Any central midfielder coming to Elland Road at any time during Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure must be able to play one or both of two roles - the defensive midfield one held by Kalvin Phillips when fit, and the box-to-box one filled by Adam Forshaw, Mateusz Klich or Stuart Dallas.
Replacing Phillips from within the squad proved difficult for Bielsa in the Championship, never mind the Premier League and, as for the No 8 position, Forshaw’s return has been a huge boost but the 30-year-old is Leeds’ most recent senior midfield signing and he joined three years ago this month.
When compiling a list of players who could end the long wait for a new midfielder, Analytics FC’s head of content Jon Mackenzie used their TransferLab scouting platform, something Leeds’ themselves employ.
The somewhat unique requirements of Phillips’ job make the England international’s profile the best starting point to find similar operators, but Mackenzie took a different path for number eights.
“When it comes to finding a new Mateusz Klich, a different approach is more fruitful,” he said.
“Klich’s numbers have suffered in the last 12 months due to playing through injury and Covid for large parts of that period and there is more scope for flexibility in the profile of an eight within a Bielsa system.
“The best way of overcoming that is to look at the profile of a player who has been linked with Leeds this window to try and assess what kind of profile the club are looking for. RB Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson would fit the more attacking eight profile in Bielsa’s team: a pressy attacking midfielder who creates chances both through passing and carrying the ball, and who has great movement off the ball too.”
Of the midfielders putting up similar numbers to the 21-year-old USMNT international who is reported to have been the subject of a rejected bid from Leeds this month, a few stood out in TransferLab.
“Michael Vlap has been playing as a 10 for Twente in their 4-2-3-1 but he has also played at the base of their midfield in a 4-3-3 as well,” said Mackenzie.
“This already suggests he’s a bit of an outlier and, when you watch his video, you can see why. A tall, rangy midfielder, he plays the role very similar to the way Mateusz Klich plays the eight role for Leeds: lots of pressing and off-ball movement.”
Mateus Pereira, a past target now plying his trade in Saudi Arabia with Al Hilal, and Jean Pyerre, a Gremio-owned player on loan at Athletico Paranaense, were among the most interesting names on the list although the latter would require exemption panel approval for a work permit.
Aguibou Camara of Olympiacos also stood out.
“Camara plays the role in a very similar manner to Klich, drifting out wide to help out in the build-up phases,” said Mackenzie.
“He is also able to get forward and is very productive, picking up four goals and four assists in Super League 1 this season.”
The aforementioned players showed up well against Klich’s attacking numbers over the past 12 months, with Pyerre and Vlap towards the less dangerous end of the spectrum.
Aaronson, Camara and Pereira compared favourably offensively with Klich and looked stronger than the Leeds man defensively.
It’s the defensive side of things that matters most when setting about the ‘unique challenge’ of identifying a new Phillips.
“Phillips’ role is fairly idiosyncratic,” said Mackenzie.
“Leeds play a man-marking system with an aggressive press which requires the defensive midfielder to possess athleticism, a good defensive positional sense and an ability to defend in very open transitions; secondly, Bielsa’s defensive midfielder isn’t really too responsible for direct progression of the ball, although they play an important role in the build-up.
“Considered together, there is a reason why the defensive midfielder is referred to by Bielsa as the ‘third defender’: the position is primarily a defensive one but, like in the case of his centre-backs, Bielsa likes them to be able to play the ball in deep build-up.”
With Phillips as the template, TransferLab returned a long list including names that make footballing sense, if not financial sense.
“Some names immediately pass the eye-test - players like Real Madrid’s Casemiro, Robert Andrich from Bayer Leverkusen and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek,” said Mackenzie.
“Of course, at this point in the season, Leeds will struggle to prise players away from clubs so they will need to look for players who might consider a move to the Premier League as a step up.”
With that in mind, two players stood out.
“Renato Tapia plays a role very similar to Phillips’ for Celta Vigo, a very high pressing side,” said Mackenzie.
“He sits in behind a more attacking midfield three in a 4-4-2 diamond.
“Bologna’s Nico Dominguez is a slightly different prospect. Like Tapia he is playing for a mid-table side as a pivot, albeit in a 3-5-2 system. Dominguez is more adept on the ball than Phillips so the question will be how well he stacks up defensively.”
To his list, Mackenzie added the Leeds-linked Boubacar Kamara of Marseille, whose contract expires this summer but is likely to want a January move that guarantees Champions League football. And Salzburg have a player worthy of consideration for this role, as well as Klich’s position.
Mackenzie said: “Mohamed Camara is another more press-resistant pivot player, so again, the question will be: is he up to the rigours of life in the defensive midfield role for Leeds?”
A subsequent comparison of Mohamed Camara and the other stand-out names against Phillips’ numbers bodes well.
“All of these players are strong across the defensive metrics,” he said.
“For instance, all five are above the 84th percentile for players in their primary position and league for the quality of their tackles.
“Tapia has offered his team value through carrying the ball this season, as has Mohamed Camara.
“On the passing side, though, the other three are much more impressive.
“Dominguez looks excellent across the board with the exception of ball carrying but, in a lot of systems, a single pivot won’t be encouraged to carry the ball anyway. Boubacar Kamara also looks very strong, albeit with questions about his aerial ability, and it’s clear why he was linked to Leeds.”
During the summer window a similar experiment for the YEP brought up a longlist of potential left-backs that included Junior Firpo before his name emerged as a Leeds target, but a price cap of £10m was applied to the search to whittle down the numbers and removed him from Analytics FC’s final list.
A new midfielder is as vital now as a left-back was then.
Performance data can point you in the right direction but a target also has to be the right fit character wise.
Any signing has to make financial sense too. Perhaps the most important filter is the one Bielsa has placed on the search - only signings better than the players he has are welcome.
In a January market notoriously more difficult for buyers than the summer one, Orta has his work cut out.