Since the departure of Roger Schmidt in March of 2017, Bayer Leverkusen has been in a state of self-inflicted turmoil. The appointment of Tayfun Korkut failed to halt the malaise as he was only able to claim 11 points out of a possible 33, leaving Leverkusen with their lowest points total since the 2002-2003 season. The hiring of Heiko Herrlich, a nomadic managerial talent who cut his tooth in the German youth setup before receiving his first head coaching stint at VfL Bochum, was an attempt to return to normalcy and his meticulous coaching has returned Die Werkself to 2nd place. Of course, for a man who successfully battled cancer, securing European qualification feels a rather pedestrian exercise. Isolating the positive parts of Schmidt’s tactical ingenuity while gently reworking their formation towards a semblance of defensive security has helped results. They concede the 4th fewest shots per game (11.4) and are rather adept at keeping the ball in front of the defense.
Yet, for all the tactical changes that Herrlich has introduced, the performance of the young winger Leon Bailey has reinforced their return to the top of the Bundesliga table. His 7 goals and 5 assists in only 16 appearances are remarkable for a player in his first full season at Bayer Leverkusen since arriving in the Winter of 2017 for €13,5 mil. His meteoric rise to one of the stars of the Bundesliga this season has confounded some critics but those that know him understand that it has been a breakthrough in the making.
The journey of Leon Bailey to the first-team of Bayer Leverkusen is nothing short of remarkable. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Bailey began his training at the Phoenix All-Star Academy that was co-founded by Craig Butler, who would later become his guardian and football agent. In 2011, Butler took three youngsters, one being Bailey himself, to Europe in the hopes of signing an academy contract. After wandering throughout Central Europe, they ended up in Belgium at the doorstep of KRC Genk. Due to FIFA restrictions on signing minors under 16, Genk was not able to offer a professional contract.
In order to avoid pre-contractual regulations, Genk offered Butler a position with a club sponsor. The Labour Ministry heard of the arrangement and raided the Genk headquarters, though by that time Bailey fled and ended up at Standard Liege. Roland Duchatelet (then president of Standard Liege) stated openly that he desired to sign the Jamaicans, even calling Dirk Degraen (then General Manager of KRC Genk) a liar. The dispute over Bailey created a sizable rift within the G5 (RSC Anderlecht, AA Gent, KRC Genk, Standard Liege, and Club Brugge KV) that was repaired in 2015 after Duchatelet sold his shares.
Without a club, Bailey returned to Jamaica. They traveled back to Europe on occasion – Ajax almost signed Bailey in 2013 – and finally signed a long-term contract in 2015 with the Slovakian club AS Trencin. When he turned 18, Genk came back for the Jamaican with a transfer fee of €1,4 mil agreed between the two clubs.
By the end of his first full season at Genk, he already won Belgian Young Footballer of the Year as well as top goal of the Europa League. His stellar showings earned him rave reviews from pundits – some have compared him to Arjen Robben – and have kept him in the crosshairs of Europe’s elite clubs. Here we analyze the components of Bailey’s game that have contributed to his rapid rise in world football.
Pace & Dribbling
At first glance, it is easy to mistake Bailey for another good friend of his, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. His raw straight-line speed can be breathtaking and has proven lethal when Leverkusen are able to counterattack from a low defensive block. Over the length of a pitch, it is nearly impossible to keep step with him. It has become more frequent for defenders to foul him early and receive a yellow card than risk him running to their defense at speed.
One of his favorite pieces of skill is to use a simple dummy on an opponent before running onto the ball, knowing that his pace will allow him to win possession. At Genk, he would use it to great effect; at Leverkusen, he developed greater unpredictability that has made it hard to defend. While he is still adept at dummy passes into space, he can also vary the tempo and angle of his movement to set up defenders for his 3-meter bursts of acceleration.
On top of his pace, his electric dribbling allows him to generate better chances for himself and clearer goal-scoring opportunities for his teammates. His penchant for drag backs and feints builds off his frightening speed, further opening space for him to pick a pass. Depending on the side of the pitch, he will use a variety of step-overs to either run down the flank (left-side) or cut inside on his stronger left-foot. Here, comparisons to Robben are apt: when positioned on the right-side of the midfield, defenders know he will cut inside but are still unable to prevent such an occurrence. This season, he averages 2.7 successful dribbles per 90 minutes.
Despite the positive, there are areas that need greater attention. At 20-years-old, he still lacks the necessary strength to protect the ball and can be dispossessed by stronger defenders (2.0 dispossessions/ per 90). His pace, at times, can lead him to overrun the ball and losing possession needlessly. Oftentimes, the ball will become trapped beneath his feet that only allows defenders to close him down more aggressively. Developing better footwork in tight areas should improve his ball control and make him a more effective attacker in the future.
Passing & Crossing
While Herrlich has predominantly used Bailey on the left side either as a wing back or wide midfielder, his future surely lies as a right-sided winger. Whether cutting in from the flank or driving towards the byline, Bailey can play a variety of passes to unlock stubborn defenses. Being left-foot dominant can complicate matters as the side of the pitch is determinative of the type of pass he can play. Nevertheless, improvements in his vertical passing game, as well as greater consistency in crossing, has made him a more versatile threat going forward. This season Bailey’s key passes have increased from 0.4 to 2.0 per game, a sizable increase for a player still adjusting to the rigors of the Bundesliga.
Bailey’s all-around passing game is impressive but is still regressive in certain areas of his game. His ability to play passes with his right foot look clumsy and uncomfortable. Defenders have attempted to orient their body to show him on his right foot; it doesn’t always work as his intuitive dribbling skills can open space for his left foot, but when successful, he can concede possession quite easily. His crossing still lacks the level of consistency needed for a world-class winger. Part of it appears to be down to game intelligence and reading defenses – many of his crosses are behind midfield runners – but those can be ironed out with more first-team experience.
Bailey is more than an aggressive dribbler as he has shown this year to possessing the end product necessary to become a solid goal scoring threat. For being only 20-years-old, he is unusually composed when present with clear chances and has the requisite technique to finish from a variety of angles. When shooting, he prefers to open his body to the goalkeeper and finish side-footed. Lately, he has become comfortable utilizing his powerful left leg to strike with the laces, a shot goalkeepers have struggled to save. His goal against RB Leipzig in November is a perfect encapsulation of the potential he possesses. Once he develops his right foot, he will truly become one of the most dangerous attackers in Germany, if not the world.
With Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool circling like vultures over the Jamaican, Bayer Leverkusen are hoping to hold onto him for as long as they can. He only recently signed a contract that runs into 2022 that includes no buyout clause, which gives the German outfit significant leverage in transfer discussions.
So far, Leverkusen has shown no interest in entertaining discussions on their rising forward with Jonas Boldt – General Manager for Bayer Leverkusen – telling Kicker that any transfer is out of the question. With a valuation around €28,0 mil, clubs will surely have to pay at least double for Leverkusen to consider letting him go. It wouldn’t be surprising if Liverpool emerged as clear favorites for his signature, especially if the rumors surrounding the transfer of Mohamed Salah to Real Madrid hold water. Both possess similar skill sets with Bailey having the higher ceiling of the two. With Bailey recently telling Bild that a move to the Premier League is a dream of his, someone will surely come calling in the near future.
For now, he is able to get significant first-team minutes and plays a pivotal role for a Bayer Leverkusen side desperate to return to the Champions League. Herrlich solidifying his role as their long-term manager should help in his development as it will provide greater stability and structure, values important for a young footballer. All eyes are on the fascinating Jamaican product and it is up to him to deliver the goods.