International call-ups haven’t been a common occurrence for Leeds United defenders since their return to the Premier League. With attack-minded football being the craze at Elland Road under both Marcelo Bielsa and Jesse Marsch, quality defending has been a rare sight. Leeds have kept clean sheets in 19 out of 88 games since their 2020 promotion. In that time, Robin Koch and Diego Llorente, who came to the club as German and Spanish internationals respectively, have fallen out of selection. However, for Pascal Struijk, the trajectory has gone in the opposite direction.
Breaking into the side
Struijk signed for Leeds’ youth academy from Ajax in January 2018, 8 months before the arrival of legendary manager Marcelo Bielsa. With Bielsa’s tendency to look to his youth squads for depth roles in the senior side, Struijk had a key opportunity to get some first-team minutes whilst the side was battling for promotion from the Championship. Chances were sparse though, as the ever presence of Liam Cooper paired with the likes of Pontus Jansson and Ben White made it tough to break through. When Leeds did eventually get promoted, Struijk had only made 5 appearances for the club, with the only two starts coming in the final two games that took place after Leeds were confirmed champions.
Upon promotion, Leeds signed two new central defenders, Robin Koch and Diego Llorente, and it looked like it would be a struggle for Struijk to gain anything more than youth football now that the team was in the Premier League. However, with injuries forcing Llorente and Liam Cooper out of the opening match of the 2020/21 season away at Liverpool, Struijk was handed his third senior start. Since then, he’s grasped every chance by the scruff of its neck and has now transitioned into a regular at the back.
Still work to be done
With the return of Liam Cooper, Struijk was demoted to an unused substitute for 9 out of the following 12 games. It was during the Christmas period that Struijk began to return to the starting line-up following injuries once again to his fellow centre-backs. From the 20th of December’s 6-2 defeat at Manchester United, Struijk played in all but two of Leeds’ remaining premier league fixtures that season, forming centre-back partnerships with Luke Ayling, Robin Koch, Diego Llorente and Liam Cooper.
In a season riddled with setbacks at the back, Struijk was the one constant, and his ability to stay healthy provided him with ample opportunities to stake his claim as Leeds’ main centre half. Despite limited experience, he settled in perfectly, in turn setting the foundations for what was to come over the next season and a half.
The foundations for an International call-up
Leeds United conceded 79 goals in the 2021/22 campaign, the second worst in the division. Their injury troubles persisted at the back with Liam Cooper only playing 21 league games and Kalvin Phillips’ hamstring injury forcing Robin Koch to play most of the season in midfield. This allowed Struijk to play regularly once again, and he impressed in his 29 league appearances, despite being put under a lot of pressure defensively throughout the season in a team battling relegation.
Surviving relegation on the final day provides a young centre-back with the experience needed to grind out results each week. It’s a tough task but Struijk passed the test and has started the ongoing 2022/23 season in great form. Despite playing as a makeshift left-back in the absence of Junior Firpo, he hasn’t looked out of his depth. He is 6th in league tackles with 35 and his performances have kept Firpo out of the side now that he’s fit again. His rapid improvements and versatility in his game at such a young age have resulted in him catching the attention of Netherlands manager, Louis van Gaal
Why Van Gaal has Struijk on his radar
Ahead of the World Cup, managers are obliged to name a provisional squad of between 35 and 55 players, which they will cut down to 26 by the 14th of November. Within these squads, managers like to include players that they see as future pieces in their plans to see how they train and play with the main team ahead of a major tournament. Struijk was named in the provisional squad for the latest round of Nations League games and has also been named in the 39-man provisional squad for the upcoming winter World Cup in Qatar.
He didn’t appear in the Nations League and, bar a few injuries in defence will most likely miss out on his first proper squad selection when the final cuts are made for the World Cup. However, at the age of 23, it is promising and an honour to be considered for minutes for a major nation’s first team, especially since Struijk’s youth appearances for The Netherlands were extremely limited as he only played 3 times for the U-17s.
Realistically, with only two full seasons of experience at the top level, it will be a tall order for Struijk to make the world cup squad, but inclusion in the provisional squad is a token of the effort and determination that he has put into taking his chances and to now be known as one of the first names on the team sheet at Leeds. Although, with van Gaal’s preference to play three central defenders in his sides paired with the likes of Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij and Virgil van Dijk getting older, don’t be surprised to see Struijk donning the tangerine shirt soon.