Luke Ayling missed the opening two months of the season - usually this would have been a huge blow but fortunately the form of Northern Ireland international Stuart Dallas made up for the loss of, for my money, the best right-back in the Championship.
✍️ | #LUFC are delighted to announce defender Luke Ayling has today signed a new contract with the club until 2023— Leeds United (@LUFC) October 1, 2019
Leeds showed what faith they have in Ayling by signing him to a new four-year contact before he returned from his injury. His return came when he came off the bench for the last 15 minutes of the 1-0 home win over West Bromwich Albion, a game in which captain Liam Cooper was injured by a nasty, late challenge for Wales international Hal Robson-Kanu.
His first start didn’t go great, showing a bit of rust, including letting Tom Bradshaw get across him too easily for Millwall’s second goal in a 2-1 defeat for the Whites, but that game was thrown into a bit of disarray after Gaetano Berardi’s Red Card following Tom Bradshaw’s blatant dive.
We will be appealing this on Monday pic.twitter.com/5E7t3SEefX— Leeds United (@LUFC) October 6, 2019
Over the next 11 games we got to see Ayling’s versatility. Captaining the side for the games which Liam Cooper missed, Ayling played 4 times as a right-back and six as a centre-back, in both a back 3 and a back 4, as Leeds went 11 games unbeaten including eight wins. Seven of these wins came consecutively and set Leeds promotion push up very well.
Ayling has been a permanent fixture in the side and Marcelo Bielsa’s faith in him is shown by the frequency he is used with. Since the appearance off the bench against West Brom, Ayling has started every one of the 27 league games and has only been substituted once - late on against Fulham as Leeds went more attacking at 2-1 down.
I honestly feared a bit for Ayling after that interview on Saturday. Big character from him tonight— G U Y S L E Y (@Guysley) February 11, 2020
He had some poor games over the Christmas period, as did the whole team, and looked under pressure in interviews but he has bounced back magnificently. He has even improved his goal threat, scoring against Bristol City and Hull City, as well as his goal of the season contender in the opening stages of the 2-0 home win over Huddersfield Town.
Birmingham (A) - He has had better days defensively, as have the whole team, but this was a rare example of a right-back grabbing hold of the game and dragging his teammates over the finishing line, in a manner reminiscent of some of the performances we have seen from Pablo Hernandez.
With the game tied at 2-2, Ayling scored a screamer from the edge of the box to put Leeds 3-2 ahead.
At 3-3, Ayling got the ball at right-back, cut inside and drove all the way up the pitch, played it out to the left, got it back on the edge of the box and found Stuart Dallas on the box to make it 4-3 to Leeds.
After Lukas Jutkiewicz scored a stoppage time equaliser to make it 4-4, Ayling got in behind down the right and showed great composure to put a low driven cross along the six-yard box which Wes Harding turned into his own net. A 5-4 win at St. Andrews, during Leeds worst run of form this season, it was a massive win and Ayling had dragged us to it.
Fulham (A) - To my recollection he hasn’t had any absolutely awful games all season, but this one wasn’t a good one. I mentioned earlier it is the only game in which he has been substituted.
Had the ball in good attacking areas on several occasions and did nothing with it and his overall passing wasn’t at the required standard. He also lost his head a bit and committed a couple of needless fouls, as well as pushing Tom Cairney into the Leeds coaching staff which was both needless and risky given the referee had already done us with a terrible penalty decision.
SEASON (so far) RATING
Overall, Ayling has been outstanding. He is one of the players in contention for the player of the year award and one of the players who has most benefited from playing under Marcelo Bielsa. He defends well and copes in dangerous situations (often with the “Ayling flop”), and has improved his already good attacking output. No-one’s perfect and he has had some poor games but there isn’t a right-back at this level I would have instead of him. I am giving him a rating for the season (so far) of 8.5/10.