In this scouting report, Josh Hobbs tells us all there is to know about Huddersfield midfielder Lewis O’Brien, the latest player on Leeds’ radar. You can watch a full video scouting report on O’Brien over on our Patreon channel.
If it feels like Leeds United’s search for a midfielder has been rumbling on all summer, it’s because it has. In fact, it’s really been two summers.
When Leeds were first promoted to the Premier League, Twitter exploded with the news that Leeds had an interest in Rodrigo De Paul, who has since moved to Atletico Madrid. Whilst Leeds’ interest in the Argentinian appeared to go no further than enquiring on a price, he was linked to the club until it became clear he was signing for the Spanish Champions, despite the fact he was always a hugely ambitious target.
Although the links to De Paul ultimately came to nothing, Leeds came extremely close to signing Bayern Munich’s Mickaël Cuisance. A deal was agreed and the Frenchman flew to Leeds to complete a medical and sign his contract. Ultimately, the deal was pulled by Leeds as the club got cold feet after the medical. The story goes that the club discovered an issue they felt could lead to him missing significant minutes on the field but he subsequently signed for Marseille and didn’t struggle with injuries, although his move couldn’t be considered a success.
This summer, Leeds have been linked with all manner of names including Cagliari’s Nahitan Nandez, a player the club have always distanced themselves from. During the 20/21 season, Stade Brest’s Romain Faivre was mentioned but no move has been forthcoming for the former Monaco youngster.
Instead, the club concentrated on Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher and a loan deal was discussed as Victor Orta hoped to complete a deal for a player Bielsa is said to love. It seemed that Leeds were confident of securing their target but in the end, Gallagher chose to move to Crystal Palace.
This has now led Orta to Huddersfield’s Lewis O’Brien. The 22-year-old might not be anywhere near the level of signing De Paul would have been — or even the level that Cuisance had the potential to be — but the Englishman is an excellent young player in his own right and this report will show why he would be an ideal fit for Bielsa-ball.
In 2020/21, O’Brien missed the opening four games of the season with an injury and was brought into the team slowly, coming on as a sub for the next four. After that he started the next thirty eight games in a row, playing 90 minutes in all but two of those appearances, finishing with a total of 3,512 minutes played. As a comparison, Jamie Shackleton has featured for 1,385 minutes in league competition, just 39% of the minutes O’Brien completed last season alone.
This data profile from Analytics FC’s TransferLab shows O’Brien in a box to box midfield profile, compared to all centre midfielders in the Championship in 20/21.
As you can see, O’Brien is outstanding as a ball-carrier as he ranks in the 97th percentile for ‘carries (quality)’ and the 93rd percentile for ‘dribbles (quality)’. Any metric marked with ‘quality’ is measured by how each player affects the goal difference of their team through that particular action, rather than through pure volume.
Although O’Brien is a regular ball-carrier and does carry the ball at a very high volume — Wyscout ranked him 10th in the whole of the Championship for the metric with 3.22 progressive runs per 90 — most importantly his runs often lead to goal scoring opportunities, which I will expand on later.
Aside from ball-carrying, O’Brien stands out for his progressive short-passing as he ranks in the 88th percentile for this metric. According to Wyscout, progressive short-passing is any pass that moves the ball a minimum of 10m closer to the opposition goal up to a maximum length of 40m. Notably, the Huddersfield man scores poorly for progressive long-passing, so these two metrics begin to give us a picture of a player who moves the ball forwards through lots of short passes and through running with the ball.
We can also see that O’Brien ranked highly (85th percentile) for touches in the final third, suggesting he’s a player who causes danger. This saw him return 3 goals and 3 assists from midfield last season at a rate of 0.08 per 90 in each case.
Although this might not seem an impressive amount, it should be remembered that Huddersfield finished in 20th place in the Championship last season and Huddersfield only scored 50 goals in total. O’Brien’s 6 goal contributions meant that he was involved in scoring or assisting 12% of The Terriers’ total goals last season. For reference, Stuart Dallas contributed to 16% of Leeds’ and Mateusz Klich 14%. This suggests that O’Brien’s output could scale well into Bielsa’s side.
Regarding defensive output, the data alone doesn’t quite tell the story because it only covers ‘on-ball events’. We can see that the midfielder is a very effective tackler, ranking in the 80th percentile for ‘tackles (quality)’ and sitting around average for interceptions and ‘1v1 defending (quality)’.
However, what O’Brien is most effective at as a defender is something that TransferLab doesn’t quantify. He is a superb presser. Were O’Brien playing in the Premier League we’d be able to see where he ranked for ‘pressures per 90’ due to fbref.com’s Statsbomb data. In any case, I’m extremely confident that O’Brien would put up Klich-like levels of pressures (21.44 per 90) were he playing for Leeds. The fact he is playing for Huddersfield under ex-Leeds assistant and U23s manager Carlos Corberan seems to have prepared him perfectly for being a possible cog in the Bielsa-ball machine.
As I can’t demonstrate this further in the data, let’s move to the eye-test part of the report.
If you’ve never watched him before, you’ll notice in these clips that O’Brien is short in stature, standing at only 1.73m or 5 feet 8 inches. However, whilst he’s lacking in height he has excellent upper body strength, lightning pace and plays with ferocious intensity, as shown by the way he presses:
In these clips, there are several examples where O’Brien presses the ball all the way back to the goalkeeper, and in fact, there are examples of this happening in almost every single game.
It is common to see Jack Harrison make these kinds of lung-busting sprints to keep pressure on the ball and the fact that O’Brien is doing it already would likely cut his adaptation time when it comes to Bielsa-ball. Pressing to such a level is something that many new signings aren’t used to. This is clearly not the case for O’Brien. He is already suffocating opponents with his desire to win the ball back as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, I had to cut the end off several of these clips to make them fit into one GIF but many of these end with the ball being turned over to Huddersfield as the opposition were forced to boot the ball long and the loose ball was subsequently recovered. Again, this is why O’Brien’s defensive metrics don’t stand out as much on his TransferLab profile — despite him being an excellent defender for a game played at Bielsa’s intensity. He doesn’t win the ball often himself, but it’s his actions that cause his side to win the ball.
Another thing to notice in the clips is that he presses intelligently as well as intensely. Sometimes players can work hard to press the ball but run in straight lines too often, allowing their opponents to bypass them too easily. O’Brien doesn’t do this. He curves his runs at high speed, ensuring to cut off the passing lanes whilst also closing down the space of the ball-holder.
As mentioned in the data section, O’Brien’s primary on-ball strength is his ball-carrying ability. When referencing his physical stature, I already mentioned that he’s on the small side but similarly to how it assists him as a presser, I think it’s part of what makes him a great ball-carrier.
Of course, there is the speed at which he covers ground, which can see him pull away from chasing opponents but more than that it’s the way he’s able to manipulate his body, quickly darting away and through the middle of multiple opponents, even in packed midfield areas.
When he is engaged physically, his low centre of gravity and a bit of stockiness means that he’s able to stay on his feet and keep driving with the ball. If he is knocked to the ground, it’s not uncommon to see him bounce straight back up, whilst still keeping the ball at his feet. A great example of this came as he assisted the goal which got Leeds promoted:
Filip Krovinovic attempted a cynical barge on O’Brien here but the Terriers’ man was not to be deterred. Although he was knocked off his feet, he barely lost his stride and powered into the space ahead before picking out the pass for Smith Rowe to score the goal that sent Leeds fans around the world into raptures.
As these clips show, O’Brien can cover a lot of ground whilst carrying the ball, often making runs that take him from inside his own half all the way to the edge of the penalty area.
You can see that he can turn quickly with the ball, keeping it nice and close to his body as he turns and protecting it from being stolen away before bursting forwards. He’s also good at baiting defenders in by letting them think he’s going to go back towards his own goal, before suddenly spinning and accelerating.
When he does accelerate, he has long, powerful strides for a person of his height and this helps him to maintain his speed over distance.
It’s notable that all the midfielders Leeds have been linked with are strong ball-carriers. It seems clear that this is something that has been identified as an attribute Leeds see as important in any new number eight and O’Brien is clearly excellent in this regard.
One issue can come at the end of these runs though. Quite often they can end with him making the wrong decision and going for a poorly executed shot. A couple of the clips demonstrate this issue. I will show later that he is a danger with his shooting but after carrying the ball he is shooting with tired legs and it tends to dribble towards the goalkeeper.
There is an example of him playing a through ball to a teammate who just misses the target, as well as the assist for Smith Rowe earlier. These are the decisions he needs to learn to make more often after his excellent runs.
As mentioned in the data section, O’Brien is a very good ball progressor through his short passing. However, he isn’t so concerned with progressing the ball that he won’t do the simple things and keep possession ticking over.
At times, Leeds can be so concerned with getting the ball forwards quickly in transitional moments that they turn the ball over far too often and never really have control of possession and subsequently the game. This can put a lot of pressure on the defence, who are constantly having to fight off counterattacks.
Adam Forshaw was always a reliable player to put a foot on the ball and slow down the tempo at times if needed. O’Brien is probably more similar to Mateusz Klich in possession, but there are elements of Forshaw-like characteristics to slow the play down in O’Brien’s game as well.
Below are some clips of O’Brien receiving the ball and quickly moving it on to keep possession going.
There were some opportunities here to play more directly or to carry the ball but instead, O’Brien chose to play the pass to the teammate in the closest vicinity, often passing laterally.
Of course, too many lateral passes are a problem as it stops a team going forwards but Leeds aren’t in any danger of too many of those at the moment.
As shown in these clips above though, he has the ability to be safe and secure in possession but also to get the ball forwards and be aggressive with it.
As always with more direct passing, this works out with varying degrees of success. Sometimes he will try to force a through ball through a packed defence and lose possession, but other times he is capable of picking the right pass and weighting it perfectly to give his teammates the best opportunity to score.
Note as well that he often engages in quick one-twos before looking to break the opposition’s defensive line. This sudden change in tempo can unsettle opponents enough to allow that final pass, and it’s something we often see when Mateusz Klich is on top form.
Playing at All Heights of the Pitch
Another part of O’Brien’s game that makes him a great fit for Bielsa-ball is his versatility. He did play a small number of minutes at left back but more importantly than that, he played minutes across all three midfield roles that both Bielsa and Corberan utilise in their usual midfield setup.
Primarily, he has played as a box to box number eight but he also started some games as the deepest midfielder and even as the more attacking midfielder at times. I am particularly interested in his ability to play in the deeper role, as aside from the times Adam Forshaw played there, Kalvin Phillips has always been covered by central defenders stepping up the pitch rather than a more natural midfielder. Forshaw seems to be fit now, but we don’t know whether he will be able to remain so yet, so it would be very beneficial to have a player like O’Brien able to cover Phillips.
Those that have seen my video report of Lewis Bate might note that I raise concerns about his height in playing in the defensive midfield role. I don’t think that would be an issue in the case of O’Brien because other areas of his physicality are exceptional.
Whilst he doesn’t have the long passing of Phillips, he can clearly progress the ball in other ways and importantly, he is comfortable coming to receive the ball facing his own goal in deep positions.
In fact, as you will see in the next clips, he’s comfortable receiving the ball at all heights of the pitch.
In one of the clips, I’ve added a magnifier to show how O’Brien scans his surroundings as the ball comes towards him. This is very important and what makes him so good at receiving the ball facing his own goal. He is very aware of the whereabouts of his opponents and his teammates and this allows him to make the best decisions possible in these scenarios.
As you will have noticed, his go-to move is to release the ball with his first or second touch and immediately scurry into space to receive it again, this time hopefully able to progress it forwards.
On the whole, he’s a very clean receiver of the ball and is happy to take the ball in congested areas, although one potential issue is he has a very strong preference for his left foot and isn’t quite so adept at taking it under control and moving it quickly again if he has to receive it on his right.
Returning to the data profile, O’Brien ranks pretty much bang on as average for expected goals compared to other midfielders in the Championship, so he doesn’t get a huge amount of chances to score.
However, he does still offer a goal threat as he has a very nice ball-striking technique on his favoured left foot and can regularly trouble goalkeepers from the edge of the penalty area. As I stated earlier, his shots at the end of long carries can be poor but when he is running onto the ball he is far more effective, as you will see in some of the clips below.
I have also included a couple of examples of him getting opportunities to score by making runs ahead of the ball. This is something that Stuart Dallas did extremely well in his stint in midfield in 20/21 and an area of the game that Mateusz Klich has been lacking in a little since his first season under Bielsa in 18/19.
I don’t anticipate O’Brien regularly scoring double figures in single seasons if he signed for Leeds but I would expect he could score 7–8 goals a season in a similar fashion to the ways I have mentioned.
What Would His Role Be in the Squad?
Now that I’ve given you an overview of his play-style, it’s important to address where he would stand in the pecking order.
My personal feeling is that he would quickly challenge for a starting role in the midfield. I may be wrong, but I think Rodrigo being played in midfield has always been a temporary measure, and presuming Junior is fit, the best midfield combination at the moment is Dallas and Klich.
Although Rodrigo is far superior creatively, the Dallas and Klich partnership still has creativity from Klich and far better balance and pressing, which is vital to The Whites playing well. O’Brien could easily slot in for either one of those two and would likely get a good number of starts doing so.
If I’m wrong and Rodrigo is seen as a primary option in midfield this season, I still think there will be many opportunities for O’Brien to start given that Dallas will surely have to cover left back at times and Klich has played a huge amount of minutes over the last 3 seasons and began to struggle with knocks in the Premier League.
Jamie Shackleton is an option in midfield as well, of course, but I say this as a huge fan of Shackleton: O’Brien is better. He has racked up far more first-team experience than Shackleton in a very similar time frame and established himself a leader in his team. One could point to Shackleton’s years under Bielsa as an advantage to the Leeds youngster but O’Brien is already Bielsa-ball ready. I can’t think of a midfielder who would adapt to Leeds’ system quicker than him.
Even if he didn’t start many games in 21/22, I’d be confident of him starting at least 5 and making a good number of substitute appearances, preparing him for a much bigger role in future seasons. This is particularly important given that all three of Klich, Dallas and Rodrigo are over 30 years old. Leeds need more pre-peak players capable of playing in midfield roles. This just makes sense.
What Represents Good Value?
When Alan Nixon first tweeted that Leeds were moving for O’Brien after the Gallagher deal went cold, the mooted asking price was £10m. This is certainly expensive for a young player plying their trade for a side competing near the bottom of the Championship. Leeds seem to think that too and rumours were that Leeds went with a bid of £3m.
Whilst the asking price is certainly high, that offer is way off the true value of the player so it’s no surprise that a deal wasn’t agreed there. I could see a deal being done for £6–7m but honestly, I wouldn’t be upset if Leeds did pay closer to the asking price if they needed to. I don’t think they ultimately will, but I would think that O’Brien would quickly be worth double that if he kicked on in the Leeds team and was playing regularly in the Premier League before the age of 25.
For now, the deal doesn’t seem to be progressing, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see the clubs come back to the negotiating table soon, given how well O’Brien fits the way Leeds play.