Guess who? Marcelo Bielsa discusses former winger who can play full-back and in central midfield for Leeds United

“He can play as a full-back on the left and the right or as a midfielder - originally he was a winger.”

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 5:45 am
MR VERSATILE - Leeds United Under 23s prospect Niall Huggins can model himself on Stuart Dallas. Pic: Getty

Even Stuart Dallas would stick his hand in the air reading that description.

Yet the player Marcelo Bielsa was describing in his Zoom chat with the press ahead of Leeds United’s trip to Fulham was 20-year-old Niall Huggins

Unlike Dallas, despite what one national broadcaster might have claimed much to the amusement and delight of English Leeds fans and the chagrin of Northern Irish ones, Huggins is actually a homegrown talent who joined the club at nine.

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Like Dallas, he’s a hard man to pigeon hole, an attacking wide man who found himself moving back and could find himself right in the middle of the park at any given time.

Bielsa’s description of the youngster reads exactly like the one he might give for his first-team regular with almost 50 international caps to his name.

“He can play as a full-back in the back-four on the left-hand side and the right-hand side, or as a midfielder accompanying a more defensive midfielder,” said the Argentine, when Huggins and this week’s call-up for the Welsh Under-21 squad came up in the press conference.

“He can play with ease on both sides, left or right, originally he was a winger/offensive midfielder and this gives him more resources during the possession and he can play in all three heights on the pitch. And apart from that, he is a player with a physical performance above the norm.”

It’s Dallas, isn’t it? Down to a tee. Huggins made his first foray into first-team football with a substitute appearance in the 4-2 defeat by Arsenal.

An experienced EFL coach once told me about a game at the end of a season in which his side were en route to a loss that would relegate them. His advice to the manager with a few minutes left on the clock was to throw on a teenager for his debut, to give the youngster an unforgettable experience and shed a little light amid the gloom.

There was no hint of PR or saving face in Bielsa’s decision to send Huggins into the fray at the Emirates as he tried to mastermind the comeback of all comebacks, nor you suspect there ever will be in any substitution he makes in any game.

There was a hint of regret, however, that Huggins made his debut at a time when Leeds were four goals down.

“It’s very difficult and unfair on a young player like Niall to come into the game in these circumstances where we’re losing 4-0 and to participate in trying to get us back into the game,” said the head coach.

“He had a balanced game. He didn’t shine, but did not do anything bad either.”

That’s probably all a debutant needs, in the blinding glare of 4k broadcast-quality floodlights against a team with world-class players, to know he did nothing wrong.

Huggins looked comfortable enough, though, and despite not having played for the senior side since, has continued to show what a clever, quick player he is for the Under-23s. He’s nippier than Dallas, built more like Jamie Shackleton, and this season 23s boss Mark Jackson has used him as a left-back, right-back and a midfielder.

The question ‘what exactly are you?’ might give the York-born, Fulford School-educated prospect some trouble.

Yet versatility, as Dallas is proving now at the highest domestic level, is no dirty word. You can be a Jack of all trades and master them, even in the top flight.

In the Championship, the Ulsterman happily admitted midfield wasn’t his best position and yet, in the Premier League, he has arguably performed even better there, looking increasingly at home despite the step up in standard.

Bielsa says the role asks more of you at a higher level.

“I think he applied the same characteristics to this position in the midfield,” he said.

“Obviously the Premier League has different difficulties to the Championship. In the Championship you can defend a little less and you can think about the runs you can make a little more. In the Premier League you have to defend and attack, defending is more difficult and when you attack when you come up against more solid and physical opposition than the Championship.”

So is Dallas now a midfielder? Sometimes. Sometimes he’s a right-back, sometimes a left-back. What he always is, for Bielsa, is a solution.

Embracing versatility has turned him from a bit-part winger into a starter in whatever role he’s needed.

Whether Huggins has a career as a midfielder ahead of him or not, he could do a lot worse than model himself on last season’s Players’ Player of the Year and his play-me-anywhere attitude.

With the perfect example to study and Bielsa in his corner from the first bell, he has a real fighting chance of becoming a solution to future problems at Leeds.