Where does Harry Wilson fit in at Leeds?
In this article, Josh Hobbs casts an eye over Harry Wilson and asks, ‘Just where would he fit in at Leeds United?’
Rumours have begun to circulate recently that Leeds are interested in signing Liverpool’s Harry Wilson and believe they can get him for a fee of around £15 million.
He is a player that Victor Orta has been interested in for some time and he reportedly impressed Marcelo Bielsa a lot during his period at Derby. In light of this, this scout report will attempt to break down his attributes and how he would fit in at Leeds United.
What would his position be?
For Leeds fans, these rumours have brought up a question. The Welshman has played on the right-wing for the vast majority of his career in senior football, so: why do Leeds want Wilson when they’ve just made Helder Costa a permanent signing? Don’t they play the same position?
Yes and no.
This is a heat map comparing Costa and Wilson. On the right of this graphic, you can see Costa spends the majority of his time wide on the right and regularly gets into the final third. His role for Leeds is to utilise his pace to try and get in behind opposition fullbacks and put lots of crosses and pullbacks in for his teammates.
Wilson, on the other hand, features much more heavily in the midfield third and is much more active drifting centrally, taking lots of touches just outside the box.
In fact, there are similarities to Pablo Hernandez in this regard. Look at the comparison between their heat maps:
Hernandez played the majority of his minutes in 2019/20 in central midfield, rather than the right, so his heatmap covers a larger area. However, the most concentrated area of activity is largely the same.
Even when playing centrally, Hernandez loves to pop up in the right half-space, where he plays through balls in between centre backs and full backs as well as delivers crosses into the box. It’s also a key part of Leeds’ strategy to overload the right side of the pitch in order to get Jack Harrison in a one-vs-one situation on the left.
Comparing Wilson’s season at Derby to Hernandez that same season — a season where he primarily played on the right — we see an even greater similarity. Wilson was given more freedom in Frank Lampard’s team than he was in Eddie Howe’s, receiving the ball all over the midfield third. Perhaps then, Wilson is the man that Leeds see as a successor to their Spanish playmaker.
In my series, ‘Searching for Pablo’s Successor,’ I focussed on finding players in central midfield but perhaps Leeds feel that they will be better served looking to find a player that could play like him from wide areas. This could then mean a return to a more solid midfield of Kalvin Phillips, Mateusz Klich and Adam Forshaw. After all, this was Bielsa’s preferred choice in 19/20 before an injury to Forshaw saw it broken up and Hernandez moved to the centre.
If this is the case, it could mean that Wilson and Costa will fight for the right-wing position and be used to bring their different attributes for different situations. Costa’s pace and ball-carrying making him perfect for games where the play might be stretched while Wilson might suit playing against teams who defend a little deeper. Wilson also brings more of a goal threat with his long-range shooting where Costa’s game is more about providing cutbacks for teammates.
Hernandez will perhaps be used from the bench in a similar way to how he was in the post-lockdown period of the 19/20 season, allowing Leeds the potential to manage his body. At the age of 35 — and with the quality level and pace of the game are a lot higher — it could make sense to use Hernandez in such a way in the Premier League.
Of course, it could also be possible that Bielsa feels that he could convert Wilson to play centrally. However, Hernandez didn’t make that positional switch until he was a lot older than Wilson, who is still only 23.
When it comes to finding a successor to Hernandez, Leeds could certainly find somebody with a statistical profile who’s a lot more similar to the Spaniard than Wilson. Compare both players dynamic radars, as provided by Twenty3.
In many of the attacking metrics (on the left-hand side of the radar), there is a fairly high similarity. This extends to pressing duels as well, which we know is vital in a Bielsa team.
However, Wilson lacks expected assists where Hernandez is off the charts. The same is true in the case of ‘forward passes attempted’ and ‘final third passes attempted’. We should note though, that Hernandez has been playing in a completely dominant team and Wilson posted these numbers playing for a side that were relegated.
With that in mind, here’s Wilson’s radar for 18/19, where he was playing for Derby County, who finished sixth in the table:
Here we see a considerable jump in Wilson’s expected assists, but his passing metrics don’t increase much at all. This is likely to be a tactical issue. Leeds have used Hernandez as their chief playmaker, getting him on the ball on average 47.09 times per 90 minutes. Wilson only received the ball 21.93 times per 90 minutes when playing for Derby, which is surprisingly lower than the figure of 24.57 from his time at Bournemouth.
Wilson has played in teams where double pivots in midfield have been given the job of progressing the ball forwards and he has had a role in the final third. Leeds, though, have looked to find Hernandez as early as possible and get him the ball in midfield and in the final third.
An easy trap for us to fall into with these radars is presuming that these sum up a player’s abilities. In fact, they only sum up what a player has done in a particular role in a particular system. Were he to move to Leeds and take on a role similar to Hernandez, his radar would likely match the Spaniard’s much more closely.
There are questions to ask about how well he would play the role and whether his technical attributes are suited to it. This would rely on the coaching staff’s ability to train him to play the role, as well as Wilson’s own capacity to adapt.
But there should be aspects of his ability which show up in the eye test regardless. With this in mind, let’s look at his attributes:
One of Wilson’s standout attributes is his ball-striking. His excellent shooting technique means that he can shoot with great power and accuracy, regularly testing goalkeepers from range, both from open play and dead-balls. He has scored 7 goals in all competitions from direct free-kicks in the last two seasons alone.
The shot maps above show that Wilson does take a lot of shots just from the right of centre from outside the box, but he also has a knack of getting into the box and getting high-value shots off as well.
The combination of his excellent distance shooting, as well as his ability to arrive in the box to score, means that he has consistently outshot his xG since breaking into senior football. At Bournemouth, he returned 7 goals from 5.05 xG, whilst scoring 16 (including 3 penalties) from 9.59 xG for Derby.
As Leeds’ finishing issues have been well documented, having another source of goals is vital, particularly as Hernandez has been the second top scorer for the last few seasons. If the Spaniard’s legs aren’t going to be up to a full season in the Premier League, they will need to replace his goals.
The following sequence of images depicts a move that Wilson likes to make and is one of the reasons he is such a danger from range:
As Richard Keogh carried the ball forwards out of Derby’s defence, Wilson dropped away from Swansea’s defensive line into space and indicated where he wanted Keogh to put the ball.
Keogh obliged, playing a short pass in front of Wilson, who moved towards the ball, letting it run across his body. This allowed the Liverpool loanee to spin into space, in an area just off centre, 20 yards from the Swansea goal.
After spinning, he took the shot on first-time, displaying textbook technique in doing so. Notice how his head is positioned over the ball and his standing leg is planted just next to the ball, allowing him to drive through it with power, whilst keeping it from ballooning over the bar. The shot flew with minimal spin into the top right corner of the net with the Swansea goalkeeper rooted to the spot due to the ferocious power of the strike.
This kind of position is one that Wilson shoots regularly from, as shown by his shot maps. From a purely analytical view, these kinds of shots are not recommended due to their low xG value. The principle is that it’s better to keep the ball moving and look to create a higher value chance. However, there are some players that can greatly improve their likelihood to score from such positions with their ball striking technique. The fact that Wilson has outshot his xG in both his full seasons at senior level suggests that he is one of those players.
As we know from the radars above, Wilson lagged behind Hernandez in expected assists. El Mago created 9.13 xA at a rate of 0.31 per 90 (the best in the Championship for players over 1000 minutes) whilst Wilson created only 1.84 xA at a rate of 0.09.
Comparing the chances created maps from this season, Wilson does not come out well.
Firstly, there is an enormous difference in volume. However, again we must mention team effects here. Leeds were the top team in the Championship for xG created with 83.12. Bournemouth were the fourth worst in the Premier League, creating only 43.25 xG. There was something fundamentally wrong with Bournemouth’s attacking process.
Secondly, Hernandez posted 11 assists, whilst Wilson had none.
Away from the numerical difference, we can see that Hernandez created chances all over the penalty area. Wilson, on the other hand, primarily created chances on the left-hand side. He tended to drift centrally and play short passes into that part of the penalty box.
As with the heatmaps, the ‘chances created’ maps from 18/19 share a lot more similarities. Once again, though, Hernandez’s sheer volume of chances created stands out, as does the amount of high-value chances in and around the central areas of the six-yard box.
In this particular season, Wilson created 4.36 xA at a rate of 0.11 per 90, which shows he can create more when given the role of prime creator for his team. However, he still lagged a long way behind Hernandez, who put up 11.76 xA at 0.28 per 90.
What we can say then is that Wilson is capable of creating far more than he did in a Bournemouth shirt. Here are a couple of examples of some excellent opportunities that he created for his teammates this season though, both of which probably should have led to goals:
Here we see Wilson driving inside from the right and into space to play a dangerous pass. He spotted Ryan Fraser running into space in the box and played a pass into his path. Had Fraser collected the pass properly, he would have had a one-on-one with Ben Foster to win the game for Bournemouth. Unfortunately, though, he stumbled as he took his first touch and had to take the shot from a much more difficult angle, which was easily dealt with by the former England international.
In this example, Wilson had found his way into a more classic 10 position on the edge of the penalty area with the West Ham defence back-pedalling. He slipped the ball behind Angelo Ogbonna and into the path of Callum Wilson, who had run off the back of the defender. However, the centre forward waited too long for Lukasz Fabianski to commit himself in the West Ham goal and allowed him to smother the shot. It was a golden opportunity to tie up the three points for the Cherries. Instead, West Ham scored an equaliser shortly afterwards.
In the case of Fraser’s chance, the quality of the chance on the chances map would have been a lot higher had he controlled the ball better. In both cases, they would have made the whole map look a little better had they gone in, as people tend to look more favourably on creative players when they get assists, regardless of the quality of the chance created. If you don’t believe that, have a look at a video of Bruno Fernandes’ assists for Manchester United since he signed there.
Whilst I think there are definite improvements to be made in terms of Wilson’s chance creation, I’m happy enough having watched a few of his games and a lot of these chances created that he has the vision and technique to make these improvements.
If he were to be integrated into Leeds’ system, I think his chances created map would look vastly different from how his Bournemouth one does. Perhaps it wouldn’t be Hernandez-like yet. But Leeds’ patterns of play would likely get him on the ball in the kind of areas he can do the most damage in a lot more often than Bournemouth managed to.
Agility and Speed of Thought
A key aspect of his attacking play is his agility. He’s very good at getting the ball out of his feet quickly, shifting to take the ball away from a defender and drift into space to take a shot or play a dangerous pass. This is something Hernandez is exemplary at but Wilson can offer a little more pace doing it, although he wouldn’t be described as a speedster.
Above, Wilson runs onto a ball played through by Phillip Billing. The pass didn’t have enough pace on it for him to run through on goal and with Harry Maguire closing in, he dipped a shoulder and ducked inside the centre back with his first touch.
This then meant he had the space to play the ball in behind for Joshua King to run onto. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite get the weight of the pass right on this occasion which meant King had to run wide to get it, rather than get a shot away.
The next example shows that he can think quickly and play quality passes:
Here, a pass was played into the feet of the 23-year-old and with his first touch, he fizzed a ball into King, who then played a first-time pass to Lewis Cook who was sprinting down the line. This led to a good opportunity for Ryan Fraser at the back post.
Quick interchanges like this are central to Leed’s attacking process so it’s important to know that he could integrate with these.
Areas for Improvement
I have two primary areas of concern regarding Wilson.
The first is that he’s physically lightweight and can be knocked off the ball quite easily. He’s unlikely to have many issues with Bielsa’s body fat requirements but he could do with bulking up his upper body and gaining core strength to hold off defenders. That’s something Jack Harrison did in the pre-season of 19/20 and it helped him massively as a ball carrier.
Secondly, I feel that he can go missing in games. Anybody stepping into the shoes of Pablo Hernandez will need to be confident to take the ball at any time, whatever the game state and whatever the opponent. One of the criticisms of Bournemouth fans towards Wilson was that he started the season brilliantly for them before fading as the season went on and the side tumbled into a relegation battle. Leeds hope not to be in that situation but if they are, they would require a player they spent £15 million pounds on to stand up and be counted.
Wilson certainly wouldn’t be a ready-made replacement for Leeds United’s talismanic Spaniard but he would certainly be a very good addition to their squad in the Premier League. For that reason, I think if they can get him for the price they hope for, it’s a deal well worth doing. He would bring goals, quality from set-pieces and, as I’ve already mentioned, I think he would create a lot of chances in Bielsa’s system.
With Hernandez still on the scene and Costa the incumbent for the starting spot on the right-wing, he would likely be phased into the team reasonably slowly.
Over the past two seasons, only Ben White and Barry Douglas have come immediately into the starting lineup after signing for the club and it’s highly unlikely that Bielsa would drop Costa for a new signing. Coming off the bench initially would give him time to get up to speed with the system. When he is fully up to speed, Leeds will have a different type of option in their attacking lineup, which is something they will need to flourish in the Premier League.
All the data visualisations in this article come courtest of Twenty3. All data is from Wyscout.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
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