Leeds United supporters have been quick to praise the clean sheets earned against Burnley and West Bromwich Albion over the Christmas period, and rightly so.
Against teams who were relegation rivals at the beginning of the campaign, Leeds won by an aggregate of six goals to nil, better than many others to have faced both the Baggies and the Clarets this season.
It is all the more impressive given that Leeds used two different formations for the victories, including a defence made up of players with fewer than ten Premier League appearances in that role.
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Pascal Struijk has a couple of Premier League starts to his name, and even fewer at centre-back, while prior to the Burnley game, Luke Ayling had featured just six times at centre-back in the top flight.
Kalvin Phillips deputised in central defence against Burnley, but he too has a negligible amount of experience in central defence at the very top.
While it is correct to laud them for their solidity over the last 180 minutes, this defence will be put to the test once again by Tottenham Hotspur this weekend – the fiercest they will have faced.
With Son Heung-min scoring at a similar rate to Patrick Bamford, Harry Kane providing the Korean with the goods from almost anywhere on the pitch, and posing a not insignificant attacking threat himself, Ayling and Struijk have their work cut out.
Such is the setup of Jose Mourinho’s Spurs, that the central defenders may not have anybody to mark for large periods. Kane has become accustomed to dropping deep, often operating as a No. 10, or ‘false nine’ if we’re feeling avant-garde.
Filling in the central spaces in attack have been predominantly Son Heung-min and whichever attacker Mourinho selects from the right, and he has quite the squad to pick from.
Gareth Bale, Erik Lamela, Steven Bergwijn and Lucas Moura have all been utilised in this space, each one better at counter-attacking than the last.
It is a totally different test of defensive capability than against a predictable Burnley side, or the tepid attacking approach West Brom served up midweek.
Spurs will challenge the mental and physical side of Leeds’ defensive players. With Leeds’ full-backs tending to bomb on and support attacks, this will open gaps behind and potentially expose the central defensive duo, which is something they must be cautious in avoiding.
If Ayling and Struijk – and to a lesser extent Dallas and Alioski – manage the challenge well and nullify Spurs’ attacking players to a reasonable degree, then we can begin to discuss the makeshift defence as a viable alternative versus top sides in future when first-choice options are unavailable.
For now, the jury is still out on Ayling and Struijk as a pairing, they are not yet rubberstamped as it has only been two games, but the signs are encouraging. In isolation they have started the season capably, Ayling in particular has been hugely impressive in a number of areas.
Leeds United ended 2020 in style with a 5-0 away day thrashing of Sam Allardyce’s West Brom side.
A comical Romaine Sawyers own goal was followed by strikes from Gjanni Alioski, Jack Harrison, Rodrigo and Raphinha in a dominant display.
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Struijk too, has risen to the challenge of a new division and more difficult opponents, but this weekend will be their greatest test.
Despite riding the high of the last two games, Leeds must not lose sight of two things: Harry Kane and co can definitely cause Marcelo Bielsa’s deputy defence some issues, but also this season’s goal is to remain a Premier League club, therefore a defeat at the hands of a Mourinho team is not the end of the world.