Barry Douglas, in a hypothetical sense, was the left-back Leeds United craved at the end of last season. No-one else in his position ticked so many boxes but Leeds let his name lie for most of the summer, believing that Douglas would be unavailable.
Douglas was not planning to leave Wolves either and the move to Leeds which materialised in July was almost an overnight transfer. Wolves had begun courting other left-backs and United were made aware of their willingness to sell. Douglas’ prospects at Molineux were made clear to him by Wolves accepting a bid of £3m. Leeds felt no end of satisfaction when the deal crossed the line.
The 29-year-old Glaswegian, a player who carved his career from humble beginnings at Queens Park and Hampden, lacked the box-office appeal of others in Wolves’ Championship-winning squad but their brilliance last season had different layers: the outrageous talent of Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota mixed in with the wit and consistency of players like Douglas and Conor Coady. Douglas played 39 times and scored or assisted 19 goals. Wolves’ sporting director, Kevin Thelwell, called it “an exceptional and outstanding season”.
His creative impact on a side who claimed the title with 99 points begged the question of where Wolves would have finished without him, irrespective of the genius of Neves and Jota. It is already obvious that Douglas’ influence is something Leeds and Marcelo Bielsa cannot afford to be without too often. On Sunday, after a 2-1 victory over Wigan Athletic, Bielsa reacted to Douglas’ performance by comparing him to Pablo Hernandez.
“These players have the capacity to make those close to them play better,” he said.
Douglas’ appearance at Wigan was his first for a month and his first since pulling a hamstring in a 1-0 win at Hull City. The international break in early October prevented him from missing more than four games but that short block of fixtures highlighted the assurance he brings to the left side of Bielsa’s defence. While Douglas recovered, Bielsa tried his luck with Gaetano Berardi, Stuart Dallas and Gjanni Alioski.
There was irony in the fact that his only out-and-out left-back, Tom Pearce, remained on the bench but Bielsa has never been conventional in using square pegs in square holes. It nonetheless became clear that he was sifting through makeshift alternatives while he waited for Douglas to regain full fitness.
The Scot’s comeback at Wigan was telling, shoring up the left channel and providing the attacking impetus which brought about Leeds’ early equaliser. Trailing to a sixth-minute free-kick from Reece James – a goal which reiterated Biesla’s long-held belief that goals scored against United require too little effort – Hernandez replied quickly after Douglas spotted Mateusz Klich running into space inside Wigan’s box. A low cut-back from Klich presented Hernandez with a sitter.
“There’s a line that links Pablo to Douglas,” Bielsa said afterwards. “Douglas imposes himself on his side and Pablo does the same on the right. It’s not about experience. I’m talking about their style of play.
“When they play, these players have the capacity to make those close to them play better. This is important to the team.”
Since signing for Leeds, Douglas has shown a capacity to get on the ball and use it carefully, with more passes per game and key passes than all but three other players, and a higher completion rate than all but two. Leeds wanted to tap into his assists and Douglas has come up with three so far but his end-to-end game offers the width which Bielsa uses to overload opposition full-backs and fashion the sort of goal which Hernandez tucked away at Wigan.
Sunday was another afternoon when United worked with an overwhelming weight of possession: 67 per cent to Wigan’s 33 per cent.
There has not been a single game this season in which Bielsa’s side saw less of the ball than the team they were playing.
“When we have possession it increases our self esteem because one of our goals is to prevent the opponent from having the ball,” Bielsa said. “If we prevent the opponent from making passes or recovering the ball after our third or fourth pass, we feel safer. And proportionately the opponent feels weaker.
“We were calm, we recovered many balls and at the same time we kept the ball. The team showed consistency to impose our style. But when you win only by one goal there is always suspense.”
Leeds, while topping the Championship, are keeping Bielsa in suspense more often than not. Their overwhelming pressure against Wigan failed to kill the game and Wigan briefly threatened a late equaliser when Callum McManaman whipped a shot over the crossbar.
McManaman said Leeds were “probably the best (side) we’ve played” but Bielsa is still to be convinced that his squad can move clear of the rest of the division. “We have to create a difference from other teams,” Bielsa said. “We haven’t done that so far.”
With Douglas back in the fold, he has the advantage of a consistent presence down the left flank. Bielsa is happy to gamble the house on Hernandez, knowing the midfielder will make his skill tell on the right wing, but there is less coming from Gjanni Alioski on the opposite side of the pitch and Douglas’ performance at Wigan compensated for a low-key outing from the Macedonian international.
“Douglas defended well and he did good things in attack,” Bielsa said. “He contributed to the offensive play. Pablo didn’t necessarily finish all the offensive actions on the right but he allowed the team to be deep on that side.”