Pascal Struijk will play a crucial role for Leeds United against Brighton on Saturday, according to Noel Whelan.
The former Leeds striker and lifelong fan at Elland Road, speaking exclusively to Football Insider, believes Liam Cooper will return to the heart of the defence to allow the 21-year-old to fill in for the suspended Kalvin Phillips.
But Whelan does not expect Diego Llorente to play despite finally being fit and available.
Marcelo Bielsa confirmed at his pre-match press conference, as relayed by the Yorkshire Evening Post, that Cooper, Llorente and Tyler Roberts are all available for the Seagulls’ visit to Elland Road on Saturday.
Both Cooper and Struijk played just 45 minutes against Crawley Town last weekend, with the Leeds captain making his return from an abdominal injury.
With Phillips out through suspension, Whelan believes the Scotland international will take Struijk’s place in the defence against Brighton, allowing the versatile enforcer to step up into a midfield position instead.
As such, the ex-Leeds hitman has named Stuart Dallas, Ayling, Cooper and Ezgjan Alioski as Bielsa’s likely back-four.
Whelan told Football Insider: “I think you got to look, Alioski’s been playing the wing-back role, Stuart Dallas has been playing the right wing-back role, then you’ve got to think about Struijk, who will be playing the Kalvin Phillips role.
“It’s so important that Struijk does that Kalvin Phillips role well.”
“Do you keep Ayling in there alongside Liam Cooper? In my opinion, I think you should and he will. I think he’s been playing regularly, I think he’s been doing very well in that position and I don’t really see any reason why it should be changed right now.
“You’ve got a right-footer playing on one side, you’ve got Liam Cooper who’s got a great left foot on the other. There’s a nice balance there and I think you’ve got to think about regular football that they’ve all been playing.
“I think it’s more important that Liam Cooper comes back than Llorente, in my opinion, because he’s the captain, because he’s the leader and because he gives you that balance of a nice left foot on that side of the central defence.
“I’ll be very surprised if Llorente is thrown in. In my opinion, it should be Ayling and Cooper that plays that role and then that gives us a nice backline and a nice platform to get these bodies forward as well.”