Leon Bailey has already made an impression on fans – but his fitness will need to settle for him to truly be key this season.
Words: Alan Wilson | @VILLAAlan54
Leon Bailey’s arrival at Villa Park in early August caught a few Villa fans by surprise, when he was signed from top Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen.
Able to play on both wings or as a striker if required, he arrived stating in his first interview that he would be fit and ready to play in the Premier League “in a few days”. In reality, he was carrying a slight ‘pull’ and was unable to train at full intensity leading up to the opening match at Watford some two weeks later on 14th August. However, named amongst the subs at Vicarage Road, he was thrown into the fray with a little over 10 minutes to go, with Villa trailing 0-3 to the Hornets after a lack-lustre performance until that point. His impact on the game was immediate and quite stunning.
Receiving the ball out on the left wing, he slipped past a Watford defender and curled an inch perfect low cross into Watford’s penalty area right into the path of the advancing John McGinn, who without checking his run, swept the ball into the top right-hand corner. That assist by Bailey and the superb finish from McGinn kick-started a frantic last few minutes with El Ghazi converting a spot-kick after Traore had been fouled running into the penalty area. Unfortunately time ran out before Villa could level the score-line. However, Villa fans had seen just what an impact Leon Bailey could make in just a few minutes on the pitch and were now hungry for more.
The niggle of an injury coupled with a lack of match fitness meant that Bailey was unavailable to start for the home games with both Newcastle and Brentford. The next time Bailey appeared was at Chelsea on 11th September as a 56th minute substitute for Jacob Ramsey who had received an early yellow card in the first-half. He was unable to make a significant impact in this match as Villa, despite playing well for the most part, were pegged back by three Chelsea goals after making a couple of sloppy defensive errors. Even so, there were a couple of occasions where Bailey’s pace caused the Chelsea defence a few problems.
The following Saturday at B6 against a stubborn Everton side, every Villa fans prayers were answered when Dean Smith saw fit to introduce Bailey in the 61st minute and thus change the attacking approach, in a bid to break the Toffees determined midfield and defence down. To coincide with Bailey’s introduction Villa started to open Everton up down both wings.
After one such foray down the right flank, Matty Cash cut into the box from the right wing and smashed in his first ever goal for Villa, with a left footed screamer to wake Villa Park up and turn the volume of the atmosphere right up. Enter one Leon Bailey! With his blistering pace and fascinating ball trickery, Bailey started to put the Everton defence in a spin and suddenly the Holte End could smell blood.
With Aston Villa’s version of “Allez, Allez” ringing out around the ground, Villa earned a corner on the right and Bailey trotted across to take it. His sweet left-footed in-swinging corner bent and dipped towards the far post and in Digne’s effort to get his head to it, the unfortunate Everton full-back could only get the slightest touch on it and simply helped the ball to its ultimate destination… the far corner of the net!
This second goal set Villa Park alight and was the signal for Everton fans to somewhat surprisingly start leaving their seats and head for the exit doors. Such was Villa’s dominance now, the mood had totally changed and more Aston Villa goals looked very likely.
What happened next was simply sensational. Everton urged on by Rafa Benitez from the touchline, had pushed forward in an attempt to reduce the arrears and get back into the game, when Danny Ings hooked a looping pass from near the right side touchline beautifully into the path of Bailey who set off after it from the centre of the pitch. The Jamaican wingers pace was electrifying and as the ball bounced up in front of him he headed it forward towards the penalty area into a space where there were no Everton defenders. He raced onto it just as Begovic started to advance out towards him and met the ball with a stunning left foot drive that very nearly tore the net from the posts! Villa Park absolutely erupted, not just because Bailey had scored his first goal in front of the Holte End, but because of the sheer pace, power and raw confidence that he had shown in converting his chance. Excruciatingly, for him and the Villa fans, two minutes later Bailey had to be subbed off due to experiencing a reoccurrence of the niggle to his left thigh.
Speaking after the game, the winger stated that his injury was stiffness in his quad after “hitting the ball too hard”, and mentioned that it was “not serious.”
However, what everybody had witnessed was massively encouraging. In the few glimpses we have seen of him in a Villa shirt so far, Bailey has already shown great awareness, pace and power, coupled with a devilish desire to display some real trickery on the ball. Add to this the ability to deliver an accurate dead ball, plus great crosses into the danger area and you can see how he is set to become a handful for seasoned Premier League defenders. Perhaps equally exciting for the Villa faithful, is that he is also a potential match-winner with a big desire to score goals himself.
Leon Bailey’s ‘skillset’ is reminiscent of a certain Mr Tony Morley who won major honours for Aston Villa when raiding down the wings in similar fashion at B6 some 40 years ago! One thing that is absolutely certain, the Villa faithful have found another hero in claret and blue and Bailey’s ability to turn a game could drive the club towards their goal of European football – somewhat sooner than was anticipated – as long as he stays fit.