Many Leeds United fans insisted for the majority of last season that they needed a new left back, one more naturally accustomed to the position than Ezgjan Alioski and one who with the attributes normally associated with top class fullbacks in modern football.
Leeds then went out and acquired the services of Junior Firpo from Barcelona in a move worth around £12.7 million but will Firpo justify that price tag and the 20% sell-on fee agreed with Barca as he takes on a new challenge under Marcelo Bielsa at Elland Road.
He certainly ticks the box of being a natural left back, something Leeds have gone without to good affect in recent years but something the arrival of Firpo could enhance Leeds’ attack even further beyond the 62 goals they poached in the Premier League last season.
Looking at the stats, it becomes clear immediately that he can offer Leeds something extra in the final third. Remarkably he averages 0.1 XG per game for Barcelona which puts him in the top 16% of La Liga fullbacks. It means that he himself is an attacking threat rather than just conjuring up opportunities for his teammates. This can only be a good thing.
Intriguingly, his XA (expected assists) is only just better than his XG standing at 0.11 which is still an impressive average leaving him in the top 28% of La Liga fullbacks. This becomes even more impressive when you look at his expected goals and assists which leaves him in the top 17% of fullbacks in Spain and with an impressive record of an expected goal or an expected assist every five games.
Perhaps the most telling attacking statistic is his shot creating actions per 90. He averages 2.48 shot creating actions a game meaning he creates just under 2.5 attacking opportunities for his teammates every game and considering the improvements made by Patrick Bamford and co up front with the English striker scoring 17 goals in the league last year with a shot accuracy of 45%, the chances he creates down the left could result in goals galore for the Mighty Whites next year.
Despite his clear strength in the final third of the pitch, he perhaps excels earlier in build-up play. Only 3% of fullbacks in Spain have a better pass completion rate than Firpo who makes over 66 passes per game of which 4.22 are progressive balls forward which leaves him in the top 30% of fullbacks over in La Liga. When complimented by his 5.6 progressive runs per 90, it becomes clear he can become a vital utensil in moving the ball from one end of the field to the other playing a key role early in build-up play as well as when the ball creeps into the final third.
Perhaps this indicates that Firpo could play a similar role for Leeds to what we’ve seen Joao Cancelo play on Manchester City’s right this season. Cancelo has evolved the fullback role under Pep Guardiola in 2020/21 sitting further in-field tucking in as part of the midfield interchanging passes with other midfielders occupying an almost quarter-back role in the Manchester City build-up.
Now this is neatly complimented by a willingness to suddenly inject energy into the attack pushing wide getting to the by-line and moving the ball inside keeping defences on their toes sucking them in and stretching them again hitting teams with a wide-range of passes whether short and sharp in centre-field or longer and into space when shuttling down the wing into wider spaces.
Ultimately, he’s blended together the centre-mid role and fullback role moving from the wide space into the half spaces and, based of the statistical performance of Junior Firpo, it stands to reason he could offer something similar on the left of the Leeds attack building on the positional developments we’ve seen introduced over the last three seasons under Marcelo Bielsa with midfielders often asked to play in those fullback roles interchanging positions in attack pushing in and out of midfield to contract and expand opposition defences as seen by Bielsa’s willingness to play two different shapes one which is far more compact than the other changing from 3-3-1-3 to 4-1-4-1.
So, it’s clear that Firpo can offer the Leeds attack something different next year but what about the first question that has to be asked of every fullback: how good is he in defence?
The stats suggest that he’ll feel right at home in Bielsa’s system. He averages over 14 pressures per 90 demonstrating that he can support Bielsa’s high-pressing style winning the ball high up the field and enabling Leeds to attack high-up the pitch. That said, he might want to improve how often he wins the ball back completing just 2.3 tackles per game. In order to make his pressing game more effective this has to improve so he can hand Leeds the chance to win the ball back as is required of Bielsa Ball.
Nonetheless, Firpo seems like the perfect fit in the Leeds United system. He can offer a style which would settle straight into the Leeds system whilst introducing some new elements which could challenge opposition defences in new and testing ways. He even suits Leeds’ defensive systems but needs to improve his tackling if he wants to be truly effective.