Stuart Dallas' Premier League doubts and the secret to becoming a top flight midfielder for Leeds United
Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas had a feeling he could handle the Premier League and he had doubts.
The uncertainty that existed within, even before he was asked to play in a still-unfamiliar midfield position against elite opposition, stemmed from his total lack of top-flight experience.
Prior to the 2020/21 season, like so many of his team-mates, Dallas had never kicked a ball in the Premier League
Unlike Luke Ayling, who freely admitted after promotion was won that he didn’t know if he could fulfil the dream he had made come true, Dallas had the benefit of extensive close contact with world-class players.
While still in the Championship Dallas named Joshua Kimmich, another right-back who became a central midfielder, as the best player he had faced, thanks to their encounter during Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Germany.
That was one of three occasions when Dallas took on the Germans and he twice faced the Netherlands prior to stepping foot in the English top tier, so he was no stranger to quality.
“With me playing international level I always felt I could compete with the best players in the world,” he told the YEP.
“Whether I stand out or not that’s another question. I always believed in myself that I’m capable of playing at this level but of course you do have doubts because you’ve never done it before. There was always that doubt.”
If the doubt was shared by any in the Leeds faithful, it was quickly dispelled as Dallas quietly and efficiently went about the job of adding the 2021/21 Player of the Season award to the Player’s Player prize he retained from the promotion-winning campaign.
What made that feat especially remarkable was not so much his instantaneous adaptation to the Premier League, but what was asked of him.
Just 180 minutes of the season had been played when Marcelo Bielsa turned to Dallas and asked him to play in midfield.
“I know it’s not my strongest position,” the Ulsterman admitted in January 2020.
Even as recently as March of this year he was playing down his suitability for a role in the centre of the pitch.
Yet having accrued a total of 15 appearances as a midfielder, almost double the amount he had in 2019/20, and started to look more and more at home there, Dallas at least appears more at ease with the title of ‘midfielder’ even if he’s still not prepared to use it himself.
“At the start of last season if you’d asked me I’d have said I preferred playing full-back,” he said.
“But the more the season went on, the more I started playing in midfield and got more comfortable in that position. If you’d have said to me I’d be playing centre midfield for Leeds in the Premier League I’d have laughed at you, along with many others.
“I feel more and more comfortable playing there, but if I have to go back to full-back or wherever I’m needed I feel like under the guidance of the manager and his coaching staff I’ve been able to adapt and play pretty well in those positions.
“Maybe that’s up to other people to judge but I’m happy with how I’m doing and I feel there’s a lot more to come from me.”
If there’s a lot more than a two-goal match-winning display for 10-man Leeds at Manchester City to come, there are indeed some special times ahead.
Dallas himself struggles to pinpoint how he came to conjure up performances like that in the middle of the park, having struggled to shine to anywhere near that extent in the Championship.
Bielsa highlights the 30-year-old’s generosity, his tireless efforts to get the ball back and attributes, both defensive and offensive, that are ‘very difficult to find in just one player.’
The head coach himself has played a huge part in cultivating a midfielder from a winger-turned-full-back.
“I dunno, just believing in myself, having a manager that believes in me and having a willingness to learn,” said Dallas when asked what the secret was.
“People could be thrown into positions and maybe huff when they don’t have a good game and think ‘well that’s not my position I shouldn’t be playing there’ but I wanted to improve. When
I had a bad game I looked at my game to see what I needed to do better.
“The manager has a great way of dealing with players here when you watch your clips back and see what you can improve on. I’d be a fool if I didn’t take in the information he gives you.
He sees it in a different way. He’s a genius and hopefully I can still learn from him.
“I’m a big believer in watching my games back and seeing what I did wrong, what I did right and trying to improve those things even more. It’s just about hard work and playing in a team I enjoy playing in. If you don’t play well you won’t play in the team, it’s as simple as that, you’ll lose the jersey and I don’t want to do that, I want to continue to play. I’ve enjoyed it so far.”
Last season was very good for Dallas on a personal level, with an eight-goal Premier League haul, and Leeds as a club, thanks to a top-10 finish.
Having proved he belongs and conquered the doubts, he and his fellow Whites are out to do even better in 2021/22.
“The manager has given me confidence, my team-mates too and I’ve just grown,” he said.
“I’m playing in a good team, we were winning and it’s always better when you’re winning.
“We started the season well and then people start to question whether you can keep it going and maintain it and I think we’ve shown we’re good enough to play at this level.
“We’ve got to improve again this season and take this club to another level.”