In this piece, Josh Hobbs has a look at Jack Harrison’s season so far to assess just how far the winger has come in his time at Leeds United.
5/10. That’s how Phil Hay of The Athletic rated last Jack Harrison’s first year at Leeds United.
It’s hard to argue that Harrison’s season was largely underwhelming with only 4 goals and 2 assists coming in 3317 minutes of action. He also found himself substituted on a number of occasions for Jack Clarke, a player who often changed the game in United’s favour.
Take Villa away, for example: Harrison had been ineffective and had given the ball away for Hourihane’s goal. With Clarke on the field, Leeds looked much more competitive.
However, Harrison’s 2018/19 did have a few bright sparks. Who could forget the winner at home to Sheffield Wednesday which put automatic promotion back in Leeds’ hands with 4 games left to play (although, the less said about that the better)?
Perhaps Harrison’s finest individual moment, though, was this glorious assist for Kemar Roofe in the away leg of the Playoffs.
There is much to marvel at in the clip: the clever flick to Dallas — who also takes great credit for returning the ball in the middle of being wiped out — and then a magnificent ball to take out the entire Derby defence, putting the ball on a plate for Kemar Roofe.
When it became clear that Bielsa would like to take Harrison on loan for another year — this time with the option to buy — these were the moments the fans looked to as a sign of what Harrison could truly be capable of.
But there are negatives. Last season, Harrison only ranked 30th in the league for dribbles attempted and, whilst he was 11th in the league for crosses attempted, he found a team-mate with less than a third of those attempts.
What, then, have we learned about the young Manchester City loanee in the time since Phil Hay’s ominous 5/10 rating? Breaking down the major aspects of his game, we’ll take a closer look at his performances in the opening four games of the season.
Anyone who follows Jack Harrison on Instagram would have noticed that Harrison spent much of the summer working. As he has stated in numerous interviews, during that time he watched a lot of videos of himself, looking at areas in which he could improve. He also worked on his strengthening in the gym.
In this near term, this work seems to have made an impact. Harrison was one of the top performers in pre-season and the only one of the ‘new signings’ to be included on the tour of Australia, as he didn’t need to work on his fitness or learn Bielsa’s system.
This seems to have bred confidence in the winger. Harrison seems to have brought that new-found belief into the start of the season. In the opening games, he has been Bielsa’s first-choice left winger, keeping marquee signing Helder Costa out of the team. The faith in him was repaid, though: a constant threat in the early fixtures, he scored the opener at Bristol City.
This might not seem like much, but Harrison carries out the tactical role given to him — in terms of positioning — to perfection.
The way Leeds are playing right now — with the central midfield trio of Phillips, Forshaw and Klich and Hernandez operating as a wide playmaker, drifting inside from the right — it is Harrison’s job to stay as wide and high up the pitch as possible on the left in order to provide an outlet for the crossfield pass after overloading on the right hand side.
Here, we can see Leeds tactic broken down clearly with the two main areas of focus being the pocket of space Hernandez drops into, drifting off the right wing, and the area Harrison occupies: in and around the penalty box on the left-hand side.
In position maps, it is common to see Harrison as the most advanced player, often level with Patrick Bamford. The winger is also leading the league for touches in the opposition box per 90 mins with 7.41.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Harrison has held down a starting place over marquee signing Helder Costa is because Bielsa trusts him to carry out his tactical role to the letter while Costa is still getting up to speed.
One criticism of Harrison last season was that he’d often choose a safe pass over a more progressive action.
That’s not to say that his passing is particularly bad, though. This season, he ranks 2nd for key passes and key passes per 90 (behind Klich in both cases).
In fact, in the Wigan game alone, he created 4 chances through short passes in the penalty area. These kinds of passes are far more dangerous than those back to the full-back that we might have seen last season.
This is where we get a little more into what Harrison needs to continue to improve on this season.
The 22-year-old ranks 5th in the league for crosses per 90 with 6.71. However, his accuracy is way down at 15.79%.
Whilst it’s as much about a forward getting on the end of crosses as Harrison picking them out, a quick glance through clips of Harrison’s crossing show more of him failing to beat the first man or sending it over the top everybody in the box rather than putting in dangerous balls across for Bamford to get on the end of.
Here is an example of Harrison holding his position wide on the left to receive the switch of play, before taking an excellent first touch and subsequently wasting a great opportunity to put the ball into the box.
Harrison did put an excellent cross in during the Wigan game which was only half-cleared at the back post. This allowed Klich to put the ball back into the six-yard box, creating the opening goal for Bamford.
In this graphic, we can see that crossing accuracy is a bit of an issue for Leeds in general. That said, almost all of the accurate crosses come from the right-hand side. Considering what we already know from the xT heatmap, this is particularly poor.
Of course, this also means that Douglas — and to a lesser extent, Alioski — struggled with accuracy as well. But the only accurate crosses from the left came from his boot, as well as the corner that led to Bamford’s second goal.
Dribbling & Take Ons
Another area for improvement is Harrison’s dribbling.
In 2018/19, Harrison attempted 5.76 dribbles per 90 and was successful in less than half of them. It was not uncommon to see Harrison square up a full-back only to run straight at them and trip over the ball.
In the clip above — taken from that fateful day at home to Wigan on Good Friday — Harrison received the ball in space on the left touchline and ran directly at the full-back. He then seemed to be caught in two minds about what he wanted to do, leaving the ball behind.
Fortunately for Leeds, there has been much less of this so far this season. Harrison seems far more confident dribbling and appears to be aiming to get to the byline as often as possible.
In fact, up until the Brentford game, Harrison’s take ons had increased per game as the season progressed: 0/1 successful v Bristol City, 1/3 against Forest and 3/4 against Wigan, before dropping back down to 1/3 against the Bees.
It is notable that the Brentford game featured Alioski at left-back rather than Douglas. Their differences in playing that role may have had an effect on the balance of the left-hand side.
Leeds also struggled to switch the play over the left with the same consistency as in previous games, so Harrison’s opportunities to take on the full-back were limited.
In this clip from the Forest game, we see a much more confident Harrison running at Matty Cash, touching the ball inside before selling him a dummy with the stepover and beating him on the outside. The phase ends with Harrison digging out a dangerous cross that Bamford was unable to convert.
These are the kind of attacking movements Harrison will have to make a staple part of his game now that Leeds have signed Helder Costa: a winger known for his proficiency at dribbling.
Harrison scored just 4 goals in 2018/19. For a team that struggled for goals at times last season, this is something Leeds will need Harrison to improve on.
The youngster scored 14 goals in his time at NYCFC, so he is a capable goalscorer. However, last season he had only 1.35 shots per 90 with a conversation rate of less than 10%.
He did score important goals: a late equaliser against Millwall, a header in a 2–1 win against Swansea and the winner against Sheffield Wednesday. That notwithstanding, you would still hope for more from a winger who touches the ball in the opposition box as much as Harrison does.
If Harrison’s season was 5/10 last year, his early season form deserves a 7/10. Perhaps he could have had an 8 were it not for a disappointing outing against Brentford.
Bielsa will certainly be pleased with him so far and, with Costa now knocking on the door with 3 assists in his last 3 appearances, Harrison will know that there is no room for complacency.
With Harrison desperate to continue improving, this can only be a good thing for Leeds United.