Marcelo Bielsa’s tactical system allows for a lot of versatility up and down the field and one Leeds United player who is reaping the rewards is right-back Luke Ayling, becoming a vital part of their promotion-chasing side.
The Argentine’s arrival at Elland Road in 2018 has seen a lot of players greatly improve in their output on the pitch for the Whites, with the likes of Liam Cooper, Kalvin Phillips, Gaetano Berardi, Mateusz Klich and others all showing much more than previous years.
One player that had always been revered as one of the most consistent members of the team since his arrival is right-back Luke Ayling, who joined under Garry Monk back in 2016.
Solid defensive displays from the former Bristol City man have helped shore up a side of the pitch that had a number of problems prior to him signing, but now Leeds have managed to bring in arguably one of the league’s top right-backs, and this season has proven that.
With Bielsa’s tactical setup allowing for a variety of attacking moves to take place, it has given both full-backs the chance to try their hand in the final third and Ayling has taken this opportunity with both hands, becoming an integral part of the way Leeds play in the Championship.
Despite starting the season recovering from surgery, he has slotted straight back into the side to become indispensable at right-back, and his stats outline this:
Ayling missed the first nine games through his recovery from surgery, to make his long-awaited return at the start of October when West Brom made the trip to Elland Road, and Ayling helped Leeds get back to winning ways with a hard-earned 1-0 win.
A 15-minute cameo saw him come on in place of Tyler Roberts to shore up the defence and since returning from injury, he has started all-but-two games this season, showing just how key to this side he is.
Ayling’s performances at right-back can be split down the middle, focusing on his defensive abilities and then his attacking prowess too. With his defensive efforts, he has been a massive part as to why Leeds have managed to keep the most clean sheets in the league and boast the best overall defensive record.
He has won a very impressive 70% of his defensive duels this season, with a solid 51.1% of his aerial duels being successful too. Ayling operates as a very advance right-back for Leeds and is often the start of many attacks from goal-kicks when either Illan Meslier or Kiko Casilla loft the ball to him on the flank, which often results in some contested headed battles as teams look to force Leeds into errors in defence; to keep his aerial success rate above 50% is commendable when he is put under the cosh an awful lot.
In terms of interceptions, Ayling’s reading of the game is something to admire, with an average of 4.71 per game, showing how well he is able to thwart opposition breaks to spring a Leeds counter of his own.
His defensive play has been brilliant ever since he joined Leeds but what has skyrocketed under Bielsa’s coaching is his attacking play.
Before Bielsa arrived, Ayling had never scored for Leeds but managed to break that duck in just his second home game under the Argentine. However, this season has seen a completely new dimension from the 28-year-old as he managed to both provide and get on the end of multiple Leeds attacks.
His tally for the season currently stands at six goals involvements, split into four goals and two assists. It was a slow start in the final third for Ayling until he sprung into life in December, notching his first real assist of the season when he teed up Stuart Dallas’ deflected strike on Boxing Day against Preston North End. The next game was where he kicked on, however, when Leeds made the trip to St. Andrew’s to face Birmingham City in a game that finished 5-4 to the Whites with some frantic end-to-end action.
Can you name the first goalscorer from Leeds’ last 16 seasons?
Aside from Leeds’ first goal, all of the others were scored or set up by full-backs, with Ayling scoring a stunning third for Leeds when he fired in the far corner from outside the box after controlling out wide, his first goal scored with his feet at Leeds. He then got to the by-line and forced an own-goal out of Wes Harding in the dying moments to put the visitors 5-4 to the good.
His recent goalscoring patch has been the most impressive stint of his career with three goals in his last five, coming against his former club, Bristol City, before back-to-back goals against Hull City and Huddersfield Town. His strike against Town will take some topping for Leeds’ goal of the season category after his flying volley crashed in off the crossbar.
Along with getting the ball in the back of the net, Ayling’s passing accuracy has been exceptional at 81.6%, whilst playing in some of the most high-traffic areas on the pitch and constantly playing high-risk passes to unlock defences.
When the passes aren’t on, Ayling’s been forced into using his own ability on the ball to beat men and create space, which he has done with an average of 2.34 progressive runs per game.
As right-backs in the Championship go, there aren’t many that have proven more reliable going both ways than Luke Ayling has for Leeds this season. Most who watch him will know that his recent glut in front of goal isn’t just a lucky run of things going his way, but more the fruits of his labour to get in the right positions time and again, this time paying dividends.