Leeds' Pascal Struijk on Marcelo Bielsa: Versatility, substitution humiliation and exceeding expectations

"There's so much detail that goes around in Marcelo Bielsa's management, in how hard you need to work to play here"; watch Leeds United vs Aston Villa live on Sky Sports Premier League this Saturday from 5pm; kick-off at 5.30pm

Pascal Struijk has started 10 of Leeds' last 11 Premier League games, but only four matches all season before December 27
Image: Pascal Struijk has started 10 of Leeds' last 11 Premier League games, but only four matches all season before December 27

This Saturday will mark the return fixture of Leeds' 3-0 win over Aston Villa in October. For most Leeds players, it will bring back fond memories of one of the club's biggest wins of their first season back in the Premier League. But not for everyone.

"Why did you take me off, what did I do wrong?" Pascal Struijk asked the crouching Marcelo Bielsa as he walked off the pitch after being substituted after less than 21 minutes of only his third Premier League start. It was the kind of humiliation which would have drawn major headlines and analysis had it occurred at Anfield or Old Trafford.

"I was quite surprised when my number came up," Struijk tells Sky Sports ahead of Saturday's re-match. "But when I watched it back I saw. I had got a yellow card and then made another foul, so I can imagine what's going on in his head.

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"Of course, it was tough to take at the time. But looking back, it showed me I can't make those silly mistakes again. I need to make sure I'm professional when playing with a yellow card."

This is Bielsa's way as the perennial enigma. It was nothing personal, just a decision made outside the box, and not the first Struijk had faced that day.

The 21-year-old centre-back had already been asked to step in and fill a Kalvin Phillips-shaped hole in holding midfield, a position he had rarely played and one pivotal to Leeds' shape. But now running the risk of a second yellow, his embarrassment was overlooked for the good of the team by Bielsa as he summoned the fourth official.

Championing versatility will raise no eyebrows among followers of Bielsa's Leeds this season, allowing him to run a smaller squad where gaps can be plugged more easily. It was exemplified on Tuesday night in a 3-0 win over Southampton where Stuart Dallas, a winger by trade, started the game at left-back before scoring their second with a late run from central midfield.

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The methods do not come without their pitfalls, and tough afternoons like Struijk's at Villa Park are not unique. However, Bielsa's attention to detail to prepare his players means he can succeed where other managers may be accused of putting square pegs in round holes, while creating a squad of more rounded, complete players.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leeds' win over Southampton in the Premier League

And his relentless demands - including the infamous 'murderball' 11-vs-11 training game where the ball is never out of play and players must run flat-out for as long as 20 minutes - can prove the perfect in-at-the-deep-end preparation, by somehow providing an environment even more intense than a Premier League matchday.

"He's nothing like I've ever seen before," says Struijk. "There's so much detail that goes around in his management, in how hard you need to work to play here. Show yourself every day, never give less than 100 per cent. It just shows the intensity we have to go through.

"The murderball every week is very demanding and very, very intense, but I think each one of us has become a lot better than we were three years ago.

"Sometimes training is very specific position-wise. Let's say wingers, they will just give cross after cross, and I'll be practising giving a pass from the back as a defender. But it improves you as a player.

Pascal Struijk

"I think I have played left centre-half, right centre-half, as a defensive midfielder... You need to try and adapt. And then, as I said, there is so much detail that goes around in helping me know where to be, how to move, where to ask for the ball, so they make it a little bit easier for me as well.

"The first time I played in midfield, I was quite nervous, and there was just so much going on. So much more than I was used to. But taking that from a midfielder and going back to centre-half, I think I can handle the ball a little bit better because I'm more used to people pressing me now."

Struijk is a fine example of Bielsa's methods in his willingness - and ability - to play anywhere for the team. But he also strikes an antithesis to the norm.

The demands of operating with a stoically consistent line-up have left the manager facing a burnt-out dressing room in seasons past.

In his first year with Leeds in 2018/19, they lost six of their last 10 games to miss out on promotion to the Premier League. Further back at Athletic Bilbao in 2012, midfielder Ander Herrera later said his team-mates "could not even move" in the final months of the season, where they lost comprehensively in both the Europa League and Copa Del Rey finals.

Even with a raft of injuries to contend with and the added intensity of a truncated season, Leeds have still used just 22 players and made 27 changes to their starting line-ups, the second-lowest behind Aston Villa in both cases.

So having started only four of their opening 14 league games, Struijk had fully expected to remain familiar with a spot on the bench for the rest of the season.

But after replacing Phillips at half-time in a 6-2 defeat to Manchester United in December, things changed. He has started 10 of Leeds' last 11 league games and, reportedly, is already being pursued by Roberto Martinez to represent Belgium - the land of his birth - instead of the Netherlands where he grew up.

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Marcelo Bielsa speaks about his Leeds future following their 3-0 win over Southampton on Tuesday night

"I have to say, my expectations for the season have already been achieved," he says. "So now I'm just focusing on what I can do more. The upcoming games I hopefully I can play and if not then, so be it.

"I was actually hoping for like three starts in the whole season. So that's done! My expectations weren't that high.

"There there were some signings coming in, but they had a few injuries and it gave me time to play. So that really helped me out. And then I have some consistency playing now so that's good for me."

Will his rapid rise continue at centre-back, or would he like to exorcise some demons in midfield before the season is out? "I don't mind coming in there if the team needs me, but I prefer being at centre-back," he adds with a smile, perhaps already wondering when the next Bielsa surprise will come his way.

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