This latest scouting report from Stephen Russell gives us the lowdown on Leeds’ latest signing — Norwegian defender Leo Hjelde.
Traditionally, centre backs are not the most exciting signings. They’re not the players that shift shirts nor are they the players that fans turn up in droves to see. Additionally, it’s very rare that a signing only just turned 18 could be someone that draws attention. However, exciting is exactly the word I would use to describe Leeds United’s latest acquisition, Leo Hjelde.
The Norwegian 18-year-old comes from Celtic who, despite the occasional misdemeanour like Shane Duffy, need to recruit progressive ball-playing centre backs to maintain the dominant, attacking football expected of them in the mostly mismatched Scottish Premiership. Van Dijk honed his skill set with the Hoops before eventually breaking the record fee paid for a defender.
Kristoffer Ajer similarly plied his trade north of the border (for both Celtic and briefly on loan for Kilmarnock) before convincing Brentford to break their own record fee for his signature. While Hjelde had not been at the club long enough to break into the first team, or even make the same giant strides in development, he did follow in the footsteps of Ajer with a loan move to another side in the same division: Ross County.
Tactical Context: Ross County’s System
Ending the season just three points clear of the relegation playoffs, County are a side that need to defend. A lot. Their man-oriented style requires players who are both competent and confident in 1v1s, so drafting in a player of this ilk with no senior minutes as back-up in January was an interesting choice, over the usual tried-and-trusted traditional defenders that are all but synonymous with relegation battles.
This move was part of a clear plan, however, as manager John Hughes proceeded to give Hjelde 1,088 first-team minutes at left back instead of centre back throughout the pair’s respective 6-month contracts.
County’s system revolves around its simplicity. Their most common shape through the season (4–1–4–1) was only used 19% of the time, with regular switches between a back three and a back four. These changes primarily come from assessing the opposition. A back three was used 5 times while Hjelde was there; 4 of these occasions matched the opposition’s style and the other was deployed against league leaders Rangers.
The consistency in style comes from how the team man-mark within their block and the simplicity that brings for players. The following screenshots give insight into how this works:
Firstly, County’s ball-near wide midfielder and the defensive midfielder are tight to their men, with the ball-near centre midfielder screening his. The ball-far centre midfielder and wide midfielder are looser, maintaining the general midfield shape. Dundee United look to exploit the man-oriented approach by shifting their wide midfielder inside and freeing up the left back (this passing lane is highlighted in red).
The ball is played wide, and Dundee’s wide midfielder makes the underlapping run. County’s right back looks to press the ball receiver while their centre midfielder tracks the run. This rotation from Dundee United looks to expose the weakness by having to leave the space behind to track your man.
Ross County’s right back pressures the ball receiver quickly enough to not allow him to turn and this forces him to play a backwards pass. This makes the move go stale, so County pre-empt the switch and look to tighten up on the ball-far side. It is clear from this that County’s objective out of possession is defensive discipline within a system that has a focus towards man-marking — something that Leeds fans will be familiar with.
Last August, Jon Mackenzie detailed the principles behind Leeds United’s defensive system. While sending Hjelde to play in a man-oriented system was a strange decision for an up-and-coming Celtic player, this experience will undoubtedly be beneficial as a stepping stone to becoming a fully-fledged student at the school of Bielsa.
Of course, this comes with the expected caveat of the league quality. The image to the left shows the spread of Elo ratings (www.clubelo.com); essentially a barometer of team/league strength.
Recently, some players have left the Scottish Premiership to immediately impress at a high level — most notably Kieran Tierney — but as a relatively inexperienced 17-year-old, it might do Hjelde some good to mix with the other talented youth at Leeds before challenging for the first team.
What can be expected?
At a glance, you wouldn’t be wrong to say Hjelde has got the makings of an all-around defender. Physically, he’s tall (measuring around 6'2"), strong and quick. His acceleration is specifically good, which plays into some of his better defensive traits — more on this later. Good balance and a low centre of gravity help him compete in 1v1 duels, and he’s surprisingly agile for a defender of his size.
When it comes to approaching 1v1 situations, Hjelde is confident but still naïve in some ways. While it’s expected he would be encouraged to be more active pressing at Leeds anyway, his tendency to overcommit early landed him in trouble on several occasions at Ross County. The following screenshots show an instance of this that works as a good representation of what can generally be expected of him.
Here, you can see Hjelde has drifted centrally. Being left-footed, he is able to receive the ball and open his body to circulate possession (we’ll discuss the benefits of this more later). He’s in an advanced position as the opposition are sat deep.
The misplaced pass is pressed by the opposition forward. Hjelde initially steps forward to receive it but realises that the misplaced pass is too far away, and he needs to manage the transition.
This is where the error occurs. Hjelde drops off initially and then approaches the duel, which is fine. However, he gets too close while the attacker has the ball under close control and is caught with his weight shifted too far onto his weak foot. The forward capitalises on this by switching direction and accelerating. If Hjelde attempted to tackle at this point, he would more than likely concede a foul or leave himself with too great a distance to make up.
He (correctly) opts to chase back.
His superior speed allows him to catch the ball carrier, showing him wide first and then blocking the cross to concede a corner.
While this example showcases his inexperience and eagerness, it also showcases his recovery skills. With a step up in opposition quality, mistakes approaching a duel will need to become less frequent for Hjelde to succeed, but knowing a defender has the capability to recover in transition is critical for Bielsa’s philosophy.
There is something to be said for Hjelde’s urge to attack the pass so quickly, however. His reading of the game — which is advanced for a player of his age — paired with his quick reactions, led to him rattling up quite a high number of interceptions. When adjusted for possession, Hjelde notched up 7.4 interceptions per 90 minutes played. After being adjusted the same way, only one Leeds player (minimum 90 mins) ranked higher: Liam Cooper, who made 8.0 possession-adjusted (PAdj) Interceptions p90.
This series of screenshots shows how effective Hjelde is at intercepting, as well as how progressive he is after regaining possession.
This example shows a narrow runner leaving Hjelde isolated, with his man running at him and the ball carrier approaching.
His man pulls his run inwards looking to pull Hjelde in and expose the wing for the late-arriving runner. You can see Hjelde already aware of this and looking towards it.
Making the move early results in Hjelde intercepting the ball and then looking to bring it out.
He then sprints down the wing with his head up looking to immediately launch a counter.
This leads to the most promising part of Hjelde’s game: his ball progression. As in the above example, his touch and movement on the ball are comfortable and confident. His awareness is excellent, and he scans for forward passes frequently.
There’s only so much that can be extrapolated from a half-season sample of games at left back in a passive team with generally weak build-up play but there are still plenty of positives to be seen. The following example for instance highlights his acute awareness of how best to break through a defensive block.
Hjelde intercepts the ball here and looks to bring it forward. There is space between the lines and he has three realistic passing options. The widest options either side would most likely eventually result in a backwards pass, so would generally be used to maintain possession. Passing to midfielder Harry Paton (number 24, nearest to the camera) could be an okay progressive option but with the opposition player fairly close and goal-side of him, there’s a higher risk if he opens his body when receiving the ball in an effort to progress.
Uninspired by the options, Hjelde beats the first line and carries the ball into the space. This opens up more vertical passing options in the centre but also draws two opposition players out of position as they try and compress the space. The pass wide to Paton is now significantly more appealing with his man pulled away, as he can openly carry the ball forward upon receiving.
Hjelde however goes for the most instantly progressive option, attempting to play the striker through in the gap created by the out of position defenders. His execution was lacking in this example and he overhit the pass, but the intelligence to break lines and open up progressive options is impressive nonetheless.
There is, of course, a different pressure trying to break into the final third than there is in your own box. The following example shows his composure in his very first game for County against an in-form Rangers at Ibrox.
Hjelde, tucked in left of a back 3 here, covers the runner arriving in the box.
Aware of the player close to him, he tracks the cross and correctly assesses that he has the time to open his body to better receive the ball.
He then plays a first time lobbed pass to pick out his teammate in space behind Rangers’ front line and immediately looks to push the defensive line forward. This calmness under pressure is a vital skill for players whose teams want to retain the ball in their own halves.
Why is he so in demand?
Hjelde’s stock is high. Rumoured interest came from several interesting locations across Europe.
There are a couple of key reasons for this that can essentially be summed up in one word: scarcity. There simply aren’t many youth prospects in defence who: 1) have over 1,000 first team minutes, 2) can progress the ball and 3) are left-footed. The first two explain themselves — 17-year-olds being trusted with first-team experience are few and far between, and modern and progressive centre backs are becoming more desirable with each passing season. The third, however, deserves more of an explanation.
The above screenshot is an isolated instance of why left-footed players on the left are important. Tom Worville goes into it in detail for the Athletic here but at the crux of the matter, it’s to do with possession circulation. Pinned in at the touchline, like Hjelde above, a right-footed player likely wouldn’t be able to make the same pass comfortably.
More centrally, it’s easier to avoid a pressing striker if the ball naturally curves away from instead of towards the player. Additionally, when playing on the left-hand side, the angle of passes you can feasibly make is simply larger. That’s not to say there aren’t benefits of inverting this — Tom Worville and Michael Cox discuss this here — but aside from these specific tactical quirks, lefties on the left is ideal for playing out from the back.
It is more common to see right-footed players on the left than the reverse, and this links back to the initial argument: left-footed players are less common. Of all the players InStat deemed to be capable at centre back in the Premier League last season, only 20% are left-footed (with 4% having no preference).
None of this is a guarantee that Hjelde will be a success, of course, but the odds are certainly stacked in his favour. Most defenders who aren’t first-team ready are not worth getting excited about but most defenders who aren’t first-team ready are not Leo Hjelde.
You can check out Stephen’s Twitter page here: @SRFootball_
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