It’s an unforgiving world out there for a footballer. Football fans are fickle and certain players are written off easily upon small mistakes. Just ask Leon Bailey.
I don’t think I have ever come across a player that divides a fanbase quite like Bailey. He is the Aston Villa equivalent of Marmite – some love him, some (many of whom are very vocal about it) hate him. But the negativity he has received at times has been unfounded, especially this season.
Bailey joined Villa at a bad time. Our best player, the star we were built around, had just left and our new signings were expected to fill the void left behind. A team dependent on one man signed three others to replace him. It was never going to work, despite all our wishful thinking. Dean Smith’s new tactics were not effective and after a dreadful start, he was sacked. One tactically limited manager was replaced with another completely hopeless one (the less we say about him the better). Villa have been in turmoil since Bailey arrived; he was always likely to struggle.
As with the majority of our team, Bailey’s form picked up dramatically when Unai Emery arrived. He finished the 2022/23 season with five goals and four assists in 36 games. Not world-beating numbers, but not a bad return for a winger.
This season, he has hit another level. Bailey has 12 direct goal involvements (six goals and six assists) in just 950 minutes this season, which works out as a goal involvement every 79 minutes. For comparison and example, Mo Salah has 12 goals and four assists in 1,171 minutes, one every 73 minutes. Now, I’m not suggesting that Bailey is as good as Salah but you can’t deny he is in a similar vein of form, especially when you consider that Salah starts nearly all Liverpool’s games and Bailey has mainly come off the bench for Villa. He is having a massive impact in a short time.
From a statistical point of view, Bailey stacks up well against other wingers. He ranks in the 80th percentile for progressive carries with 4.62 per game and in the 82nd percentile for assists per 90 minutes with 0.29 per 90. Additionally, a non-penalty expected goals rate of 0.33 per 90 (89th percentile) is nothing to be sniffed at. All this despite having started just two Premier League games all season.
In terms of comparison, he profiles similarly to Iñaki Williams of Athletic Bilbao and Bryan Mbeumo of Brentford, two criminally underrated wingers. Furthermore, AC Milan’s Rafael Leão (reportedly a one-time Villa transfer target) is also statistically similar to Bailey, and he’s arguably the best winger in Serie A.
Statistical analysis is all well and good, but does he pass the eye test?
For me, he most definitely does. He is much more direct this season and he looks confident on the ball, producing a plethora of ‘YouTube highlight video’ moments already this season. In the past, Bailey has cut a frustrated figure in a Villa shirt, so it’s great to see him happy on the pitch with his perseverance paying off. He may not be starting, but he’s thriving.
Football fans, by nature, are reactionary and are quick to forget past success. Bad performances happen and bad results usually follow, but players don’t deserve to be written off. Villa have come a long way in such a short time, and with this comes higher expectations. Bailey is stepping up, showing he can contribute meaningfully for this team as Unai Emery continues to get us reaching higher and higher.