On Saturday afternoon, Leeds will travel to South Wales to face Cardiff City as they look to make it back-to-back wins in the Championship and three in a row in all competitions. The Whites comfortably beat Birmingham City 3-0 on New Year’s Day, and followed that up by beating Peterborough by the same scoreline away from home in the FA Cup last weekend.
Leeds will have the opportunity to close to within four points of the promotion places if they win, with second-place Ipswich Town not in action until 17:30 and facing a tough game at home to fellow high-flyers Sunderland. Still, Daniel Farke won’t expect an easy ride against Cardiff, who picked up a 2-2 draw at Elland Road on the opening weekend of the season and sit just three points outside the play-off places themselves.
Farke has received a boost with goalkeeper Illan Meslier set to return after a three-match ban for his red card in the 2-1 Boxing Day defeat to Preston, while Sam Byram, Joe Gelhardt and Ian Poveda, who’s been ill, are all expected to make the trip across the Welsh border.
Cooper joins Struijk on sidelines
The bad news for Farke is that he’s looking somewhat light at centre-back, with Pascal Struijk set to miss a third consecutive game and Liam Cooper now considered a “major doubt”.
Phil Hay reports that Cooper missed training on Friday because of a groin problem, and his manager consequently expects to be without him against the Bluebirds.
Cooper’s leadership will be missed
Cooper has made 12 Championship appearances for Leeds this season and started seven of those, including the last two. While he hasn’t always been in the XI, the data suggests he may well be the best partner for Joe Rodon at the back.
Indeed, among Leeds’ defenders, only the Welshman has posted a higher passing accuracy (91.4% vs 90.8), more interceptions (1.4 per game vs 1.1), more blocks (0.9 vs 0.6) and won more aerial duels (2.6 vs 2.2). When Cooper starts, Leeds concede an average of less than one goal per game (0.86 to be precise, or six in seven games), but when he doesn’t, the average climbs to exactly 1.0 (19 in 19). That may sound like a small difference, but it can be decisive in the more difficult away games.
The Whites are reportedly interested in a deal to sign the left-back this month.
Cooper’s value also extends to the intangibles, of course, as the club captain. His fellow Scotsman Ally McCoist says his leadership skills are evident in how he organises the back four, calling him “brilliant” at “marshalling the troops at the back” and dictating the height of the defensive line. Indeed, that may be a big part of the reason for Leeds’ strong defensive record when he’s in the team.
Without Cooper, Farke could restore Charlie Cresswell to the side, but his lack of sharpness may be a concern given that he’s not started a match since August, so it seems more likely that he’ll drop Ethan Ampadu into the backline, where he’s also capable of operating.