For many fans, the news that Kalvin Phillips will not be involved in tomorrow night’s clash at Wolves will make for nervous reading. Marcelo Bielsa’s insistence on turning to Pascal Struijk as a replacement is perceived as one of the former Argentina and Chile coach’s few flaws in an otherwise excellent debut Premier League campaign.
The Yorkshire Pirlo was dearly missed at the Emirates last Sunday, when defensive woes saw Arsenal race into an unassailable 4-0 lead after 47 minutes. While delivering a decent defensive display, Struijk is still undeniably a centre-back, and looks far from comfortable playing in holding midfield.
"Klich and Llorente are available. Phillips and Rodrigo are not." Marcelo on the squad ahead of Wolves pic.twitter.com/NdI668i3WI— Leeds United (@LUFC) February 18, 2021
But should supporters really be worrying about this ahead of a game against one of the tamest pressing teams in the division?
Yes, Struijk is an obvious downgrade...
Range of passing and ability on the ball are two areas where Struijk lacks in comparison to Phillips; the 21-year-old seems less able to link defence and attack, and looks uncomfortable when attempting to retain possession in congested areas. Where Phillips can play his way out of trouble, Struijk tends to look more one-dimensional, which is to be expected from a natural defender.
Struijk’s path to becoming comfortable in central-defensive midfield is rockier than Phillips’ was. The England international was already adept at playing in midfield, and although few could have anticipated his importance to Leeds’ defence following Bielsa’s arrival, his new position in front of defence was a less dramatic change of scene for him than it has been for Struijk.
Can Pascal Struijk do what Kalvin Phillips does for Marcelo Bielsa?— Phil Hay (@PhilHay_) January 15, 2021
Defensively they have similar strengths but matching Phillips’ progressive passing is the challenge for Struijk - and for anyone stepping into the pivot’s role.
We matched them up here:https://t.co/7cRCOojDnj pic.twitter.com/vTgi260kfd
Playing regular minutes long before the 2018/19 season was another advantage that aided Phillips’ development under El Loco. Were it not for injuries and suspensions, Struijk would probably still be waiting for his first appearance of the season.
Subsequently, fans wince at the sight of the Belgium-born defender taking the place of Bielsa’s star pupil. It is difficult to blame them when Leeds come up against the likes of Arsenal, who would classify themselves as an attacking team and are capable of playing with the high press that caused Leeds plenty of problems last weekend.
...but Struijk probably won’t be central to Leeds’ gameplan at Molineux
Against sides like Wolves, the priorities change for the Whites. This match will be defined by Leeds’ ability to create, not defend. Their downfall during the 1-0 defeat to Nuno Espírito Santo’s men in October was their inability to penetrate the visitors’ compact defensive unit.
Indeed, Wolves spent the majority of the game camped in their half, soaking up the pressure from Leeds. All it took was a deflected shot from Raul Jimenez to win the match, and there was nothing that Phillips could do about that.
Leeds can expect a similar challenge at Molineux tomorrow evening. While the Peacocks are outliers regarding their pressing intensity, Wolves sit at the opposite end of the spectrum, and will not be expected to utilise a high press or defensive line. Therefore, with less pressure on the defence and opponents willing to sacrifice most of the possession, Phillips’ injury should not be as much of an Achilles heel as it usually is.
Struijk will find himself in fewer situations where he is operating in crowded areas, and with less likelihood of Leeds counter-attacks, he should be able to get away with his limited range of passing compared to Phillips. As he demonstrated against Arsenal, the Belgian international hopeful is more than capable of doing the simple things right.
With Leeds’ high line unlikely to be contested, Struijk should have some breathing space and will be more able to dictate the tempo and keep things ticking while his attacking teammates probe the Wolves defence.
Even if the team in gold do pull a surprise and test Leeds’ defensive resolve, the return of Diego Llorente to training and his subsequent availability could allow Struijk to play in holding midfield without forcing Luke Ayling to play at centre-back.
So who will be the key to victory?
One thing Leeds have now that they did not in October was Raphinha. Yes, the Brazilian came on to make his debut in the 1-0 loss, but it took him a few games to settle before he began starting regularly and having a major impact for his new club.
This time round Raphinha will start the game on the pitch, and Rodrigo’s continued absence will place further weight on the 24-year-old’s shoulders. What Leeds lacked at Elland Road was sufficient flair, movement off the ball, killer passes and moments of individual brilliance.
Since Raphinha's first away start versus Everton, only three players have been involved in eight away goals across the top leagues of England, France, Germany, Italy & Spain— Jonny Cooper (@JRCooper26) February 18, 2021
Mo Salah (6 goals, 2 assists)
Lionel Messi (6 goals, 2 assists)
Raphinha (3 goals, 5 assists)#lufc pic.twitter.com/6dfGIAXNVX
When the opponent parks the bus, it either takes a lapse in concentration on their part or something special on yours to break the deadlock, and Leeds should not count on Wolves making mistakes.
Therefore, the Yorkshire side will look to their £17 million signing to make the difference against Wolves like he has done in so many games already. Raphinha is not afraid to take chances, and while attempting to force difficult passes would usually be a frustrating trait, his brilliant technical ability gives him the right to do so.
Among the Leeds squad, Raphinha is the best with the ball at his feet, meaning he can take defenders out of the equation with a single run just as easily as he can with a killer pass. It isn’t easy to miss the frustration he dons whenever he misplaces a pass, and that anger is channelled to further boost his focus and drive.
Even if the former Rennes winger has on off day, the threat he poses from range is just as likely to be a gamechanger for the Whites, as it was during their 1-0 win over Everton at Goodison Park last year.
So before you jump on the Twitter bandwagon berating Bielsa’s decision to play Struijk in holding midfield yet again, consider focusing your attention on the one player Bielsa will rely on to perform against a team who will shut up shop when Leeds roll into town.
What will the result of Wolves vs Leeds be?
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