Leeds United will have to cope without Liam Cooper for the next three games, but it could be a blessing in disguise for Marcelo Bielsa and his centre-backs waiting in the wings.
Bielsa has done little to overhaul the side that helped him earn promotion at Elland Road last July.
In fact, Bielsa stated how he felt ‘in debt’ to his Leeds squad after they won the Championship title, despite everyone else knowing it was down to his management that we’re back in the top flight.
Bielsa saw something in the players that he kept with him when he joined and he still sees that now as Leeds’ latest win means we’re now looking at another season as a Premier League club.
At the heart of it all under Bielsa has been Liam Cooper. He scored in Bielsa’s first game and has been a constant presence in the starting lineup (when fit), despite the fact we spent big in the summer for two centre-backs.
Cooper has proven his worth
He took a lot of slating for mistakes and moments of madness in the past at Leeds, branded ‘League One Liam’ and ‘Calamity Cooper’ among others.
He’s proven almost everyone wrong this season as he has helped guide Leeds to what will be the most laid-back finish to the season that anyone could have hoped for.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing though with poor results coming to Manchester United, Leicester City and others, but that’s to be expected.
Despite this, Whoscored.com have Cooper down as Leeds’ top-performing defender with an average rating of 7.02, only bested by Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha in the whole squad.
What is certain is that Cooper and the rest of the ‘Championship fodder’ in Leeds’ squad from years gone by are more than capable of perfoming in the Premier League and well clear of the bottom three too.
Door open for the new boys
For all of Cooper’s outstanding work to get us to this level, there comes a point where the club might assess how we get to an even higher standard.
That moment came in the glorious win over Manchester City where a moment of madness saw Cooper sent off for a dangeorus lunge on Gabriel Jesus.
The red card itself was contentious to say the least, but what it does now is leave the door wide open for Pascal Struijk, Diego Llorente, and Robin Koch to push for a higher place in the pecking order.
We know Llorente has completely nailed down his spot in the lineup after his run of form in 2021, but that left-centre-back slot is there for the taking as Cooper sits out for three games.
Struijk was the man Bielsa turned to in order to plug the gap as Leeds contended at the Etihad with 10 men, which speaks volumes about how highly he rates the 21-year-old.
His performances have been exemplary considering he wasn’t even expected to have this much of a role in the first-team this season, and it leaves Bielsa with a long-term dilemma that could be made an even more pressing selection headache in these three games.
We epxect Struijk to start as Cooper sits out, and we could see the baton passed to Struijk, who is only going to get better and better with more first-team exposure.
Meanwhile, we’ve got a £13million German international sat there waiting for his chance too, and he did himself no harm either when he came on with half an hour to go.
We’re not saying Cooper is out of the side for good after this red card, but it’s a silly tackle to make not only in the context of the game, but for the competition for places too.