Every season has its star performers. Just look at Leeds this year. The likes of Patrick Bamford, Jack Harrison and Kalvin Phillips impressed for the Mighty Whites. Yes, the rest of the team were good but they were something else.
Whether statistically speaking or simply contemplating the immeasurable impact these players offered with big moments either in front of goal, in moments of creative ingenuity or in defence, these players were exceptional for the Whites in 2020-21 and fired Leeds to ninth in the table as they proved to be one of the finest newly promoted teams the Premier League has ever seen.
But who are gearing up for big seasons in 2021-22 as Leeds look to build on the foundations of last year and kick on maybe even pushing for European football? So, today we’re giving you the three players we expect to be Leeds’ star men next campaign.
When fit, Rodrigo was a special talent in 2020-21 as best emphasised by his brace against Burnley. The Spanish attacker’s form led some to believe he should’ve featured in the Spain squad headed for the Euros.
His tally of seven goals is certainly not bad for someone who missed 12 games last year and started a bulk of his 26 league appearances off the bench. That tally was complimented by a further two assists and the four big chances he helped create demonstrating his ability to not only be a finisher but also a creative spark for others speaking to the versatility he could offer the Leeds attack next season either complimenting or battling with Bamford up top.
His versatility is also reflected in the variety of goals he scored this year. Two came with his head, one with his right and four with his left which is a wider spread than most forwards are able to conjure.
He also hit the woodwork a further four times which means he was just a whisker away from scoring 11 goals in 26 league games, which wouldn’t have been surprising considering his superb 39% shot accuracy which is in a similar ball park to golden boot winner Harry Kane’s 40% accuracy last term.
If he can stay fit next season he could very well be a revelation whether that’s as a natural front man in competition with Bamford or in another role. Either way, if he can get regular game time under his belt, I believe he’ll kick on.
No one really expected Struijk to impress at all in 2020-21. He’d done very little during Leeds’ promotion campaign and, with the reinforcements brought in at the back, it stood to reason he wouldn’t get anywhere near the starting XI. But that all soon changed thanks to the injuries Leeds suffered opening up an opportunity for Struijk to cement himself as a serious option at the back especially thanks to his ability on his left foot providing a two-footed partnership at the back that Marcelo Bielsa often prefers.
Last year, he provided real stability at the back in an everchanging back four conceding just 32 goals in his 27 appearances last season, perhaps down to his 49 tackles and his 61% success rate in the challenge. Those stats are complimented by his 47 interceptions, a tally higher than Kalvin Phillips’ record, 84 clearances and 106 duals won out of 200 contested.
With his confident left-foot, it’s more than a possibility that Struijk could become Marcelo Bielsa’s natural pick as left-sided centre-back. If he does, I fancy him to get even better next season. Over the winter his form attracted interest from Champions League chasing Leicester and he could be attracting interest from even bigger sides if he evolves like many have under Bielsa.
This guy just gets better and better. He quite rightly finds himself in Gareth Southgate’s England squad and could very well be their first choice in the number six role – if I was picking the team he would be. Very few players make the step up to the Premier League and immediately settle as quickly as him. He was instantly one of the best players in the league in his position. He masterfully sits in front of the centre-backs and is the fulcrum which Leeds revolve around. A year in the top flight will have only made him better and next year could be his best year yet if he avoids injury, especially if the stats are anything to go by.
When absent last year, Leeds struggled to keep the top teams at bay offensively. The Whites conceded plenty of goals against the big boys when he sat on the side lines conceding four to both Leicester and Arsenal whilst Struijk and others were forced to step into the gigantic hole he always left.
With other 1400 passes to his name, he’s also central to Leeds’ attack as the Whites pivot around him as they go forward at sheer pace. His 48 passes per game helped link attacks together as he averaged a pass every other minute being central to the possession heavy game Marcelo Bielsa plays.
In defence he was solid too with 45 interceptions in 29 games denying teams a way through the middle of Leeds helped by his huge 74 tackles and 155 duals won. This demonstrates his solidity at the heart of midfield and his importance to Leeds in defence last season.
That’ll only become more pronounced next season especially if he stays fit.