In this piece, Josh Hobbs tells us all there is to know about Red Bull Salzburg’s attacking midfielder, Brenden Aaronson. You can also watch a full scouting video on Aaronson over on our Patreon channel.
It’s widely known that Marcelo Bielsa and Victor Orta are not fans of the January transfer window. Neither man believes that good value signings are possible midway through the season, and in the case of Bielsa, he is generally uncomfortable with players joining the group late. This is particularly true if they are lacking sharpness, which many January signings are if they haven’t played much earlier in the season.
However, Leeds United find themselves in a much worse league position than would have been hoped for in the summer and are suffering an almost unprecedented level of injuries on top of that. Those factors — combined with the club’s failure to strengthen midfield in the summer — may force their hand in the window, and subsequently, several names are already being linked online.
One of those players in RB Salzburg’s US international, Brenden Aaronson. The 21-year-old fits the bill for the kind of player one would expect Leeds to be interested in. He’s an attacking midfielder, playing for an intense pressing team. He’s also the right age profile for them to be seeking for a squad in need of a refresh, and he’s played regularly in both the Austrian Bundesliga and European competition. This season he has played almost every minute of Salzburg’s six Champions League group stage matches.
As the link made a lot of sense to me, I’ve broken down the key areas of Aaronson’s game and how he might fit in at Elland Road, should Leeds make a move for him.
When looking at any attacking player, a shot analysis is always one of the first things I’ll do. In Leeds’ current situation, generating good shots has been a problem with a lot of low-value shots being taken from outside the area. These are often blocked, easily saved by the goalkeeper or missed completely.
The headline figures for Aaronson are that he has scored 3 times this season for Salzburg. However, he is underperforming his xG by almost half, racking up 5.55 xG’s worth of shots. He does have an additional two goals for the United States, though.
Here’s a look at his goals this season:
These goals show a player who makes good runs into the box. I particularly like the one against Canada where he slides into the six-yard-box as Leeds have not had enough runs like this from supporting forwards this season. Only Dan James’ goal against Spurs springs to mind.
In terms of shot volume, Aaronson takes 2.1 shots per 90 which is a little below Tyler Roberts’ 2.27 shots per 90 but is still a healthy volume for a player in the kind of role Aaronson would be expected to play under Bielsa. However, the American’s accuracy is low at 32%.
Looking at his shot map, it’s not hard to see why the accuracy is off:
As I have annotated, Aaronson is a player with a bad habit of taking a lot of shots from outside the box. He has had a lot of shots blocked which suggests poor decision-making to take on shots when he has bodies in front of him. When I took a look into this by watching all of his shots from this season, I found that was exactly what was happening. Too often he will turn down options to pass, only to shoot into a crowd of defenders:
In the examples above, I have annotated where I believe the 21-year-old had an option available who could have immediately increased Salzburg’s chances of scoring, by getting in behind the opposition defence. However, he doesn’t even appear to see them as he has a one-track mind to shoot.
The other examples don’t necessarily have better options but I still think shooting was wasteful when he could have recycled the ball and kept pressure on the opposition. Considering the number of players in the box at the time, scoring with a long shot was incredibly unlikely.
All that being said, I do like his shooting technique. It’s far better than Stuart Dallas’ or James’ shooting techniques: two of Leeds’ worst offenders in terms of wasteful shooting from outside the box. James struggles to get the ball out of his feet and gets little power on the ball, whilst Dallas often shoots whilst off balance and is extremely wayward.
The examples above show how cleanly he can strike the ball, which makes me feel that, although he’s not being clinical this season, he would be a consistent goal threat and there aren’t issues in his shooting technique. More goals will come for him, in my opinion.
Moving on to another vital part of the role, one would hope that anybody coming into the team as an attacking midfielder would be a good creator. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I see Aaronson as a potentially elite creator, but his creative numbers are good, if not outstanding.
He has 5 assists for Salzburg this season and this comes from an expected assists value of 4.17, so his chance creation has been good, even though his teammates have scored at a slightly higher rate than they would be expected to based on the chances he’s made.
The image above features all the open play chances that Aaronson has made for Salzburg this season. The thing that stands out for me is how spread out the chances are. There is a cluster of chances being created in the number 10 space on the edge of the area, but there are also a lot of chances from inside the area, down the sides of the six-yard-box. This suggests to me that Aaronson is somebody who moves across the line of the opposition, looking for gaps to run in behind. Watching all the chances he’s created, this turned out to be correct.
Below are some examples of the different kinds of chances he has created this season:
As you can see, he is a very intelligent mover off the ball and he can create from through balls, crosses and cutbacks. This kind of variety would be beneficial for Leeds as the attack has often lacked in imagination this season, and it’s easy to see Aaronson’s movements helping the system side of Leeds’ attack to work more smoothly again.
Looking a little more at his off-the-ball runs, Aaronson reminds me of Mateusz Klich.
When he passes the ball, he sets off quickly to receive it again in a more dangerous position. When his teammates have the ball, he often makes runs to penetrate the opposition’s defensive line. He also pulls wide to help overload the wings, which again would suit Leeds’ system perfectly.
I would go as far as to say that this part of his game might be his strongest. His constant movement makes him a threat that opponents can never switch off from. If they do, they will find he’s appeared somewhere completely different to where he was seconds before.
That being said, I don’t want to paint the picture of Aaronson being some kind of cold killer in terms of final third production. Whilst I like a lot of what I’ve seen, I have also observed a number of poorly executed passes that saw dangerous transitions break down, as well as some wrong choices around the edge of the box — like trying to go for complicated flicks or backheels instead of playing the simple pass. Add those issues onto the poor shot choices and he could be a very frustrating player on a bad day.
Above are just a couple of examples of some poor pass execution in transition. These are the kinds of moments that Tyler Roberts is heavily criticised for, so it would be interesting to see how the fans would take to Aaronson. I’d argue that there is enough quality in his game to let these moments slide, although they are frustrating when they happen.
Dribbling and Ball-Carrying
Another key part of the attacking midfield role in Leeds’ team is the ability to take the ball on the turn and carry it forwards. This is something Roberts does very well, and in preparing this report, I’ve particularly enjoyed Aaronson in this regard as well.
The US international loves to dribble. When receiving the ball, running with it seems to be the first thing he wants to do. Fortunately, it’s something that he is strong at. You may have noticed in a few of the other clips the way in which he can change direction quickly, whilst running at pace. Additionally, he’s got a very fast top speed and accelerates up to it rapidly, enabling him to beat his opponents from a standing start.
When taking the ball on the turn, he swivels from the hips, keeping his turning circle small and enabling him to keep the ball close to him. Comparatively, a player like Dallas receiving the ball on the turn in midfield has to take several touches as he isn’t as agile. Aaronson can take one touch and spin with the ball.
He is at his best when dribbling at speed, but notice in the examples above that his feet are quick enough that he can dribble in tight spaces as well.
His propensity to dribble means that he can win a lot of free kicks. However, he can also turn the ball over easily by over-running, or trying to take people on when he should progress the ball quickly. As well as that, he can look for fouls that he isn’t going to get or simply be weak on the ball. Below are a couple of examples where he turned the ball over too easily:
Can He Press?
Spoiler alert: he plays for Salzburg.
I have no concerns at all regarding Aaronson’s ability to fit into Leeds’ pressing system. He is an extremely willing presser. His lightning pace helps him to move quickly from one player to another as passes are made, and he is able to put a lot of pressure onto the ball receiver just as they look to control or release the ball. I would suggest that, if Leeds were to sign him, he would be the quickest to adapt to the pressing out of any of the new signings made since Bielsa arrived at the club.
My one concern with him in the man-marking system would be that he doesn’t seem particularly strong. I think he can be knocked off the ball when dribbling, and when it comes to attempting to knock an opponent off the ball — as he would often need to do in a man-marking system — I think he could struggle a little. Fortunately, he is very athletic and brings intensity and tenacity in the way he looks to win the ball back, so that can make up for some lack in terms of strength.
Should Leeds Sign Him?
Aaronson might not be my favourite option for this role as I would prefer somebody like Romain Faivre who I feel has more creative quality. However, I would definitely be happy to see Leeds sign Aaronson. I think he would fit the system perfectly and he would be an upgrade on Tyler Roberts quality-wise. Rodrigo is better as a creator but with him in the team, Leeds compromise the press. That wouldn’t have to happen with Aaronson.
The more prescient question is whether Leeds can get Red Bull to agree to any deal with them. The group are likely burned by their experience dealing with the Whites over Jean-Kevin Augustin. One would imagine that if they are prepared to negotiate, they will want most of their money up-front!
As for the cost, Salzburg paid just under £5 million for him in the summer of 2020. Transfermarkt now values the 21-year-old at £10.8 million and I would expect Leeds would probably need to pay at least £10 million if they wanted to make any deal happen. It may even need to be a bit higher than that, given the fact that the January window is not a buyer’s market.
Finally, there is the question of whether Aaronson would want the move. With Salzburg, he’s highly likely to win the league and his side are in the last 16 of the Champions League. He may prefer to stay there for this season and assess his options for the summer, rather than move to what couldn’t be described as anything other than a relegation battle. However, a move to the Premier League is likely to be highly tempting to most players outside top leagues.
It will be interesting to follow how this story develops over the coming month. It certainly feels like Leeds have to be active in the window but all fans can do is wait and see.
Be sure to check out Josh’s video scouting report on Brenden Aaronson here.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @JoshAHobbs
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