Chances are you’ve heard someone wax lyrical about Leon Bailey this season. The 20-year-old winger’s transfer from Genk to Bayer Leverkusen in January of 2017 wasn’t an attention grabber outside of certain circles but, since then, he has certainly gained many new admirers.
Through 25 games Bailey has notched 9 goals and 6 assists in 1841 minutes, with solid expected numbers underlying that. He’s established himself as a mainstay in this resurgent and entertaining Leverkusen team. When everything’s clicking the lad is a thrill to watch, turning defenders inside out and causing widespread panic amongst the opposition. There’s still plenty of time for him to grow too. Whether it be this summer or next there’s no doubt the biggest clubs in Europe will be circling around the BayArena soon enough, large briefcases of cash in hand. So let’s take a look at what they’d be getting, shall we?
Bailey’s versatility as a dribbler makes him stand out from his peers, showing very impressive balance when dribbling on his left foot no matter what area of the pitch he’s occupying. Even with guys draped on him and hugging him, he’s able to keep his momentum going. His acceleration is impressive once he collects the ball from his left foot post-dribble. Having these almost gazelle like strides with his legs, so he can cover ground quite quickly once he gets his motor going.
Bailey maintains that same impressive balance as in other areas of the pitch. He posts 0.83 completed dribbles per 90 as part of transition possessions (possessions that start with the team gaining the ball in their own half and culminate in the opposition’s defensive third within 15 seconds), a solid amount – Naby Keita leads the league with 1.24. Even if it’s only 34% of his completed dribbles, not a huge chunk compared to his peers. During counter attacking scenarios in which a dribble is completed, he’s a dual threat to both pass and shoot, more times than not picking the better option and not settling.
His average vertical distance covered with dribbles isn’t particularly high. About bang in the middle of the pack amongst players with minimum 30 dribbles completed. However, when looking at ‘carries’ (the vertical distance between where a player receives a pass and where their next action takes place, no ‘take-on’/’dribble’ involved), you see some more value. Bailey has around 1.08 ‘long carries’ (carrying the ball over at least 20% of length of the pitch) per 90, one of the higher counts in the league. He’s like lightning when he spies an opening.
The majority of this takes place in the opposition half. His aggregate numbers in terms of moving with the ball from deeper areas are low. One example: he takes part in a relatively small percentage of Leverkusen’s possessions that end in the final third, yet he participates in 29% of their possessions that lead to a shot, the third highest such percentage in the league. This is all really just a case of how he’s used. If given a bigger role in terms of progressing play he’s a good bet to get out of those situations and advance the ball with his intersection of balance + speed + 5’11 frame. He’s shown as much already. This could be of great benefit for a team that doesn’t have a set structure in possession and rely on talent to beat opponents (Arsenal or Man United come to mind).
He leads the Bundesliga in post-dribble passes into/intra the opposition box + post-dribble box shots (around 0.83 per 90, the majority of which are passes. More on that stat here), as well as being top 5 in terms of dribbles into/inside the box. He also has solid carries into the box and post-carry box shot numbers. When entering the penalty area, he can stop his momentum on a dime and fake a shot/pass to set up his next action.
Most of the time he’s receiving passes out wide in advanced areas. This is representative of his role in non-transition play: when he gets on the ball it’s with the intention of disrupting the opposition shape or creating. The Leverkusen players who receive the ball in advanced central areas for linkup play are more generally their strikers and Julian Brandt. Compare where the two ‘wingers’ receive passes and you get the idea. Both can operate on different sides but the level of involvement is different, with Brandt coming infield more often.
When he does get the ball out there he’s liable to make an incisive pass into the halfspace or penalty area while maintaining a live dribble or stay on the touchline/wide area. He has the highest dribble success rate on the left flank (including left halfspace) of any player in the league with 30 or more attempts, along with the 5th highest success rate on the right flank. His credibility as a crosser makes it so if he hugs the touchline or is being shaded to the side, he can deliver crosses into the penalty box. On the left wing, he’s very left footed dominant (favored foot) but he does use his right foot when it comes to combination dribbles.
More on that crossing. From the right flank he’s created 7 chances (a key pass or assist) and operates at a 37% completion rate, the 3rd highest amongst players with 20 or more crosses attempted. From the left he clocks in at 6 chances created at a rate of 24% – about average for the league – but the fact that he can hold up from both sides of the pitch and especially in deeper areas (with plenty room to grow at his age, of course) is impressive. Leverkusen are solidly middle of the pack in terms of team-wide crossing completion rate, so team effects neither here nor there really. This threat he provides means that, even when he’s shaded to the sideline by opponents, he can get around them and move into more advantageous areas to cross the ball or even do cutbacks.
Bailey’s numbers from set pieces reflect a similar dichotomy. He does most of his work from right-sided corners (12 chances created at a 55% completion rate, both very good tallies for his high amount attempted) and around average or below for the Bundesliga from the left (3 chances created, 30% completion rate). Obviously set-piece design and team factors will play a part, but there’s clearly a quality of delivery here that inflates his value even more for potential suitors.
Because of Bailey’s galloping runs from the right hand side that end up in shooting opportunities, comparisons have been made between himself and Arjen Robben. The fact that he’s one foot dominant as well with his shooting also helps strengthen the comparison. But Bailey isn’t quite a one trick pony as his one foot dominance might suggest, he’s also quite comfortable coming in from the left hand side as well and taking shots.
One of the more fascinating aspects with Bailey’s shooting is with his ability to create his own shot off the dribble in times where the offense stalls and getting a 9-11% quality shot is all that can be had. His pure speed during counter attacks pushes defenders back so much that he can size up his next move and get his shot off. He isn’t always picking out the most efficient shots in the world though.
He can also get on the end of throughball passes from teammates that few others would be able to because of his long strides and top end speed. He’s been the shot-taker at the end of 19 transition possessions, one of the highest tallies in the league (although he could pick his spots better as only 12 were in the box, resulting in 3 goals). During non-transition scenarios, he’s also got good ability in terms of timing his runs near the penalty area and making himself available for potential passes.
Bailey is a top-notch example of flexibility within the ‘winger’ mould. He provides real attacking threat from multiple areas of the pitch and through various means. There’s kinks in his game that need working out, mainly in his decision-making. But the baseline level of talent he already has at his age? Truly intriguing for all sorts of prospective buyers, especially ones with coaches who can extract more from him. Wherever he’s playing next season though, one thing’s for sure: you should give the guy a look. He’s great fun.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy the last few weeks of the season!