About one month ago, in the time that all of English football clubs hadn’t come to an agreement of completing the 2019/20 season, there are rumors from the media and most of them are about ending the season “Null and Void”, which mean putting an end of the season without champions, promotions or demotions. The truth is, Liverpudlians are not the only ones who tremor and feel fear for The Reds’ crown. Besides Liverpool’s thirst for reaching the Premier League title for the first time in their history, there is also the desire of promotion of clubs that have been absent for years, struggled in finding their way back to the League. It is the desire of Leeds United.
Over 15 years playing in the EFL Championship were not easy and comfortable for The Whites’ fans, who always aware of the fact that Leeds United was once the challenger in the most intrigue Football League in the world. Similar to West Bromwich, Leeds this season is stronger than ever in the last 15 years and they are very, very close to a promoting ticket. The experienced coach Marcelo Bielsa’s army is showing impressive performance. Speaking of a successful campaign of The Peacocks, there is not only an efficient attacking front line who bring points to the team but also the massive contribution from the defenders. Bielsa’s defensive players only conceded 30 goals so far – the least in the Championship; and thus we cannot ignore their leader, the key of the Argentinian coach’s defensive system: Captain Liam Cooper. In this tactical analysis piece, we will examine Liam Cooper’s role in Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1 formation, his tactics, and also his duty in the backline of the Argentinian.
Leeds is the typical instance of possessing philosophy, playing out from the back that was brought to England by Pep Guardiola. However, although this philosophy relies on center-backs who have the ability to distribute the ball right from the own half, attacking purpose is just secondary with a defender. The prerequisite of becoming a defender is that you have to know how to secure your goal net. By possessing a ball-playing defender Ben White and the mobility of the defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips, Bielsa now has all the elements to execute his idea of possession game; the last thing he needs is a player who can overwatch the field, keeps his eyes on every space that is leaked and protect the goal net while others are heading toward. Fortunately, he has Liam Cooper.
Cooper is definitely a leader on the field with excellent ability to cover and protect his team from onslaughts. He has great vision and is able to read the game or predict the next action of his competitor which are all the things Bielsa needs. If needed, the Scottish can bring long passes, whose quality is acceptable.
Cleaning things up
A thing that is the easiest to surveil from Leeds’ captain is that he always is the one who stays deepest in Bielsa’s defensive block. By overwatching nine colleagues in front of Kiko Casilla, Cooper becomes the last barricade of the Whites. He barely tries to go after or mark a particular player; instead of that, he usually notices the surrounding, spots any space that appears because of his fellow teammates’ movement, and goes to cover or clear it.
In the match against Swansea – the team who likes to play wide and outnumber their contestants in the flanks, Cooper was not hesitating to move out of the box and obturate the void that was opened because his teammate was lured out. Although Jake Bidwell was about 20 meters away from the box, Leeds’ captain foresaw what was going to happen. Then, he totally broke down Swansea’s plan.
Nevertheless, Leeds does not just rely on Cooper all the time. Gaps appearance and Cooper’s being forced to fix it are inevitable. Often his teammates have to get out of their original positions to chase the opposite players, otherwise, they will lose their flanks. Bielsa’s defensive system bases itself on creating traps and Cooper – the one who stays deepest among the Leeds’ defenders will lead his team to create these traps. Here we go with some instance form three different matches to know clearly the way how the Scottish stops his opponents.
This case happened when the Whites faced Swansea. The home team’s players came and enclosed Yan Dhanda in a four-man cage, blocked all of his passing lanes from the number 21, and only left him one option to pass the ball to Borja Bastón. Thus, Cooper predicted it previously and instantly made his move to stop the ball.
In another camera angle, we are going to see an instance from Bielsa’s match against Fulham. In the below frame, we can see that the Scottish intentionally opted his man to go after Aleksandar Mitrović, and he stayed, waited to intercept the pass that could reach a Fulham’s winger in the flanks. The player who was on-ball only had two options: To deliver the ball to his striker, otherwise, give it to the winger. He thought the passing lane was clear, but that was the time he walked into the trap.
Isolating a player who is on-ball or blocking all of his passing options makes him confused. Should he pass and hope that the fellow can get rid of his marker or should he dribble the ball and try to get the job done by himself? Leeds’ defensive block under Cooper’s management usually does the isolating part so well and once they narrowed their competitor’s choices down, the Leeds’ captain’s decision can be declared easier.
The index points out that Cooper has 144 interceptions after 30 games, with a rating of 4.8 interceptions per match. Combining with those above examples, it is very hard to deny Cooper’s brilliant mindset and the way it makes an impact on Leeds’ defenders’ success.
Defensive techniques and contribution to the transition
Owning both cleverness and leadership is the key that makes Cooper Bielsa’s key in the operation of the defensive line. However, successfully setting up a trap or tricking a guy to step into it and regaining the ball are the achievements of the whole system, not only an individual; it’s teamwork. Without any support from his teammates, Cooper must prove that he has his own techniques to confidently come and fight in a face-to-face situation; because of whichever your position is on the field, good at teamwork is not enough for a football match, you have to possess personal techniques as well.
What stands out from the number of 4.8 interceptions per match is that it does not just include results of teamwork but also the personal work as well. When Cooper is forced to join a 1v1 fight, it is really tough for attacking players to dribble past him; partly because of his position at the bottom of the formation, partly because he is a big guy. Also, the Whites’ captain is extremely calm, this player never puts himself in a hurry. He usually uses his entire body to shield the shooting angle from his opponent or makes a good timing to tackle quickly before the competitor has a chance to use a trick.
Being the last barricade in front of his goalie does not give Cooper any permission to make any mistake that can bring a dangerous situation to his goal net. This expresses much clearly in how he handles things like a bounced ball or how he clears a long-range ball. Most of them are moments that he decided there was a potential danger in trying to control the ball or deliver it to other players, so he kicked the ball as far as possible. Sometimes he has enough time and space to control it under his feet but Cooper still played safe; we can call him perfectionist, but it’s fairly okay with a person who has responsibility like him. The Scottish can fix White or Phillips’ mistakes, but we cannot be sure if anyone can fix it if he makes a mistake by himself.
What if he does not play safe and fully gets control of the ball? The most basic thing in the possession game philosophy is that every player even the goalie have to contribute a part in building up the play or in transition. Even a more classic defender like Cooper. He barely takes risks or tries to dribble higher than others like White but he knows who he must pass the ball to, the full-backs, the defensive midfielder, or his partner White. There are a few times he tried a long-range pass, but it’s not usually. Anyway, with 468 successful forward passes over 633 attempts, which leads to a rating of 74%, Cooper’s support for the attacking aspect cannot be denied.
In the part Overview, we once spoke about Cooper’s long passing quality is acceptable with a successful rating of 49.35%. The truth is, his long-range kicks often put Leeds’ players up the field fall into loose ball duels; thus that is the reason why we conclude his long passing benchmark is above average. Just remember a fact that Cooper carries a bigger defending duty than White, therefore his ordinary passing ability is understandable.
Although “Safety first”, but Cooper still cannot avoid making errors like passing to the wrong address or failure in receiving the pass. Like we mentioned previously, being a perfectionist sometimes throws away his team’s chance to get the ball possession and building the play up from the back.
Furthermore, the 28-year-old centre-back is not so impressive when it comes to heading. His successful aerial duels index is just 64% despite the fact that he has a height of 188 centimetres. Plus, through observing his matches, we found out his weakness when his competitors tried to impact his hips or his back. Just only when he stood behind his opponent can he take the advantages.
In this scout report, we show you all the strengths and weaknesses of the Championship leading team’s captain Liam Cooper. What stands out from this analysis is that Cooper has a brilliant mindset that makes him the fundamental element in the operation of his team’s backline system. But if we put him in a comparison with other good defenders, we can see that he lacks modernity in his playstyle because using his feet to deploy an attack has never is his strength. In spite of that, he usually attempts to contribute to his team’s transition attacking phase and that’s what we cannot ignore. By showing an amazing defensive work in Leeds’ defence, Cooper deserves a chance for him to play in the Premier League in the next season and so does the team of Bielsa.