Jon Howe: Midfield of dreams
In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe talks us through an important role in any team, the midfield, whilst also discussing some of the best to have played in that position.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
When you’re at school, everyone wants to be a striker; they get the goals, the glory and the headlines. But the cool kids want to be a midfielder. Because the cool kids understand the game, and how the midfielder dictates it like a conductor with a 50-piece orchestra hanging on their every twitch. And the best midfielders do it in an unfussy, nonchalant and understated way. The coolest kids of all don’t take the well-trodden route to the back seat of the bus, and likewise, they understand why David Batty is one of the best, and most under-appreciated midfielders the game has ever known. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s just agree that midfielders are the life and soul of football, and in that sense Leeds United have been truly blessed.
Right through the eras, Elland Road has been witness to a procession of midfield maestros, and few clubs can claim such a high concentration of central-third stock amid their greatest-ever players. Bobby Collins, Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles, Tony Currie, John Sheridan, David Batty, Gary McAllister, Gary Speed, Gordon Strachan, Lee Bowyer, Olivier Dacourt and many more. And of course in more recent times we have enjoyed a feast of string-pulling from Pablo Hernandez and the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’, Kalvin Phillips.
But then, when is a midfielder not a midfielder? The modern game no longer compartmentalises players in the same way, because tactics and formations are so fluid, inter-changeable and dynamic. They have to be. And while the traditional ‘Regista’ is quite recognisable as a Busquets, Jorginho or indeed, Kalvin Phillips-type of player, further forward things get harder to categorise.
Kevin De Bruyne, for example, can be described in numerous ways, and his position and role will change match-by-match and indeed, minute-by-minute. I guess when a player is outstanding at basically everything, it becomes harder and more futile to pin them down with a label, in fact in De Bruyne’s case it’s bordering on slanderous. De Bruyne is a strong runner, a strong passer, a strong tackler, a strong finisher, has a strong pressing game, is a strong set-piece specialist, and has composure, poise and grace, but also strength, aggression and pace. It makes you sick.
So we no longer look at midfielders as a mercurial Gary McAllister-type or a spit and sawdust Bobby Collins-type. Gone are the one-dimensional identities of the free-flowing artist and the one-job enforcer, we now need to check a midfielder against at least three categories from a drop-down list of holding midfielder, deep-lying midfielder, attacking midfielder, floating midfielder, number ten, box-to-box midfielder, wide midfielder, false nine, false ten and hybrid midfielder.
This naturally brings us to Brenden Aaronson, our first signing of the summer from Red Bull Salzburg, and our first permanent midfield signing at first team level since Adam Forshaw in 2018. Marcelo Bielsa got the very most out of what he inherited at Leeds United in terms of midfielders. It’s fair to say we were overdue some new blood in the engine room, albeit modern football parlance suggests ‘engine room’ is another obsolete term and we should be looking at a Tesla for a synonym to represent a new midfielder, with features, mechanisms and gadgets appearing out of every surface, and some we don’t even realise are there for a few years.
I’ve no idea how to categorise Brenden Aaronson, so I won’t even try, suffice to say he appears to have the goal-scoring prowess of Lee Bowyer, the work-rate of David Batty and the ability to dictate a game like Pablo Hernandez. Stop me if you think I’m bigging him up a little too much here.
All aggrandising gestures aside, we haven’t properly replaced Pablo in this modern Leeds United team, and while you could argue that is impossible and it’s reckless to offer someone such big shoes to fill, the focal point ‘string-puller’ is a critical feature of pretty much every successful team. Pablo was an example of a midfielder with a sixth sense; someone who always had time and space, who knew when to hold onto the ball and when to pass it. And someone who knew when to pass it simply and when to pass it direct and incisively. You only have to look at two goal-assists from our promotion season to appreciate Pablo’s worth, notwithstanding the nine goals he scored himself.
The first-time through-ball to an onrushing Stuart Dallas at Stoke was the key pass in what was for many people the archetypal ‘Bielsa-Ball’ goal. Equally instinctive and executed with mind-blowing accuracy and panache, was the lofted 40-yard scoop that Pablo dug out and landed on the green to send Jack Harrison down the wing and in on goal, in the 3-0 post-lockdown win against Fulham. The ‘no-look’ pass was Pablo’s trump card, but as much as he could see these things with an extra-terrestrial level of ESP, he also knew when to hold onto the ball; to keep it simple, to be patient, to link play, to prompt and keep possession, waiting for the opening. At Championship level an opening would eventually come, at the level Leeds are at now, that quality of ‘knowing’ has been scarce, and palpably-so.
Leeds United’s two seasons in the Premier League have been so hectic and chaotic that it has been impossible at times for someone to have a huge influence over an individual game, albeit we have seen dominant performances from the likes of Kalvin and Raphinha on occasions. Whether Brenden Aaronson has that ability we will have to wait and see, and perhaps it is unfair to label him in such a way, but when you consider that clubs like Leicester (with James Maddison) and Crystal Palace (with Connor Gallagher) have that type of player in their ranks (or ‘had’ in Palace’s case), and there are lots of other examples, it is not unreasonable for Leeds fans to hanker after the same.
The other reason we should perhaps not expect too much from Aaronson at this stage, is that we hope the squad-building is only just beginning this summer, and by kick-off again in August we could well be in a better position to put all our chips on the Aaronson factor, knowing what he’s got to play with.
I’m being very idealistic here of course, but that’s what the early stages of the transfer window are for, and while we’ve been here several times and got burned, we’ve also got a history of producing some of the best midfielders to have graced the game. And what we call them or how we categorise them doesn’t really matter. The label of a ‘Leeds United midfielder’ carries some weight and some prestige and some history. And if Leeds fans want to dream about how good this new one can become, then they are doing so from a lofty and privileged position of deep knowledge and profound experience. So let them dream about great midfielders, and the great moments they can produce, because that’s what the cool kids do.