Marsch learns why Bielsa always bet the house on Liam Cooper at center-back

Marsch learns why Bielsa always bet the house on Liam Cooper at center-back post thumbnail image

The day Liam Cooper and Leeds United clicked was the day Thomas Christiansen hung the armband on Cooper’s peg away at Bolton Wanderers. Captain for the season and no longer the odd one out in a group of three with Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley. The armband became a permanent award, his from 2017 awards.

Marcelo Bielsa inherited that dressing room and left the hierarchy within it unchanged but it was not the captaincy that represented Bielsa’s biggest vote of confidence in Cooper. The center-back was as good as first name on Bielsa’s teamsheet, to an extraordinary degree over almost four years: a substitute in the league only twice and an unused substitute just once, in a dead rubber at Burnley last season. Injury was the bane of Cooper’s inclusion, as it has been this year, but fit and available, he played. Almost without fail, Cooper played.

His longevity is shown in the list of names who have either come or gone in the meantime: Jansson, Gaetano Berardi, Ben White, Diego Llorente, Robin Koch and Pascal Struijk. Not every signing or new face in the dressing room was a direct challenge to him — some were right-sided in contrast to Cooper’s stronger left foot — but no central defender clocked up appearances in so many numbers while Bielsa was head coach. There was an axis at Leeds, a central joist of players on whom Bielsa was happy to rest everything and place the most weight. They knew who they were.

Bielsa is gone but Cooper is still a centre-back who coaches at Leeds seem inclined to gravitate towards. The 30-year-old was not entirely ready for 90 minutes against Southampton on Saturday — being a short touch of fitness after hamstring surgery — but he completed a full shift anyway, albeit because of a strange bout of confusion in Jesse Marsch’s dugout. Signs of stiffness were showing in Cooper when the board went up for Leeds’ last substitution on 89 minutes but wires were crossed and Marsch’s staff mistakenly left him on the pitch. “Liam was feeling heavy,” Marsch said. “We wanted to get him out of the game.” Luke Ayling looked nonplussed as he gave way for Struijk.

Cooper stuck it out through five minutes of injury time as Leeds battled through the tail end of a 1-1 draw with Southampton. It was less than Marsch thought his team had earned, but it was a point that moved their feet a little further from the fire. Struijk was Marsch’s final introduction from the bench and the player who stepped aside for Cooper beforehand; the player who, in Leeds’ collective mind, stands the most chance of succeeding the club’s captain long-term as Leeds’ preferred left-sided center-back.

Struijk returned a positive COVID-19 test during the international break and experienced a hamstring niggle too, so the rationale behind the pre-match selection was less simple than a basic pecking order but Marsch was essentially picking between two defenders who were not entirely match fit . “In training, Coops had looked very strong and clear,” Marsch said. “It was a relatively easy decision in the circumstances, but I was concerned if Coops could make the 90 minutes.”

Bielsa relied religiously on the Scotland international’s performances and counted heavily on his powers of communication and organisation. In the absence of his leadership, Bielsa saw occasions when it was missed, and potentially never so badly as in the last two months of his reign. Cooper could err, Cooper could misfire but the train of thought in Bielsa’s mind was that the balance of his team, the structure of his defense and the flow of possession from back to front required that choice on the left side of the pair.

Saturday was Marsch’s first opportunity to start Cooper and, like Bielsa before him, the decision largely made itself. In return, Marsch got a high-end Cooper display, with seven interceptions, four clearances and a competitive presence in the air; enough for the man-of-the-match award. Southampton made a point of hitting Leeds’ box with a flood of set pieces and, in the midst of those attempts to cause mayhem, resisting them was imperative. It is one area in which the squad at Elland Road have made gains since Leeds decided Bielsa’s tenure had run its course.


Cooper impressed for Leeds on his first start for Jesse Marsch (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Elland Road, naturally, was looking most keenly for Kalvin Phillips when the teamsheet dropped, though Marsch indicated in advance that he would not start both Phillips and Cooper since neither was likely to be up to a full game. Two picks like that risked preordaining two substitutions. Phillips, as much as he ever was, is the poster boy at Leeds; the man who can make everything right. Leeds win 50 per cent of their games with Phillips in their starting line-up. They lose 50 per cent of the games they play without him. The sample size is too big for the data to be coincidental. Cooper’s stats are not as favourable, but very few players are remotely close to Phillips and, when it came to Cooper, Leeds’ results made people defer to Bielsa’s judgment time and again.

Phillips took a seat on the bench and Marsch got the last 25 minutes out of him — the section of the game in which Leeds rediscovered a little of their earlier control. It had been their match for most of the first half, leading to Jack Harrison’s prodded goal on 29 minutes — an attack started by Cooper earning the benefit of the doubt in a tangle with Armando Broja on halfway — but Southampton had Marsch’s side flapping in the minutes before half-time. The American liked his team’s counter-pressing and their creation of chances, but each of his games so far has served up imperfections for him to think about. After such a long run of Bielsa’s ultra-defined football, Leeds look like a squad feeling their way into the afterlife, very much in need of time and space to change.

Three minutes after the interval, Southampton equalised with the surest thing in football: a James Ward-Prowse free-kick from 25 yards, a little to the left. “It’s what I call a penalty,” Marsch said, and Ward-Prowse’s talent for dead-ball hits from that distance is nothing if not outrageous. “He’s not easy to read,” said Ralph Hasenhuttl, the Southampton manager. “It’s not easy to say what is coming but, for sure, it’s quality coming.”

It deprived Leeds of a clean sheet and the club have been waiting for one of those for longer than they waited for Cooper and Phillips to return, as distant as their previous outings seemed. There was no heart-stopping winner this time, no palpitations in added time, but three games without defeat has helped Leeds breach the 30-point mark — one that looked a long way up the mountain three weeks ago. Watford away next weekend might be the only way in which Leeds could contrive to shoot themselves in the foot. It’s a huge chance to leave the firefight behind.

Their seven remaining games begin to feel like a closing chapter. There will have to be change at Elland Road this summer, decisions that refresh the squad and restore a spine to a more consistent line-up. The sun will have to set on certain players and rise on others, helping Leeds move beyond a period where the value of everything comes down to results. But there was Cooper at full-time on Saturday, Leeds’ captain for five seasons and counting, picking up the champagne and reasserting himself on his first appearance for four months.

The one thing Leeds can tell Marsch about Cooper is that, in terms of their center-backs, this is where Bielsa always bet the house.

(Top Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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