Phil Hay – Inside Elland Road: Leeds United banking on Izzy Brown to spark a second-half surge

Brighton & Hove Albion's Izzy Brown, in action for Brighton against Arsenal last season. Picture: John Walton/PA.
Brighton & Hove Albion's Izzy Brown, in action for Brighton against Arsenal last season. Picture: John Walton/PA.
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THEY will tell Izzy Brown he has time on his side and at 21 there is plenty of it but Leeds United’s latest signing has years behind him, too.

He became the Premier League’s second youngest debutant in 2013, aged 16 years and 117 days, and it only takes a look at the player ahead of him – Matthew Briggs, once of Fulham – to realise that a record like that is no promise of a high-level career.

Brown should have more staying power than Briggs, a left-back who is in his mid-20s and has drifted into non-league football, but he comes to Leeds at a crucial juncture, five years on from his top-flight debut and eight months after a nasty knee injury. In January, he tore an anterior cruciate ligament, the dreaded ACL, and saw a loan to Brighton end overnight.

It took three months for Brown to begin outdoor fitness work. It took far longer for him to resume full training. He had completed a few weeks of sessions when Leeds signed him on a season-long loan last week, a day before the end of the transfer window.

It is a curious deal in respect of the tactical thought behind it. Brown is a gifted No 10 who Chelsea rate, despite the fact that he is consistently among the mass of young players farmed out from Stamford Bridge each summer. He has played once for Chelsea and once only, as a substitute in 2015, but he holds a contract for another three seasons and there is no option to buy in the agreement with Leeds.

Like Jamal Blackman and Lewis Baker, he is in the frame in west London, albeit without any guarantee that Chelsea will ever push him through.

Leeds United's No 10 playmaker, Samuel Saiz.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Leeds United's No 10 playmaker, Samuel Saiz. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

In harnessing his talent, Leeds have also taken on the responsibility of completing Brown’s rehabilitation. He is fit to train but a long way short of match fitness, so much so that Leeds don’t expect him to play until next month at the earliest or to peak before the turn of the year.

The compromise on Chelsea’s part is that United will pay nothing for him – no wages, no fee – until Brown is first-team ready and prior to completing the transfer, Leeds sent Rob Price, their head of medicine and performance, to London to watch Brown train and assess any reaction in his knee. Both clubs seem satisfied that surgery and subsequent treatment has been a success.

There is a benefit to Chelsea of another club managing Brown’s return and easing him back into competitive football. From Leeds’ perspective, there is equal benefit in signing longer-term cover for a position which Marcelo Bielsa is unlikely to change any time soon. Brown is Leeds’ alternative to Samuel Saiz, the mercurial Spaniard who boasts all of Pablo Hernandez’s skill but less of his elder’s consistency and temperament. Bielsa has seen the best of Saiz in extended glimpses during the past month and the tactics employed by Leeds’ head coach are tailored nicely to Saiz’s strengths: searching runs from deep, plenty of possession direct to his feet and much of it in advanced areas of the pitch. Were Brown fully fit tomorrow he would wait his turn regardless, as others at Elland Road are having to.

What Leeds and Bielsa know is that Saiz went missing last season; at first because of the long ban he brought upon himself at Newport County but latterly when his former spark failed to reappear. The verve was gone and even at the start of pre-season under Bielsa, Saiz’s conditioning was less than impressive. Leeds worked hard on him, built him up and fashioned the playmaker Bielsa needed.

In harnessing his talent, Leeds have also taken on the responsibility of completing Brown’s rehabilitation. He is fit to train but a long way short of match fitness, so much so that Leeds don’t expect him to play until next month at the earliest or to peak before the turn of the year.

Phil Hay

It was there that Bielsa felt most exposed before the transfer deadline; not at centre-back and not in the centre of midfield, so confident is he in Kalvin Phillips’s physique. Hernandez has a knack of avoiding being kicked from pillar to post but Saiz routinely takes a hammering – 12 fouls on him this season compared to two on his compatriot – and Leeds have seen Saiz’s form and attitude dip post Christmas.

Hernandez was an alternative at No 10 during Saiz’s first year in England but Bielsa needs Hernandez to pull the strings down the right. Brown, all being well with his knee, provides a second choice.

If Brown’s impact is felt most keenly in the second half of the term it might be no bad thing. Huddersfield Town took him on loan for the latter stages of their promotion season in 2016-17 and squeezed five valuable goals from him, one of those scored on the day when Garry Monk and David Wagner set off a touchline brawl at the John Smith’s Stadium. Brown was in the mix of that scuffle, confronted by a marauding Pontus Jansson as tempers flared and players piled in. A bit of devilment could serve Leeds well further down the line.

Izzy Brown is settling into life at Leeds United where he aims to be fit to make an impact in the coming months.

Izzy Brown is settling into life at Leeds United where he aims to be fit to make an impact in the coming months.