Only two players have consistently featured in the first team for Leeds United since 2014/15; Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper. Cooper has become a stalwart at Elland Road, the defender has amassed 239 appearances for the club since he signed in 2014. Cooper’s standing with the fans was very mixed when he signed from Chesterfield for £600,000 in August 2014 when he admits even he questioned whether he was good enough – it was under Marcelo Bielsa that he hit the ground running after struggling under previous managers and regimes.
The centre-back was named in the 2018/19 Championship Team of the Year under the Argentinian coach. Bielsa made Cooper an indispensable asset to the backline at Elland Road. The form continued into the Premier League, when he ended the season with the most interceptions (61) in the team. Cooper thanked Bielsa for turning around his career, and the club duly followed by handing him a five-year deal in 2019.
Cooper has been club captain at Leeds since the start of the 2017/18 season when he took over the armband from Liam Bridcutt, and he is now in the top five appearance-makers as Leeds United captain. This is especially impressive given Cooper has had plenty of injury problems during his time at Elland Road, but he has always been there through the key moments of the Bielsa era so far.
Liam Cooper’s 2020/21 season
Leeds’ defensive performances have been a rollercoaster since Bielsa was in charge of the club; because of his high intensity style, it often led to unfavourable results when teams found out how to beat the press – leaving the defence to be exposed. For the most part, whenever the defender has played, Leeds look better in defence. Cooper’s absence was felt in an 11-game stretch in February, where Leeds failed to keep a single clean sheet and conceded 38 goals. His leadership and composure on the ball are vital to a team that can be erratic at times, which again can lead to the defence having a lot of problems. This has especially been the case since Leeds were promoted to the Premier League, with the high-quality opposition finding it much easier to beat the press or play through United’s midfield. The majority of the team’s in England’s top league have pace to burn at the top end of the pitch and with speed not being one of Cooper’s strongest attributes, he has often looked sluggish, but this is more down to him being exposed by others and having to use one of his weakest attributes more often than he should have to. When it comes to the rest of his game though, Cooper is the best defender at Elland Road.
Liam Cooper’s 2021/22 season so far
Clearances: 82 (1st)
Interceptions: 26 (1st)
Blocks: 20 (2nd)
Pressures: 120 (1st)
Tackles: 24 (2nd)
The above shows that despite Cooper’s struggles with pace, he is Leeds United’s best defender. He ranks at the top of nearly all the defensive categories, including aerial duels which is not mentioned above. Cooper’s style is a mix of old school defending and modern ball playing; it is not a surprise that he himself said he feels comfortable playing under Steve Clarke in Scotland and at the same time under Marcelo Bielsa’s man-marking system at Leeds. His 6ft2 frame allows him to be very effective in the air – Bielsa once said he was the best header of the ball in the Premier League. Cooper ranks in the 92nd percentile for Aerial duels won among Europe’s top five leagues in the last 365 days among defenders. He also ranks in the 98th percentile for clearances among Europe’s top five leagues according to fbref.com
Along with his dominance in the air, Cooper wins 56% of his tackles against dribbles and he’s excellent in stopping his opponents ahead of him. Despite the general conception, the Leeds skipper is deceptively quick against attackers over a short distance with his acceleration much better than his speed. This allows the Scotland international to play on the front foot and you will often see him nip in front of attackers to win the ball. It’s over a longer distance than Cooper’s lack of speed shows, particularly with balls over the top, but when it comes to the small spaces and the one on one duels, United’s no.6 will more often than not come out on top.
Perhaps the most important trait Cooper brings to Leeds is his leadership and commitment to the club, setting a super example to the younger players at Elland Road. Leeds United’s Amazon Prime series ‘Take Us Home’ showed Cooper’s incredible leadership skills both on and off the pitch. His dedication to the team whether he is on the pitch or not is remarkable, with the Amazon series evidence of that when he sat out a game against Blackburn injured but played a huge part in a last minute victory from the sidelines, celebrating with the team like he had played the full game. It is his ‘team before me’ attitude that really shines through, prepared to do what it takes to get victory whether that involves him being on the pitch or not.
Focusing on Cooper the player rather than Cooper the leader can be tough, because his leadership qualities are so good. But when you look in detail at his career, the Scotsman’s injury history is quite a worrying one. Since 2018/19, the centre-back has missed over 234 days and 30 games for the club in a three-year span. He had played all 14 games this season prior to the recent match against Brentford where he picked up a hamstring injury in the 15th minute. The early signs or not good for the captain who now might not play again until well into the new year. In 2016/17 he featured in just 11 matches, and that is Leeds United’s lowest league position of the last decade, so the worry is now that Cooper’s absence could lead to a drop in form for the team. The only hope is that his impact from the sidelines and in the changing rooms will be enough to inspire his teammates.
The other side of this is Cooper’s aging years and the talent currently at the Leeds United Academy and in the Under-23 side. ‘Coops’ turned 30 in August and with Charlie Cresswell, Leo Hjelde and more likely Pascal Struijk set to feature while he spends time out injured, there is the possibility that by the time he returns, Bielsa may have stumbled across a new defensive unit. In fact, injury kept Cooper out of the majority of games at the tail end of the 2020/21 season which led to a partnership of Diego Llorente and Struijk. The pair combined to concede only eight goals in United’s last ten league games of the campaign, keeping clean sheets against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United while ending up top of the league’s form table.
So we ask ourselves, where does that leave Cooper? He’s already past 30 and his injury history as mentioned above leaves a lot to be desired. Replacing him should be easy even if the club doesn’t splash cash on an external transfer with Struijk, Hjelde and Cresswell on the books of the club. Cooper himself has already put his support behind Struijk to be the future leader of the club’s backline. This is what he had to say about the 22-year old Dutchman: “Pascal has absolutely everything to be one of the best centre-backs out there, he really has. He’s unbelievable on the ball, he’s strong, good in the air. I always knew. We all know now. His improvement speaks for itself. He’s got his head down, improved physically, his concentration levels are there and he puts everything into training. He’s reaping the rewards now and he deserves that. Obviously he’s got an incredible coach backing him but he’s doing everything on the pitch, training hard, getting his head in the right place and he’ll go on to be a top, top centre-half.”
So the succession plan for him is in place, but there’s no doubt Cooper’s leadership and experience will be needed by the club for at least the next couple of seasons. The best thing for Leeds to do is keep him at the club, but his role as a consistent starter should slowly diminish as he reaches the end of his contract in 2024, after that he himself has shown an affinity for mentoring the next generation at Elland Road. Don’t be surprised if Cooper is among the coaching staff at the club one day. For now, his playing future really depends on how the Whites cope without him in the team over the next couple of months. There is a strong argument to suggest they may be okay, but don’t be surprised if his absence is very evident, especially from a leadership and organisational point of view, which might lead Leeds to struggle more with team cohesion, and in turn, results. If I was a betting man, Cooper will be straight back into the team upon his return to fitness, because he is just too important to the side, and though the younger players offer their own strengths, the captain remains the rock in Bielsa’s well-oiled machine.