Luke Ayling missed few matches at the beginning of the season, still played 2615 minutes for Leeds United this season in the EFL Championship and has racked up 4 goals and 2 assists. Under Marcelo Bielsa, who also worked in the Ligue 1 and La Liga before, he plays a crucial role in the team.
Role in the team
Leeds United possess a strong characteristic of dominating possession and intensive pressing. They try to build out from the back in possession, using the progression of the full-backs. That’s where Luke Ayling excels at his duty. He has several weapons in his arsenal: he can pass down the line, picking the player on the same flank; he can take a square pass and find players on the weak side, where the team will progress the play; also, he can pass long accurately to the players up front. In general, his variety in progressing the ball makes Leeds United’s play more unpredictable and provides more options in possession.
When out of possession, Leeds United employs an aggressive pressing approach. They try to win the ball as soon as they lose possession. They also press high in defending. That’s where Ayling’s playing method, which is quite risky and aggressive, also fits in with Leeds United’s tactics.
As we mentioned above, Leeds United try to dominate in possession. They try to play out from the back even if they encounter pressure from the opponent. Hence, players are required to pass and keep possession even if the area is congested. What’s more, they are also required to move the ball forward, penetrating space even if the area is tight. Thus, players in Leeds must possess the ability to pass forward in a tight area and also have some solutions when facing different scenarios in the build-up stage. Ayling is one of them.
Playing in the defensive line, he can pass forward even if he is pressed and he has various solutions to progress the ball when encountering different scenarios. He has 56 passes per 90, ranking the 3rd in the league among all the laterals, with an accuracy of 81.38%. He also has 13.63 progressive passes per 90, which ranks the 1st among all the laterals in the league. Thus, ball progression is his biggest contribution to Leeds United.
As you can see from above, there are certain methods Ayling progresses the ball. First, he can pass down the sideline, picking his teammates on the same flank and later combines with his teammates using triangle attacking patterns on the flank. Also, he can pick a long pass diagonally to the front player on the other flank, where the opening exists. This helps create a 1v1 situation or even a numeral superiority on the other flank in an advance area. Furthermore, he can also make a square pass to the teammates on the weak side, using the weak side to progress the play. Now let’s take a look at a few examples.
In the above scenario, Ayling was not being pressed intensively at the right-back position. Thus he could handle the ball quite comfortably in the own third. He had time and space to look up and pick the teammate in the advance area, instead of just passing to the nearest supporting player.
Then he saw the teammate that positioned between the defensive line and the midfield line. Ayling then picked this teammate, passing to his strong foot, which helped progress the play furthermore in the advance area. This forward pass broke two lines in the opponent’s mid-block, directing the playing into the final stage. Then let’s check another analysis of his ball progression.
Featuring as a right centre-back in the above scenario, he was pressed by the opponent’s striker, whereas he still managed to be composed. The opponent’s block was congested around the right flank. Hence the left flank must have more opening. Then he passed long and diagonally to the left-winger, helping get the play into the final stage.
Off the ball movement as a full-back
Apart from progressing the ball when playing out from the back, he also contributes a lot in the final stage with his off the ball movement as a fullback. His contribution can be divided into two kinds: when the ball is on the left flank, he acts as the second lines on the right flank to support the attack; when the ball is on the right flank, he overlaps down the line to support his teammate and gives final passes or crosses to create some threats. He has 3.11 crosses per 90 with an accuracy of 37.3%, which is fairly good. Now first take a look at his overlapping run.
In the above scenario, there was a 2v3 numeral deficit on the right flank. The right-winger was on the ball and Ayling was also there to support. The three opponents crowded in to try to win the ball on the flank. Then Ayling scanned and recognised the space behind the three opponents and also a passing channel. Then he overlapped, running into the space behind the opponents and received the ball in an opening, following an accurate cross that created a goal-scoring chance.
The overlapping run is an effective weapon for Ayling. In the final stage of the attacking, it helps break down the defence and create chances. After finishing the analysis of the overlapping on the right flank, we now take a look at his supporting run when the ball is on the left flank.
In the above scenario, the ball was on the left flank. The area was congested with a lot of players. There was a potential switch-of-play action and Ayling recognised it. He was originally in the second line of attacking in the midfield area. Then he pushed up a little, waiting for his teammate to switch the ball out. He then successfully received the ball near the zone 14.
He was unmarked in this situation, so he had plenty of time and space to take a look at the surrounding and made a decision. Then he took a few touches, putting the ball into a useful position that he could shoot later. He pulled the trigger and shot, scoring a goal from zone 14.
Defensive approach and ball recoveries
Since they want to dominate in possession, Leeds employ quite an aggressive approach in defending. They press immediately when out of possession and they press everywhere on the pitch to gain possession as fast as possible. That means individually, players have to shorten the marking distance when they mark the matchups so that they can press immediately when the matchups got picked. What’s more, to win possession players must be aggressive. That’s what Ayling is like. He adopts quite an aggressive approach in defending while being anticipative to be the first to access to the ball for recoveries.
When he marks his matchup, he marks in a fairly short distance where he can press his matchup within a few steps. Also, when the opponent is facing backwards, he gets in very close to prevent turning, less than the length of an arm. Now let’s dive into an analysis of his aggressive approach.
In the above scenario, the opponent took possession from Leeds United in the back. They tried to pass forward with the winger dropping to active a counter. Thus the opponent winger dropped and tried to receive. Nevertheless, Ayling marked him tight in a short distance. He made body contact with his matchup to prevent him from turning. Ayling knew that he couldn’t be the first on the ball. Hence he poked the ball right after his matchup taking the first touch. He regained possession for Leeds just as the next image.
Ayling gained possession for the team using an aggressive approach. Also, he can use his anticipative approach in recovering the ball. He has 10.36 recoveries per 90, ranking the 7th in the league among all the laterals. He will first position himself in a useful position, keeping a short distance to the ball and the man he marks. Then he will get fast as soon as the ball is delivered. He tries to anticipate the trajectory of the ball and runs into it before his matchup. Now let’s take a look at an example.
In this scenario, Ayling featured as the right centre-back. He was marking ball side and goal side to the striker, keeping a short distance to him. He first positioned like this to secure the goal. Then the opponent tried to pick the striker as below.
Ayling anticipated the trajectory, stepping into it. He managed to be a bit faster to access to the ball in that he stepped up earlier than the striker. His anticipative approach worked and he successfully recovered the ball in the box, launching a counter from deep.
The issue to be concerned about
Under Leeds United’s tactics, players must take fewer touches to execute. However, Ayling sometimes can’t do this. He sometimes touches the ball too close to his feet, with too many touches. This kind of action wastes the time in progressing the play, just as the image below.
In this scenario, Ayling received the ball and took the first touch forward. Nevertheless, he kept the ball too close to his feet, so he couldn’t take the next touch as a pass. He handled the ball with more touches and the time and space were wasted. The opponent pressed and shadowed his forward passing option making use of his adjusting time. Then Ayling was forced to play backwards.
Leeds United currently sits the top of the table. Maybe they will make it into the Premier League next season. If so, we can expect to see Luke Ayling improve on his touches. Also, we can expect to see him continue to contribute in ball progressing for Leeds United.