This week in our series of World Cup hopefuls, we’re looking at another player that we believe deserves a place in Gareth Southgate’s 23 man squad that will travel to Russia this summer.
Having already made a case for Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, we’re now focussing on a player that is yet to brandish the iconic Three Lions crest. In fact, this player has made just one junior appearance on the international stage, and has never featured in any of the English football leagues. The player is Leon Bailey, a young winger currently making a name for himself at Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.
Leon Bailey was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1997. He first made a name for himself at the Phoenix All-Star academy, playing under his adoptive father Craig Butler. When Butler recognised his son’s footballing potential, he decided that they would travel to Europe to find a suitable club to develop Bailey’s talent, and after gaining valuable experience in Germany, Austria, and Slovakia, Bailey eventually earned a contract with Belgian side KRC Genk in 2015.
Bailey spent two seasons at Genk, racking up a total of 77 appearances for the club, and scoring 16 goals in the process. He was named as Belgium’s Young Professional Footballer of the Year in 2016, following in the footsteps of Youri Tielemans, Axel Witsel, and Vincent Kompany, and at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, Bailey was linked with the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
He was eventually snapped up by German club Bayern Leverkusen at the end of the January 2017 transfer window, for a fee of around €13.5 million. Bailey’s first six months in the Bundesliga were fairly uneventful; however, since the beginning of the current season, the 20-year-old winger has certainly turned a few heads.
Bailey has scored 11 goals in 22 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen since August last year, and has been praised by Bayer boss Heiko Herrlich for his versatility – which indeed is a huge part of his appeal as a player. Bailey has pace in abundance, is a fantastic dribbler, and isn’t afraid of testing goalkeepers when the opportunity arises. Due to his Jamaican heritage and searing pace, Bailey could be likened to current England winger Raheem Sterling; however, this would be something of a lazy comparison. Bailey is both a dependable winger, and has featured as a wide forward and wing back. His versatility on the left-flank is more reminiscent of Bayern Munich’s David Alaba. Watch him play on the right side of the pitch, and you can see glimmers of a young Arjen Robben. At just 20-years of age, Bailey could see his position change as his career continues to develop.
Like John Barnes and Raheem Sterling, Bailey is eligible to play for both Jamaica and England, in his case, due to the fact that two of his grandparents are British citizens – this has been disputed however.
Eligibility aside, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that Gareth Southgate could decide to include Leon Bailey in his 23-man squad for Russia 2018. Southgate has already proven that he is a tactically flexible manager, and with a lack of natural wide players currently as his disposal, the England boss could be tempted to add Bailey as a wildcard attacking option. It’s also fair to say that Southgate isn’t afraid of giving youth a chance – his frequent selections of Man United’s Marcus Rashford being a prime example of this.
If you’re still not sold on Leon Bailey, consider this – Bailey has only played in 15 league matches this season, which is over 25% less than Man City’s Raheem Sterling. In that time has scored just six less goals that Sterling (9 / 15), provided one less assist than Sterling (5 / 6), has a higher average amount of shots per 90 (3.5 / 2.9), a higher amount of key passes (2.4 / 1.9), and a far higher amount of crosses per 90 (3.0 / 0.2).
Bailey is yet to commit himself to an international team, but with Jamaica failing to qualify for the World Cup, joining the England squad would certainly be a tempting proposition. It’s also worth noting, that as a relative unknown in the UK, Bailey could approach Russia 2018 without the hardcoded pressure that seems to exist in many of England’s current squad.
Imagine that, an in form, high ability England player, who might actually enjoy themselves at an international tournament. Stranger things have happened.
Our verdict: Unlikely, but hopefully one for the future – If he’s actually eligible!