In this piece, Josh Hobbs casts his eye over a player who has been linked with Leeds to see if he’s up to scratch…
A few days ago my attention was drawn to a tweet linking Barnsley’s Callum Styles to Leeds United.
Whilst it didn’t come from one of the big-hitters of Leeds transfer talk, it makes a lot of sense. In Episode 3 of Orta’s List, Jon said that it would be a sensible transfer strategy for Leeds to find players who fit the pressing system first and foremost and work from there in terms of fitting them into the side, such is the importance of pressing to Leeds’ game. Given Styles plays for Barnsley — now the most intense pressers in the Championship, in the absence of Leeds — he would fit into this category.
In the case that it turns out that this link has merit to it, I thought I’d give a report on Styles’ key attributes so that fans would have an idea of how he plays and how he would likely fit in at Leeds United.
Styles is 21 and joined Barnsley for £225k from Bury, where he made 47 competitive appearances after being released from the Burnley academy.
The majority of his career thus far has been spent as a central midfielder but he has been used primarily as a left wing back in Barnsley’s 3–4–3 formation in 20/21. It won’t come as much of a surprise to know that he is left-footed, given that the majority of players linked with Leeds United seem to be!
Styles had had a productive season from that position so far. He has scored five goals and made one assist across 3,960 minutes in the Championship with those coming at a rate of 0.11 and 0.02 per 90 respectively.
Barnsley have him contracted up until June 2023 with the option of a further year, so they are protected. Our friends and sponsor of Orta’s List, FIVEYARDS, value him at £17m on their transfer market.
Below are two images from Analytics FC’s TransferLab — a platform used by professional clubs, including Leeds — to help identify talented players to scout further.
The first image shows Styles in an all round full back profile, measured against all fullbacks in the Championship whilst the second shows him in the box to box midfielder profile, measured against all midfielders in the league.
Note his heat map. Whilst he has largely played as a left wing back this season, there is plenty of activity in the left side of the central areas. This is because he often drifts centrally to receive the ball and drive towards the goal.
He isn’t the kind of wingback that is overlapping constantly. This is likely because he is more naturally a midfielder and wants to be involved in play more, rather than staying wide. Barnsley’s right wing back, Callum Brittain holds his width much more than Styles does.
In the all round full back profile, Styles is mostly a good performer but not standout. However, he looks much better as a box to box midfielder. It’s fair to say that neither of these profiles fully fits his role at Barnsley, as he is a wingback who operates as a midfielder, rather than a traditional midfielder or fullback.
It’s worth mentioning that — in both profiles — he ranks poorly for short passes. I believe this to be a quirk of TransferLab, combined with Barnsley’s unique style, as he’s not an unreliable short passer. Transfer Lab uses a model to rate how every action in a game positively or negatively impacts a team’s expected goals for and against. Any metric that is marked ‘Quality’ falls into this model.
In the case of Barnsley, they are an extremely direct team, relying more on a gegenpressing style. This means that the ball tends to be launched forwards and then pressed relentlessly to create chaos and goal scoring chances from there. As a result, Barnsley do not pass patiently through the thirds and create in that fashion so Styles is unlikely to score well there.
Having watched him, I don’t have concerns that he’d struggle to fit into Leeds’ passing triangles. He seems more than comfortable receiving and playing short passes on the occasions that Barnsley keep the ball on the floor long enough for any passing to break out.
Keeping in mind Barnsley’s hyper-aggressive pressing and the fact that he scored well in most defensive metrics on the profiles, the first aspect of Styles’ game that I want to get into is his pressing ability.
Styles is physically extremely fit and covers an enormous amount of ground every game. Barnsley are a fantastic pressing team but Styles stands out as one of the best in this regard. He has a great intensity, buzzing around opponents in a way similar to Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich or Ezgjan Alioski.
Styles was playing on the left of a midfield three when Barnsley came to Elland Road for the penultimate home game of Leeds’ season and gave us all a heart attack. During this game he contested 10 defensive duels, made 5 interceptions and 12 ball recoveries with 7 of those coming in Leeds’ half. He was one of the thorns in Leeds’ side on a day when Barnsley absolutely smothered them.
A warning before viewing this first clip: it may bring you out in cold sweats…
In the clip above, Styles (number 20) moves to press Alioski as soon as he sees him offer himself as an option for Luke Ayling to pass to. With Styles on top of him, Alioski has no choice but to pass back to Ayling, but Styles follows the ball and forces Ayling backwards as Barnsley surround him. Styles eventually wins the ball and advances to the edge of the penalty area, shooting narrowly wide.
Leeds fans can attest to how terrifying pressing intensity like that is to come up against. Ayling is generally good in moments like these but here he was forced into a major error and this moment caused cries of anguish from Leeds fans in living rooms all around the world, followed by huge relief when the shot whistled wide.
This example comes from a recent game against Luton Town and emphasises again how quick Styles (wearing number 4 this season) is to get to his man.
Notice how much ground he has to make up here when the pass comes into the feet of Luton’s right back. This is a fine example of that buzzing intensity that I mentioned earlier. Where his opponent might normally have expected to have a moment to take a touch and pick a pass, Styles had shut him down completely and was able to not only win the ball but cleverly flick it into the path of Cauley Woodrow.
These are only two examples but I could put together a very long compilation of him doing this same thing over and over again. This is exactly why I think he’d fit into the Leeds man-marking system perfectly.
If one of the primary facets of Styles’ game is pressing, the next biggest is the flip side of the same coin: press resistance.
If that seems too jargonistic, I simply mean his ability to receive the ball under pressure and keep possession. This can be achieved through agility to turn out of danger, usually carrying the ball forwards through the middle or in wide areas, as well as passing the ball quickly or by winning fouls.
Styles is short and fairly stocky with a low centre of gravity, giving him excellent balance and agility to turn quickly and shift his body and the ball away from onrushing opponents.
In this example, again from the Leeds vs Barnsley game last season, see how spins away from Ayling as he received the ball. He then shifts the ball quickly from his left to his right foot to pass into the feet of Woodrow, taking Ben White out of the picture as well. Fortunately for Leeds, the forward didn’t get the pass right and Jordan Williams was unable to collect the ball, otherwise this could have been another great chance with Styles central to its creation once again.
Whilst this was at the attacking end of the pitch, these press resistant qualities are really important in the middle third of the pitch, which can often be congested and is where a player’s ability to create space for themselves is most valuable:
In this clip, see how he uses his body to throw a feint, seeming as if he’s going to turn to the left of his opponent before spinning and going to the right. His next touch would have taken him clear of the next Preston midfielder as well, had they not pushed his teammate into Styles’ path. But for the foul here, Barnsley would have been in a promising position to build an attack which all came from Styles’ ability to turn in the midfield.
In Styles’ TransferLab profiles, one of his standout metrics was ‘carries’. It’s easy to see why with examples like that and the next clip further emphasises this:
Observe how his first thought on receiving the ball is to drive forwards with the ball. He opens his body to control the ball in a way that means he can beat his opponent with the first touch. He’s not trying to trap the ball dead, he’s trying to get forwards.
The execution on the resulting through ball was just off, which is something that he could definitely improve on at this time. However, he will regularly get himself into situations where he has the opportunity to play passes like this, with the defence backpedalling.
Another area that he is strong in is that he is a goal threat. TransferLab has him in the 77th percentile for expected goals per 90 from open play shots in the box to box midfielder profile with a figure of 0.09. This comes from 1.13 shots per 90.
As you can see from the heat map of his shot locations provided by TransferLab, the Barnsley man takes a lot of shots from the area just left of centre of the box. He times his runs well to hit loose balls and has a lovely shooting technique. He hits through the ball and generates a lot of power and movement, the best example being this goal vs Stoke:
This goal against Nottingham Forest shows his ability to arrive late and in space to get a clean strike on goal:
I left the clip a bit longer on purpose to show his intelligence in the build-up to the goal.
Receiving the ball in the centre circle, he released it quickly to escape pressure before stepping back into space to offer himself as an option again as the ball progressed down the left. Seeing that Victor Adebayejo was driving to the byline, he jogged towards the edge of the box, making himself an option to run onto Woodrow’s set back to him, hitting it in his full stride.
Where would he fit in the squad?
Whilst I wouldn’t want to rule it out completely and look stupid, my feeling is that Callum Styles would not be being looked at as an option to play fullback. Perhaps the club like him because he can clearly play as a wingback which Leeds obviously utilise fairly regularly but his lack of experience playing in a back four would count against him in terms of being considered to be a new left back for Leeds.
That said, he has a number of attributes that would make him a good fullback, pace and stamina being first and foremost but also his quality on the ball and progressiveness would surely mean he’d fit there.
These two clips show that he’d be more than comfortable making the types of attacking runs required, both on the outside and into the box. However, there is no substitute for experience in knowing how to defend properly as a full back and Leeds have spent the majority of this season playing with a left back who lacks the sensibilities for that side of the game.
I don’t have huge issues with him in 1v1 defending; he’s done fairly well in that regard. However, he’d be taking a very big step up in terms of the quality of the wingers he’d be coming up against and could be exposed in this regard. To that end, dribblers like Cardiff’s Sheyi Ojo have caused him problems this season as he can sometimes plant his feet and be caught a bit flat-footed, allowing them to change direction quickly and get away or he can go the other way and dive in too quickly.
A player like the heavily-linked Romain Perraud of Brest — first and foremost a full back — makes much more sense as a target for the fullback role in my opinion and thus far that seems to be the club’s thinking.
I think it’s much more likely that Styles would be signed to bolster Leeds’ midfield options. However, I don’t think he’d be considered the ‘young cover for Kalvin Phillips’ that Phil Hay has often talked about, and as we’ve mentioned in Orta’s List, it would make more sense to bring in a player in the mould of Pablo Hernandez in the attacking midfield position.
Looking at the midfield in general, Stuart Dallas has become increasingly important as the season has gone on, Mateusz Klich has played an enormous amount of minutes over the last three seasons with his body beginning to show the signs of strain and Rodrigo has struggled to stay fit. All these players will be 30 by the end of this season.
With this in mind, it makes a lot of sense to bring in a 21-year-old who can slot into the system with minimum fuss and give him increased minutes as time goes on. Of course, Jamie Shackleton may well be that player but he has had a lot of injury issues and it may also be the case that he would be keen to move to where he would play more regularly after struggling to break into the team for three seasons.
Taking this into account, a move for Styles would make a lot of sense in my opinion. I think the £17m valuation that he has on FIVEYARDS would be more than I would like to pay for him but Barnsley’s owners are aware of their need to trade well to grow as a club so I wouldn’t be surprised if they did a deal at closer to £10m.
If that were the case I would think it was a very smart signing for Leeds. Perhaps if they did sign him they would want to work on him as an option as a fullback in a four as well as a centre midfielder. As we know by now, Bielsa hugely values versatility and there’s no doubt that Style has the capabilities and willingness to learn and grow, as he has shown already.
Leeds fans may be setting their sights higher this summer, particularly after seeing players of international quality arriving at the club. I would expect to still see players from top five leagues sign this summer but Styles would certainly be one that would raise the floor level of the squad and has a lot of potential to develop into a strong Premier League quality player whilst having the ability to contribute immediately, if required.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
The graphics in this piece are supplied by Analytics FC.
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