Sky Sports pundit Danny Mills has backed Marcelo Bielsa to hand Luke Ayling his first start of the season in the wake of losing Leeds United captain Liam Cooper through a groin injury.
The Whites leader is set for up to six weeks on the sidelines after Bielsa was forced to replace the Scotland international midway through his side’s victory over promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday night.
Gaetano Berardi was the man to whom Bielsa turned in search of someone capable of occupying the void alongside Ben White in the core of his defence, with the 31-year-old Swiss centre-half going on to win one of three attempted tackles, as well as his sole aerial duel, and complete 10 of his 14 passes, as per WhoScored data.
Ayling, meanwhile, made his season debut as a late substitute for Tyler Roberts after the 20-year-old was brought off 29 minutes after being introduced.
Mills has now backed Bielsa to field Ayling from the off over Berardi at Millwall on Saturday after the natural right-back made his first outing back from the ankle knock sustained in pre-season (Leeds Live).
Speaking with Football Insider, Mills said: “I think Luke Ayling is a good footballer, obviously there’s a slight injury to Liam Cooper and Ayling can slip back into centre half. He’s good on the ball, [and] I’ve always liked his calmness on the ball even before Bielsa came in.
“I think he’s got decent ability, I think he’s never let Leeds down, works hard, just signed a new contract, he likes the football club, he likes living in and around Leeds. Now that he’s fit, it adds more competition for places.
“You don’t want to lose any of your good players but maybe it’s perfect timing, Ayling’s back fit, you’ve got Berardi on the bench and you’ve got an international break coming up. If you can get through that, get a couple of weeks’ rest, there’s every chance he’ll be fit after that.”
While Ayling is a natural right-back, he has played as a centre-half on 90 occasions throughout his professional career (TransferMarkt), including thrice under Bielsa last season against Swansea City, Queens Park Rangers and Bolton Wanderers.
In his sole Championship outing in the role against Swansea, the 28-year-old also won each of his two attempted tackles, made two interceptions and won two of five aerial duels, as per WhoScored data, showing he can play there if needed.
Bielsa may not want to risk rushing Ayling back into the first-team fold purely as cover to a position where there is a more natural option to hand in Berardi or defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips, though.
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