In this article, Tom Alderson looks over Luke Ayling’s time in the Premier League to see just how good he is…
Since standing in front of the cameras looking like he wished the ground would swallow him up following Leed’s 2–0 defeat to Nottingham Forest in February, Luke Ayling has been a symbol of Leed’s progress over the last nine months. From scoring three goals in five games pre-lockdown including THAT goal vs Huddersfield, to running the length of the pitch to create THAT goal vs Swansea, he was key to Leeds getting over the line last season.
This season Ayling has comfortably stepped up to the level of the Premier League and continued to be important to how Leeds play. He has mainly played in his usual right back position, but has also occasionally played on the right of a back three, and even at left centre back in a back four against Aston Villa.
Ayling’s player radar courtesy of FootballSlices.com can be seen below. Successful Tackles and Interceptions are adjusted depending on the possession of the opponent using the StatsBomb sigmoid function, which you can read about here: Introducing Possession-Adjusted Player Stats | StatsBomb
Looking at the defensive metrics first, Ayling’s two standout categories are Successful Tackles and Successful Pressures.
Ayling has completed 54 successful pressures so far this season, the 12th most in the Premier League (Klich is currently top with 70 successful pressures). Only two other defenders made the Top 20, further highlighting how good Ayling has been in this regard: Stuart Dallas and Ben White with 60 and 49 successful pressures respectively (something in the water at Thorp Arch perhaps?).
The table below highlights the Successful Tackle numbers for a handful of Premier League players this season:
Once again it can be seen that Ayling is one of the top performers in the league defensively, currently standing at joint 9th overall with 18 successful tackles, only four of the top spot. Once these numbers are adjusted for opposition possession Ayling ranks in the top 4% of all fullbacks in the Top-5 European Leagues.
Where Ayling has really excelled this season is in ball progression. Looking back at his player radar, it can be seen that Ayling averages 730 Yards Progressed per 90 minutes, putting him in the top 2% of all fullbacks in the Top-5 European Leagues. Ayling is just as comfortable dribbling with the ball as he is passing it forwards which is backed up by numbers.
Ayling currently ranks 6th in the Premier League for Carries with 548, 31 behind the leader Andrew Robertson. However, once you look at Progressive Carry Distance Ayling moves up to 3rd with 2180 progressive yards (Jack Grealish currently leads with 2549 yards). These numbers put Ayling top of both categories for Leeds players: Dallas is second for carries with 499, whilst Koch is second for progressive yards with 1876.
The position that Ayling plays has an impact on his progressive carry distance. When playing on the right of a back three against Sheffield United and Crystal Palace he picked up 412 and 396 progressive yards respectively, his two highest totals of the season. This was around 100 yards higher than his highest total achieved at right back: 309 yards against Wolves.
An example of Ayling carrying the ball out from the back against Sheffield United can be seen below:
Ayling (circled in green) is in his usual position as an option for Meslier (circled in yellow) or Koch to play out from the back. He receives the ball on the right hand side of the penalty box but is quickly closed down by Oliver Burke (circled in blue).
Ayling cuts inside to get past Burke and then begins to run into the free space. Burke recovers and tries again to close Ayling down whilst Norwood (circled in white) holds his ground and waits to engage.
Ayling feints to get past Norwood and then finds himself with more free space to run in causing Sheffield United to run back towards their own goal.
We can now turn our attention to Ayling’s passing stats. He ranks 9th in the league for Passes into the Final Third with 56 (Rodri of Manchester City leads the way with 76), Joint 1st for Progressive Passes with 74 — joint with Bruno Fernandes — and 4th for Progressive Passing DIstance with 4943 yards.
His passing into the Final Third ranks well across the Top 5 European Leagues, with Ayling ranking in the Top 3% of all fullbacks. Łukasz Fabiański is top of the final category with 5330 yards. Ayling leads all these categories for Leeds’ players: Meslier is second for Progressive Passing Distance but is some way back with 3853 yards; Klich is the runner up in the other two categories with 53 passes into the final third and 65 progressive passes respectively.
Many of the features of Ayling’s passing come as a result of the system Bielsa has Leeds playing. Whilst it has not been used this season as much as it was in the Championship, Leeds still regularly build up on the right wing then switch play to Jack Harrison on the left wing, a pass commonly done by Ayling. If the play isn’t switched, then Ayling will often attempt to get into a position to receive the ball before putting a cross in, either by finding space on the right hand side, or by overlapping the right winger.
A lot of Ayling’s progressive passes come from playing the ball down the line to Helder Costa, but many also come from finding Mateusz Klich, and occasionally Patrick Bamford, in the space between the opposition fullback and centre back. An example of this was seen before Bamford’s goal against Crystal Palace:
Pascal Struijk (circled in red) passes the ball out to the right wing to Ayling (circled in yellow). He carries the ball forward when he sees Mateusz Klich (circled in dark blue) making a run between the left centre back and the left back.
Ayling clips a ball into the half space for Klich heads the ball down for Patrick Bamford (circled in green) to run on to. Bamford controls the ball on chest and finishes well into the far corner.
Finally, my favourite feature of Ayling’s play that can often cause problems for opposing teams is the inverted runs he makes. In some cases this can lead to him shooting; for example, his goal away at Birmingham last year or his shot against Sheffield United earlier this year; but can also lead to him creating chances for his teammates as was seen in the Leicester game earlier this season:
Mateusz Klich (circled in light blue) received the ball in the centre of the pitch with Ayling (circled in yellow) positioned towards the right wing.
Ayling begins to make an inverted run towards the Leicester penalty box, with the intention of picking up the ball from a pass from Klich that splits the two Leicester midfielders.
Once he has received the ball in this position, he attempts a pass into the penalty area for Patrick Bamford (circled in red) to run on to. Unfortunately, Bamford takes a heavy touch and Schmeichel is able to pick up the ball.
Ayling is key to Leeds’ ability to progress the ball as a result of both his passing, and his ability to carry the ball out from the back; the latter particularly when he plays in a back three.
If Koch, Cooper and Llorente were all fit (unlikely I know) and Leeds were to play three at the back, I believe Ayling’s dribbling ability would still make him first choice in the right centre back position.