the game from the back, and producing an almost faultless display. Albion’s Karlan Grant caused next to no problems for the duo, but it was their efficiency in winning - and effectively progressing - the ball and maintaining Leeds’ attacking momentum.
Struijk won 8 duels, 6 aerial duels, and 6 ball recoveries. He also recorded 107 passes with a 94% success rate, with 9 of them successful long balls. The former Ajax youngster showed his ‘total football’ class as a progressive, ball playing centre-back, also completing 80 ball carries with a progressive carrying distance of 348 yards - the second highest on the pitch.
Pascal Struijk (21) with a stellar showing for @LUFC vs. WBA:— Football Wonderkids (@fbwonderkids) December 29, 2020
☑️ 90 minutes
⚔️ 2 tackles won
⚽️ 6 ball recoveries
8 duels won
✈️ 9/9 long balls
107/114 passes completed (94%)
The former Ajax product has a promising future! pic.twitter.com/5o0zJkSIPX
Struijk adopted the Liam Cooper role of the long diagonal to perfection, spraying the ball effortlessly across to the likes of Raphinha or the onrushing Stuart Dallas. He also carried the ball seamlessly into midfield, and his experience in the midfield anchor role meant he was comfortable and decisive once he pushed up.
Struijk was second only to his right-sided partner Ayling, who recorded an incredible progressive carrying distance of 505 yards, from 96 ball carries - 157 yards more than Struijk, and only 205 yards less than the entire Albion team put together.
Ayling controlled the game from the right-sided centre-back position, dictating the tempo of the play whilst linking up with every member of the Leeds attack. He lofted balls in behind for Patrick Bamford, he spread long-diagonal balls to Gjanni Alioski and Jack Harrison, and he played punchy, vertical passes into the likes of Mateusz Klich, Rodrigo and Raphinha as they drifted into space between the lines. Ayling ran the show from the back.
Luke Ayling's game by numbers vs. West Brom:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 29, 2020
◉ Most touches (133)
◉ Most passes (122)
◉ Most take-ons completed (4/4)
◎ 100% duels won (8/8)
◎ 7 ball recoveries
◎ 4/4 aerial duels won
◎ 3 clearances
◎ 0 fouls conceded
◎ 0 x dribbled past
Controlling the game. pic.twitter.com/X9fg5t2LyJ
And that is where this duo stand out from the rest: ball progression. With Struijk educated at Ajax’s school of football, De Toekomst, between the ages of 16-18, he was surrounded by the philosophy of the progressive centre-back - that same philosophy that produced the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman and Frank De Boer. This way of playing is in his blood, and his confidence and assuredness in possession mirrors that of a vastly experienced centre-back, far from the 21-year old with just 6 Premier League starts to his name.
His counterpart Ayling’s experience in progressing the ball from right-back has been transferred effortlessly into right-sided centre-back, almost reminiscent of last season with Ben White. Experienced on the right of a back 4 or a back 3, as well as his most recent centre-back position, Ayling’s adaptability into a fluid and progressive system such as Bielsa’s is a match made in heaven.
As a pair, they seemingly have it all. Pace and strength, youth and experience, and both possess and incredible footballing intelligence - albeit picked up in very different ways. Struijk, at 6ft 3, adds more height to a side struggling for such a quality also.
The question is, however, would they start together should everyone be fit? In my opinion, no.
Whilst Ayling’s performances in the middle have been nothing short of outstanding, his influence at right-back is too significant to have him central once Robin Koch is available, and Koch’s qualities in possession means Leeds won’t lose any of that modern progressive play - Koch’s added height is also hugely advantageous for set-pieces.
Struijk, however, has proven himself as the main man on the left. Cooper - as well as he has served, and will continue to serve this club - has struggled with the pace of the league, further hindered by some positional flaws which have left him exposed. On the ball he has become slightly predictable with his diagonals, and is too wary of leaving his position to break through into midfield. Struijk is in need of one thing: experience. And that only comes with game time. Game time that he has more than earned with recent performances.
One thing we can say for certain, is that Ayling and Struijk are one hell of a last resort.