It’s been some time since Marcelo Bielsa has had the luxury of choice at centre-back. By the 21st August 2018 - game four of Bielsa’s tenure - Pontus Jansson had pulled out of Leeds’ trip to Swansea with a back problem. Liam Cooper was then withdrawn in the warm-up due to a pulled hamstring and Leeds fielded Luke Ayling and Gaetano Berardi. Leeds United drew 2-2.
So it started. Centre-back roulette. Berardi himself lasted only two-and-a-bit more games before succumbing to a knee injury against Middlesbrough, missing six games. In just his 2nd game on return he suffered another major setback, with a serious hamstring tear that cost him 25 games.
Luke Ayling missed two months with a knee ligament problem, whilst Jansson and Cooper both picked up knocks along the way.
The 2019/20 Championship winning season brought some regularity, as Liam Cooper made 38 league appearances whilst on-loan Brighton defender Ben White got a full-house with 46. Berardi, however, suffered his biggest setback yet when he tore his ACL in Leeds’ penultimate - and celebratory, given this was the first game since they were crowned champions - game against Derby County, with a return to play anticipated not to come until deep into 2021.
Promotion to the Premier League, and the congested fixture schedule that came with the unprecedented pandemic season, did nothing in easing the defensive woes. Berardi has been unavailable all season. Robin Koch required surgery on a long-standing knee injury after the Chelsea game and has been out since December, whilst Liam Cooper’s stream of niggling problems has rendered him unavailable for six games in total so far.
The most frustrating of the lot, however, may well be Diego Llorente, who has suffered three separate injuries since his summer transfer from Real Sociedad. The Spain international played 81 minutes against Chelsea but was injured by the end of it, and just ten against Newcastle.
Bielsa made clear that there was concern for the 27 year old’s mental, as well as physical health, following the setback, admitting he was “worried about Diego’s state of mind”.
In more recent weeks, however, the picture at the back for Leeds looks somewhat more promising. Much like the roadmap out of lockdown we have all been so desperately yearning for, the Whites’ senior centre-backs seem to be incrementally returning to first-team football.
Heartwarming videos of Berardi’s return to training surfaced in February, and the Swiss defender started for the Under-23’s on Monday as he hopes to be available for the tail-end of the season. Bielsa also confirmed that Koch will return to training in the near future, whilst the German centre-back recently posted pictures around Elland Road on social media.
It seems as though, all of a sudden, Bielsa will have to make a decision on Leeds’ best pairing rather than just the best available pairing, with five possible options to choose from, in all the aforementioned plus Pascal Struijk.
That choice has coincided with a 3rd, and already more successful, return from injury for Llorente, who has started - and finished - both of Leeds’ last two games. As the Spaniard starts to settle into the ‘Bielsa way’ at Elland Road, whilst simultaneously overcoming what inevitable psychological battles one would suffer following such poor luck, his quality both on and off the ball is shining.
Defensively, Llorente is everything you might expect from a Spanish international with over 200 club appearances under his belt; confident and assured. An exemplary reader of the game. As part of a typically Leeds high-line his anticipation of service to the opposition striker, either to feet or in behind, restores the yard or two lost with age and injury.
Against the Saints it was Nathan Redmond, whilst Villa had Ollie Watkins. Both would have Llorente in a foot-race but neither had the beating of him on the perilously slick Elland Road turf. The reason being that the Leeds centre-back possessed a mental speed unrivalled by either, and unaffected by the unstable conditions afoot.
Diego Llorente made SEVENTEEN ball recoveries against Aston Villa today, more than any Leeds player has managed in any single competitive game since Marcelo Bielsa took charge. #LUFC pic.twitter.com/D2uD1MFs1r— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) February 27, 2021
To be a good defender in a Bielsa side, however, does not simply mean defending well, and it was Llorente’s skill on the ball which drew Leeds to him as much as his skill off it. Bielsa demands his centre-backs start attacks, and whilst Liam Cooper’s long diagonal balls offer up some creativity, it was Llorente, on both occasions, who took charge.
Two different sides brought about two different problems for Leeds and Llorente. Ralph Hassenhuttl’s high-pressing Southampton side were bound to panic Leeds on the ball, and Llorente took time to fall into the groove of the game.
It was he, however, that started the move for Leeds’ 1st goal. With the Saints’ midfield pushed into Leeds’ half, Tyler Roberts drifted inconspicuously into space on the halfway line. Llorente’s arrowed pass to Roberts cut through the Saints’ midfield line like a bullet through plywood, taking six players out of the game entirely and allowing Roberts to turn and feed Patrick Bamford, who tucked home with characteristic poise.
That pass! That finish! We do score some beautiful goals! pic.twitter.com/tB8f4NZ8S2— Leeds United (@LUFC) February 24, 2021
Villa provided a somewhat different challenge on Saturday. After going 1-0 up in the 5th minute, Dean Smith’s side sat back and absorbed the Leeds pressure as if in the midst of a relegation dog-fight, scrapping for points - they are 9th.
And with this came the opportunity for Llorente to step into midfield, morphing into Leeds’ main deep creator in the absence of Kalvin Phillips. Another pinpoint, line-breaking pass came in the 1st half, again with Roberts the beneficiary...
The young Welsh forward again receiving the ball on the turn, this time only able to skew a shot high and wide...
Villa’s midfield trio remained compact when out of possession, and it was these high-risk penetrative passes that carved out chances for Leeds to create. As late as the 93rd minute, Llorente was stepping deep into the Villa half, this time laying the ball wide to Luke Ayling before receiving it back and punching a decisive pass into Pablo Hernandez, who - as in keeping with the night - was unable to produce the magic in the final third.
One can only imagine - with all due respect to both Hernandez and Roberts - how these situations may have panned out had Llorente been feeding his compatriot Rodrigo.
The amateur dramatics need to be abolished, and you would hope that the senior core at Elland Road would have had a quiet word after Saturday’s game. We don’t do that here at Leeds. But we do take risks, and Llorente’s vertical passes are exactly the risks that break sides down.
The imminent return of Koch and Berardi will provide stiff competition for Llorente and Cooper, and it will provide Bielsa with a quintet of top-quality centre-backs for the first time since his arrival at Leeds.
Llorente undoubtedly demonstrated his value this past week. A strong and experienced Spanish international centre-back with an intelligent reading of the game and the eye for a through-the-needle pass.
All he needs to do is stay fit.
Who would be your first choice centre-back pairing at Leeds? Let us know on Twitter @ThruItAllLUFC on twitter.