Liam Cooper is poised to strengthen Leeds United’s defence today, but it is at the other end of the field where the concerns lie.
In amongst all the eye-catching football that has come to define Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa, Cooper would like to see a bit of scruffiness.
To have their captain back after a groin injury is a psychological boost to the Whites, but with only eight goals conceded in 14 games, they already go into today’s match at home to Queens Park Rangers with the Championship’s meanest defence. It is at the other end where something extra is needed after just five goals scored in the last seven matches.
“We are creating chances so there’s no problem there,” argues centre-back Cooper. “We see the lads every day in training, they are scoring goals all the time, they are practising all the time.
“There is an element of luck in any goal and I think as a team we never really seem to score scruffy goals. I’d like to see one go in off someone’s knee or someone’s shoulder or something like that but it is what it is and we have every confidence in our front players, our midfielders and our wingers. We know they can all score goals.”
The frustration behind Leeds’s struggles in front of goal is that the quality of their football is not being reflected in the league table.
A number of other Championship managers have singled them out as the best team in the division, but the table says they are only the third, albeit only two points behind leaders West Bromwich Albion.
With second-placed Preston North End at Charlton Athletic tomorrow and West Brom at managerless Stoke City on Monday, victory today should send Leeds top, but Cooper refuses to read too much into that.
“It’s always nice that managers can say that but I don’t think you can determine who is the best team in the league until the league is finished come May,” argues the 28-year-old, who made his first appearance since a groin injury as a substitute at Sheffield Wednesday last week.
“We play a very nice style of football, a positive style of football and an attacking style of football which is great to be part of.
“We know we can score goals and we know we can defend but that comes as a team.
“We will always try to do our best, we will always approach the games properly and that’s all we can do and come the end of May we will know who the best team in the league is.
“We are a big scalp to be had in the Championship and I think everybody knows teams always seem to get that extra three or four per cent out of themselves when they play against us.
“But that’s what we have got to take on board, we have got to embrace that and we have got to really bring our style to fruition. I think we have the majority of the time this season.”
Scruffiness is not a quality one associates with Pablo Hernandez, but the anticipated return from injury of the cultured midfielder is another boost to a squad which has suffered badly with injuries lately.
As Bielsa put it, “He’s a player we miss when he’s not here.”
In Hernandez’s absence, Mateusz Klich has tended to be the most advanced midfielder, but has not found the net since the win at Barnsley in mid-September, his second of the campaign.
“I think Klich had five goals by this point last season (plus one for Poland) but this is football and no game is ever going to be the same,” says Cooper. “If we get one we will go and get two and we will go and get three but we have just got to concentrate on getting that goal and maybe take a bit of pressure off.”
Patrick Bamford’s ankle injury opens up the possibility that five-goal Eddie Nketiah, on loan from Arsenal, could make his first Championship start. If Bamford is passed fit, they could even play together.
With Ezgjan Alioski doubtful with a hip problem – Barry Douglas’s knee injury could prevent him coming in at left-back – and with Jamie Shackleton and Jack Clarke making their case to return in the Under-23s on Monday, it could be a much-changed line-up after three matches with the same XI.
What Leeds will want to continue is the solidity at the back. With the defence playing well, goalkeeper Kiko Casilla is finding his form too, as shown by his performance to keep a clean sheet at Sheffield Wednesday last week.
“I don’t think you get on Real Madrid’s books if you are a poor player,” Cooper said of the Spaniard, voted Championship goalkeeper of the month in October after a difficult start at Elland Road.
“Kiko is a confident man and a great lad as well. He has got no ego, he applies himself every day, he works hard and he pushes everybody else.
“He is an experienced lad in the dressing room and he is great to have about. His performance (against the Owls) was unbelievable. “He kept us in the game at times and that’s what you want from your keeper when teams maybe are having a spell in the game, he might have to make them big saves.”
For now it is all about getting it right at the other end.
“We have created enough chances to have a lot more points than we have at the minute but that all comes at certain parts of the season and I think a lot of people have said that can’t carry on like that,” says Cooper.
“If we keep creating these chances they are going to go in and we are going to win more games and pick more points up,” he added.