While Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor and Sam Byram have been leading the way for Thorp Arch this season, another academy graduate’s departure in the summer seems to have been forgotten.
Tom Lees left suddenly, joining Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday on a free transfer. In his last season at Elland Road, Lees was regularly criticised for his displays. He played a role in a number of the heavier defeats of Brian McDermott’s time in charge, including the 6-0 loss at Hillsborough over a year ago.
There was a hope that the summer could see a defensive revolution. However, one aspect of United’s side this season that has still been a focus for criticism has been the defence, with no truly settled unit establishing itself at any point this season.
Bellusci, Bamba and Cooper, the players most firmly entrenched in Neil Redfearn’s side, have played 30, 17 and 27 games respectively. As a caveat, Bamba only moved to Elland Road in January.
This comes in contrast to Lees, who has played 42 of Wednesday’s 44 games this season. Wednesday have conceded only 46 goals this season, the fourth lowest total in the Championship behind promotion challengers Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Norwich. Leeds have let 60 in.
As part of a defensive set-up, Lees has clearly done well, but how has he done individually when compared to Leeds’ three?
Given that the four have played varying amounts of football this campaign, the most valid comparison is per 90 minutes played. Statistically, and this will come as no surprise to fans who have seen him since he joined from Palermo, Sol Bamba is Leeds’ best performer, and he is also statistically superior to Lees in most categories.
Bamba clearly reads the game well, making 3.71 interceptions per 90 and is willing to put his body on the line, making a block a game. He also wins 68.89 per cent of his aerial duels and wins 2.12 tackles per 90, showing his ability to stop an opposition attack.
Bellusci, who is unlikely to play either of Leeds’ last two games, is the Elland Road side’s second best central defender statistically. He outperforms Lees in interceptions, blocks, tackling, and is more accurate with his distribution.
However, it is with Bellusci and Cooper that the biggest issue arises when compared to Lees. Admittedly, on a moment by moment basis they do comparably well, but a defender is reasonably judged by his ability to concentrate over an entire game. Mistakes are the worst thing for a centre-back to have in his locker, because they can instantly undo good work that has been done for the rest of a match.
As mentioned earlier, Lees has played far more football than the other three. Despite that, he’s also made the fewest defensive errors over the entire season, making only one mistake all campaign. In comparison, Bellusci has made four, Bamba has made two since January, and Cooper has made two.
Even more worryingly, mistakes by Bellusci and Cooper have contributed to a goal conceded each. Lees has not been responsible for a goal through a mistake all season.
Would Leeds be better off with Lees at the back tomorrow? It’s difficult to say.
A move away in the summer might have simply rejuvenated him. There are still opportunities to exploit Lees defensively too – while he’s not made errors, his tackling isn’t brilliant, winning only 0.81 per 90 minutes. A good dribbler would not find it particularly difficult to beat him based on this season’s displays.
However, there is clearly something to be said for a defender who can play 3,780 minutes of football while making only one error.
A steady head at the back is one of the things Leeds have clearly missed this season. Given his displays this season as part of a clearly effective defence, and the fact that he is only 24, Lees’ sale may be one that Leeds come to regret in the future.
He’s already been targeted by Sunderland this season, with the Black Cats reportedly willing to splash out £3 million for him in January. This, combined with his efficient and effective displays, suggests letting him go for free was the biggest mistake – the player has been worth considerably more to Wednesday.