Leeds United v Brighton - Ben White returns but Marcelo Bielsa has others on his mind

If things do go wrong at Elland Road this afternoon, “never look back” could be a hard motto to follow.

Ben White in action for Leeds Unted last season. Photo: Dave Howarth/PA Wire.
Ben White in action for Leeds Unted last season. Photo: Dave Howarth/PA Wire.

With any luck, they will not. Brighton and Hove Albion’s football is full of beautiful bravado, lacking in pragmatic punch. Graham Potter’s side could easily find themselves stumbling into Leeds United’s hands in the Premier League game.

Thanks mainly to the wonderful attacking talents of Rodrigo and Raphinha, Leeds are undoubtedly better placed to capitalise this season. But if the wheels come off, as they have from time to time in 2020-21, Brighton’s presence could bring wistful thoughts of what might have been.

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For all that the Whites have thrilled us with their attacking this season, there has undoubtedly been weaknesses at the back. Leeds’s defensive shakiness might have added to their appeal with those watching for fun, but 33 goals conceded has frustrated others emotionally invested in the team.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.

If they look back into Brighton’s team then somewhere – maybe in the centre of defence, perhaps stationed in front of them, or possibly on the right of the back four or five – they will find Ben White, the defensive pillar on which last season’s promotion was won.

The 23-year-old is a fine defender – it is hard to argue when Leeds coach Marcelo Bielsa says he “has shown that he is a Premier League player” and he seems destined to play for England too – and Leeds were not the only club who would have loved to have taken him off Brighton’s hands in the summer. The problem was, by giving him so much Championship exposure, Bielsa - or rather White himself – let the cat out of the bag. Such are the ups and downs of loan signings.

There was more to the impression White made on the Argentinian than just his football.

“All of us here admire him as a player,” reflects Bielsa, often so deliberately dispassionate about his players.

“We respect him and love him as a human being. He was an excellent professional as well as a team-mate.

“I hope his career allows him to grow because he deserves it.”

But ask if he regrets not signing him permanently in the summer and you instantly get a firm “No”. In his view Leeds have moved on regardless.

“We did what was possible to try and acquire him,” argues a coach well backed in the summer transfer market by sporting director Victor Orta.

“The club supplemented this by signing (Robin) Koch and (Diego) Llorente. After the absence of those two players (through injury, Luke) Ayling has been replacing them.

“When Ayling stops playing as a full-back (he is usually a right-back) he has been replaced by (Stuart) Dallas and Dallas, who has stopped playing as left-back, has been replaced by (Ezgjan) Alioski.

“We would have liked Koch and Llorente available all this time but for me Ayling has been at the same level as White and Koch, and Dallas has been at the same level as Ayling. Ali(oski) is going through a period of development in this position that for me will end in him becoming a very good and reliable option at left-back.”

A point worth emphasising is how good Ayling has been this season. His appearance in central defence in his last game, at Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, means he has now played there more times (nine) than in his preferred position. The right of a three – which Leeds could use at some point in today’s battle between two shape-shifting coaches – is starting to look his best role, granting freedom to supplement the attack whilst showcasing his defensive qualities.

Whether winger Alioski should be learning the role of left-back in quite such an exposed way is open to debate. The lack of a specialist left-back since Barry Douglas was allowed to leave on loan means he has not been dipped in and out, he has played eight of the last nine Premier League matches there.

You could have a similar discussion about 20-year-old goalkeeper Illan Meslier but then the whole point of Bielsa’s Leeds is that you cannot play safe all your life.

The coach’s mistakes at Crawley Town, which he freely admitted this week, show he is not infallible, but his career and in particular his transformation of the Whites certainly give him heavyweight clout in any footballing debating chamber.

It is impossible to quantify Leeds’s defensive improvement or regression by that number 33. Having stepped up a level, their goals-per-game ratio has nothing to compare with.

“You also have to consider we have had to adapt to the simultaneous absence of players like Koch, Llorente, (Kalvin) Phillips (suspended today) and (Liam) Cooper,” Bielsa quite rightly points out.

“Pascal (Struijk) is going to become a very useful player in the absence of Cooper and Phillips. You just have to look at Pascal’s performances at Liverpool and Tottenham to see he is going to enrich Leeds United, and I feel the same about Alioski.

“This stat of us conceding 33 goals is impossible to defend but the arguments I can offer, you should also consider them. I can’t think it’s a lack of individuals, the reason we’re not defending so well.”

White would certainly make things better but the fact is, he was unattainable in the summer. There is little point in dwelling on it.

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