It’s been at the heart of almost all debate regarding Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United side: defensive stability. The more tactically aware pundits of the world will have noticed what all Leeds fans have been aware of since day 1, that a defence already left fairly open by a relentlessly open style of play have been left shellshocked by a succession of injuries to key members of the squad’s spine.
Diego Llorente - the Spain international signed from Real Sociedad for around £18m in the summer - has been cursed with injuries to his groin and, more recently, hamstring and played just 91 minutes of Premier League football this season.
Former Freiburg player and Germany international Robin Koch started well, but succumbed to a long-standing knee injury which was exacerbated during Leeds’ game against Chelsea in December, forcing him and Leeds to bring forward plans to operate. Koch has been unavailable since that night, missing 9 league games so far.
Club captain Liam Cooper has found some level of consistency, featuring in 13 of Leeds’ 19 fixtures. However, an abdominal strain in Leeds’ defeat against Manchester United was the most recent of several niggling injuries which have kept him from maintaining the stalwart status he has earned at centre-back during Bielsa’s reign.
One man has been omnipresent at the back when injuries have left Leeds most vulnerable. Pascal Struijk - 21-year old former Ajax youth product and the Netherlands’ answer to Polyfilla, seamlessly covering holes all over the place - has slipped into the spine of the side in the absence of any of Leeds’ 3 senior centre-backs, not to mention his cover for the talismanic Kalvin Phillips during the midfield general’s suspension.
In the Whites’ outstanding 3-1 at Leicester, it was Struijk, this time at right-sided centre-back, who once again proved himself as one of - if not the - best progressive centre-back at Elland Road.
The above heat-map (provided by SofaScore) shows Struijk’s positioning at right-sided centre-half. Typical of a Bielsa side is the extension of the deep red (where Struijk spent the majority of his game) up towards the halfway line. Patches towards the advanced right-sided space by Leicester’s box, as well as several spots past halfway on either side, show Struijk’s skill at pushing into advanced roles, and looking comfortable on the ball throughout.
The Dutchman completed 55 passes (the most on the pitch), made 5 clearances, 4 interceptions, 4 ball recoveries and 2 tackles, whilst also winning 4 duels against the Foxes.
Pascal Struijk vs. Leicester:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) January 31, 2021
55/67 successful passes ( most on pitch)
5 clearances ( most on pitch)
4 ball recoveries
3/3 headed clearances
2/2 tackles won
1 blocked shot
0 dribbled past
An impressive display and completed the most passes. pic.twitter.com/IHgUjWtRgT
Of those 55 passes, one typified the Dutchman’s ‘Total Football’ upbringing more than any other. 25 minutes into the second-half, as Brendan Rodgers’ half-time switch to a back 3 gave his title-chasing side the momentum, Leeds pressed their opposition down the left-hand side.
Jonny Evans scuffed his clearance and half-time sub Ricardo Pereira flicked the ball into the centre...
Struijk, almost instinctively for a Dutch-Bielsa hybrid centre-back, pounced onto the loose ball in the Foxes half ahead of Ayoze Perez, clipped the ball across to Raphinha, who played a neat ball through to Patrick Bamford to smash into the top-corner:
The Sky Sports commentary team, quite rightly, focused their praise on Bamford’s outstanding finish, as well as giving a nod to the Brazilian winger’s first-time ball through to his teammate.
The move was started, however, by the anticipation and composure of Struijk, who expertly gambled on the loose ball and had the progressive ability to sweep the play across to Raphinha. The simple fact is, this goal never happens without the centre-back’s sweeping interception.
The 21-year old may well have grabbed himself a goal in the second-half also, when a Leeds corner dropped at his feet just 4-yards out, only for Foxes full-back James Justin to clip the ball away from his outstretched foot and deny what would’ve been the icing on the cake of an assured performance years ahead of his age.
With Llorente’s injury woes showing no signs of easing up any time soon, and Koch’s recovery still far from coming to an end - not to mention the demands of working back to a Bielsa level of match fitness - the right-sided centre-back position is still cause for concern for Leeds. With the versatile and progressive Dutchman ready to fill the hole, however, concerns can be momentarily suppressed... for this week anyway.
Pascal Struijk: a student of Total Football... and one of Leeds’ best progressive centre-backs for years to come.