It’s one of the oldest football cliches: the selection headache. ‘It’s a good headache to have’, they say - and they’re spot-on.
Leeds’ promotion to, and subsequent presence in, the Premier League has presented that same selection headache for Whites boss Marcelo Bielsa, who - after 2 packed seasons in the Championship with a threadbare squad - is somewhat softening to the very idea of squad depth.
That depth is most notable out wide, as for the first time under Bielsa, Leeds have 4 first-team quality wingers in Jack Harrison, Helder Costa, Ian Poveda and Raphinha. Each bring their own unique qualities to this Leeds team, and after just 11 games of the season, all four have staked a solid claim for their spot in the starting XI.
But which two make up the best pair? Is it even a simple as a ‘best pair’? Or do each of Harrison, Costa, Poveda and Raphinha possess a particular skillset that makes them the star-man for one game, and back-up for another? Spoiler alert, it’s the latter.
In the build up for the West Ham United game, and the crucial winter period that follows, we’ll take a deeper look into all 4 of Bielsa’s main wide options: The stats, the style, and star-quality, before drawing our conclusions about who to play and when.
Sometimes you forget that Harrison is still actually on loan from Manchester City. Into his 3rd season under Bielsa, he became the first ever loanee to make 100 appearances for Leeds during their 1-0 win at Everton. His development under Bielsa has been astronomical since returning to the UK from across the Atlantic, and this season he has taken to the top-flight like a fish to water.
Harrison has started 10 out the 11 games - only unavailable for the 1-1 draw against his parent club, City - scoring once and assisting three times. The former NYC FC winger has put himself amongst some elite company so far in terms of chance creation, with an expected assists (xA) recording of 3.1 - joint 5th alongside James Rodriguez - and an xA/90 of 0.33 - just 0.01 shy of Rodriguez and 0.03 behind Harry Kane.
Just some Pascal Groß appreciation in this scatterplot today.— Ninad Barbadikar (@NinadB_06) November 29, 2020
Jack Harrison and Leandro Trossard looking real decent as well.
Shares/feedback appreciated! pic.twitter.com/AxKXGvuHi0
For Leeds, Harrison leads the way for most passes into the penalty area (21), crosses into the penalty area (5), and successful dribbles (20). He is also second behind Patrick Bamford for touches in the opposition box (31) and behind Mateusz Klich in goal creating actions (6).
For Whites fans however, Harrison is so much more than numbers, in fact he is more than just Harrison. He is Jackie Haradonna: King of the left-wing. He is everything you look for in a Bielsa winger: Energetic, hard-working, with unbelievable ball control and efficiency in carrying out Bielsa’s attacking patterns of play.
The only criticism of Harrison is the final ball - a problem that confides itself not just with Jackie, but seemingly the entire squad - averaging 4.3 unsuccessful crosses for every 1 successful cross according to WhoScored.com. It’s especially clear when playing against low-block sides who close off the space and pack the box.
Harrison’s outstanding moment of the season came early-doors, in the opening day goal-fest at Anfield. It took just 12 minutes for Harrison to pluck a long diagonal ball out of the air, skip past two England internationals in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez, before firing low into the bottom corner. Leeds’ first goal back in the big-time, and what a goal.
Since Helder Costa’s arrival on loan from Wolves in July 2019, and subsequent £15 million permanent signing last summer, the Portuguese winger has shown flashes of the very brilliance that tore Leeds - and so many other Championship clubs - apart during Wolves’ 2017/2018 title winning season. It’s become some sort of running joke that Leeds sign players who have previously battered them - the likes of Jimmy Kebe and Ryan Hall - and ended up being absolutely awful once they pull on a Leeds shirt. Costa is far from it.
From 9 appearances this season, the former Benfica winger has netted twice and assisted twice, showing his quality, and more importantly confidence, in a league many thought would be better suited to his pace and dribbling ability. Costa’s influence on Leeds’ blistering football was clear for all to see, and the right-winger has recorded the second highest xG+xA/90 this season (0.58, behind only Patrick Bamford on 0.86). He’s also joint top in the nutmeg leaderboard this season, on 2 alongside Ian Poveda.
Similarly to Harrison, Costa’s value to this Leeds side cannot simply be measured purely by stats. His skill on the ball and ability to beat a man and break opposition lines is amongst the best at Leeds, and there have been flashes of absolute brilliance this season.
These flashes have been somewhat diluted amongst some characteristically frustrating episodes from Costa, who has been far from his best consistently. Moments of magic often seem to fade into 90 or so minutes of dispossession and disappointment. It’s clear that Costa is lacking any sort of confidence or conviction at the moment, and his somewhat tentative attacking play is far from reflective of what he can do.
The confidence was seemingly through the roof, however, when Leeds played host to fellow new-boys Fulham in September. The Whites came out 4-3 winners that day, and Costa scored twice in an outstanding performance wide on the right. That Fulham game was an example of exactly what the Portuguese winger can do, and he caused Fulham left-back Joe Bryan countless issues, as well as successfully drifting inside and linking up play with Klich and Bamford. Not to forget, his first goal was an absolute beauty...
Poveda’s introduction to the Premier League has been rather sporadic. Yet to make a start this season, the former Man City academy player has been forced to prove himself coming off the bench - coming on 7 times and racking up a total of 186 minutes thus far. Poveda is yet to register any goals or assists in his short time on the pitch, however his fearless performances have earned high praise, and provided plenty of excitement for Leeds fans.
Whilst of English nationality, born in London, Poveda’s Colombian heritage shines through in his football. He resembles the much loved street-footballers of South America, small, slight, but incredibly quick on the ball and full of skill. Poveda, in contrast to Harrison and Costa, prefers receiving the ball to feet and squaring up his opposing full-back. His ability in 1v1’s is amongst the best in this side, and his quick feet and agility have had some of the league’s biggest full-backs on toast.
Poveda’s most notable substitute appearance by far came at the start of October, in Leeds’ outstanding 1-1 draw against Poveda’s former side: Man City.
It was actually Poveda’s introduction - along with Rodrigo’s - that changed the game completely. After City dominated the opening 30 minutes of the game, taking the lead through a Raheem Sterling goal, a Benjamin Mendy booking, and later defensive error - allowing Luke Ayling to run through on goal - lead to the inspired introduction of Poveda on the right.
Leeds were outstanding in the second half, and that was mainly due to Poveda’s influence. He provided the out ball Leeds were so desperate to find in the first half, and isolated the already nervy Mendy, completing 4/4 dribbles. His pace and confidence was the driving force for Leeds for the entirety of the second half, and despite not getting the decisive goal or assist, Poveda’s influence on changing the dynamic of that game was undeniable.
Ian Poveda vs. Man City:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) October 3, 2020
45 mins played
8/11 succ passes
6 ground duels won
2 ball recoveries
2 successful take-ons
2 tackles won
2 times fouled
1 chance created
Magnificent display off the bench and had a huge impact on the game. Such an exciting player pic.twitter.com/KDye4WbafO
When Leeds signed Raphinha from Stade Rennais in the summer, fans of the French club took to twitter to voice their dismay. Rumours materialised of Raphinha being forced out of the club against his will, and his former fans comedically took their frustrations out on the city of Leeds. After just 6 appearances, you can see why they were so upset.
After just 8 minutes against Wolves and 7 minutes against Villa we saw exactly what the Brazilian winger was about, with some quick flashes of brilliance - passing, dribbling and pace. It took until the last 2 games against Arsenal and Everton, however, for Raphinha’s star-quality to shine through.
Against Arsenal, Raphinha played the full 90 minutes in a frustrating draw in which the Whites managed 23 shots and recorded an xG of 2.01. Predominantly drifting in and acting as the 3rd man - linking play inside with Klich and Bamford - Raphinha’s intricate footwork and quick movement caused huge problems for an already overrun Gunners midfield. He racked up 8 final third passes, 3 shot creating actions, created 1 big chance, and hit the woodwork late on - oh, and pulled off a filthy nutmeg on his compatriot, Willian:
Raphinha can nutmeg a mermaid!— Leeds United (@LUFC) November 23, 2020
ⓘ Official sources confirm this is true. pic.twitter.com/Y2S3i9d6rK
The Brazilian’s standout game came a week later, in Leeds’ 1-0 away win at Everton. From the first minute he terrorised makeshift wing-back Alex Iwobi, exploiting the space in behind before prodding the first of his 4 shots towards goal. In minute 10, Raphinha once again flew in behind Iwobi before composing himself and sweeping the ball across to Harrison, it should’ve been an assist. It should’ve been 1-0.
A switch across to the left-hand side proved no problem, as Raphinha continued to rip the Everton defence to shreds, completing 8 final third passes, 4 shots, and 2 big chances created. In the 79th minute, Raphinha’s dominance paid off. He picked the ball up in his deadly central position 20 yards from goal, took a touch, assessed his options, before smashing the ball low and hard into Jordan Pickford’s bottom corner. It was a match winning performance, and on any other day - had Kalvin Phillips not turned into the best ball playing midfielder in the world - he would have walked away Man of The Match.
Raphinhaaaaa! Our Brazilian winger is up for November's Premier League Goal of the Month! Vote Now!— Leeds United (@LUFC) December 4, 2020
The intended purpose of all of the above was to ascertain who Leeds’ best two wide-men are. However, as alluded to at the start, it’s not as simple as the best pair, and that’s the beauty of the strength in depth at Leeds. No longer do we have to worry about one of our wide players losing form, we’ve got 3 others chomping at the bit to stake their claim for a starting spot. The competition every week on matchday, and every day in training, can only force each of our wide-men to be their best at every opportunity - which can only be good right?
The tactical nuances between Harrison’s pace in behind, Poveda’s skill with the ball to feet, Costa’s ability to break defensive lines and Raphinha’s tendency to drift inside and link centrally once again provide Bielsa with 4 entirely different tacitcal options out wide. An opportunity for Bielsa to react, both pre-game and during the game, to opposition set ups and play styles.
Contradictory to the initial question, this is no dilemma. The luxury of having genuine competition for both wide positions is something that hasn’t been seen at Elland Road for some time. Picking the best 2 however, is proving the old adage of the selection headache.
They were always right though, it’s a good headache to have.