Leeds fans would ask themselves if a midfielder with 11 goals and 14 assists in just four seasons in his career is a player the team desperately need. However, 23-year old midfielder Lewis O’Brien is way more than just goals and assists, he has been a key cog in every midfield he has ever stepped in. O’Brien is no doubt one of the most talented players to have played in the EFL since his breakout season on loan with Bradford in League One. His performances that season convinced Huddersfield that he had the potential to be an important player in the first team, and since then O’Brien has featured in over 100 appearances for the club, establishing himself as one of the first names on the team sheet and a fan favourite at the John Smith’s Stadium.
He’s been described as many things but O’Brien is the dream midfielder for any side in England, he can hold the ball, he can pass, he can create at a high level and can combine with teammates all over the field. You would expect a midfielder so highly rated to be amongst the goals, but the 22-year old is more of a playmaker and controller in the middle of the park, much like Luka Modric.
O’Brien has been linked with Leeds since last summer, so let’s analyse the player and see how he would fit in the team:
Pass and move
Pass and move is a concept taught at grassroot level in all of football, and O’Brien is a product of that – he knows the fundamentals of the game and uses it to make his team better. According to Opta statistics, O’Brien ranks 9th in the Championship for successful dribbles per 90, a very impressive mark for a central midfielder. The Englishman is not afraid to pick the ball up in deep areas and progress play, combining with teammates or taking the ball and driving through the lines with his unique dribbling style. Anytime he touches the ball, you can guarantee the Huddersfield team will move a few meters towards goal after he’s done with it. This is his defining quality in midfield; he can break lines with his dribbling and it makes him very difficult to mark on the ball. O’Brien has drawn the third most fouls in the Championship so far this season according to fbref.com; which means he has the quick feet and close control to easily glide past midfielders to the point that their only option is to foul him.
His passing is not too shabby either, he has completed his passes this season with 78% accuracy in the Championship. He’s good at passing and receiving the ball on the turn – he never overhits his passes or tries anything fancy. Composed on the ball and making the right decisions anytime teammates are available. O’Brien is the ideal midfielder for a team like Leeds who love to have movement and runners ahead of the midfield during the attacking phase. Though a slightly deeper player than what Pablo Hernandez was, O’Brien could fill the void that has been evident at Elland Road since their former Spanish playmaker returned home at the end of last season. The Whites have not replaced ‘El Mago’ and the lack of creativity and composure in Leeds play this season has cost them possession and points.
According to fbref.com O’Brien has ranked in the top 10 for tackles won in the Championship two seasons in a row; 6th in 2019/20 and 3rd in 2021/22 so far. This shows that he is very effective on the other side of the ball and is willing to defend. He often goes into duels with other midfielders bigger than him and comes out with the ball. It is rare to see a midfielder with his ability on the ball to have very good output off the ball; a lot of players in his roles fail to put in effort defensively. This means he would be a perfect fit at Leeds; where the whole team is expected to defend and press in sync.
Having played under ex-Leeds assistant and U23s manager Carlos Corberan (now Huddersfield coach), there is no doubt the midfielder would be a perfect fit for Bielsa-ball, and would develop his game to a new level in the Premier League. O’Brien is quick and can get around the pitch with agility to close down players, he also likes to harass other players in possession and ends up nicking the ball away especially when in transitions. Great on the ball, hard-working off the ball, combined with a brain that can dictate the game in advanced areas, it is no surprise that he’s one of the most sought-after talents in the Championship over the last year.
Leeds United have done so well to have come so far in the Premier League with two to three natural midfielders in the squad for the past few seasons. Midfield has been a huge issue for the club ever since they stepped up a level above the Championship; they continue to face world class opponents in the middle of the pitch like Paul Pogba, Kevin de Bruyne and N’golo Kante and their lack of quality has been and continues to be punished. Bielsa’s fluid attacking system enables the midfield of the team to function like an elite team, but defensively it is often exposed at the top level. In games where the opponents sit back against the Whites, it has become painfully obvious that their player quality is not up to standards. In games where the team dominates possession, it’s hard for Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Philips to control games because it’s not in their nature – Klich thrives when functions are in advanced areas of the field, making late runs into the box. Phillips is good with the ball at his feet when progressing play, but to ask him to pass Burnley to death is not part of his strong skill set.
This is why Leeds made an attempt to sign O’Brien last summer, the midfielder offers qualities most of the team’s midfielders lack. The former Bradford loanee is very good at ball carrying and playmaking; he can break defensive lines of teams using his ability to drive the ball into space. His passing is also very good, he can find players in the final third with ease; using a variety of passes, whether that’s pinging one out to the winger out wide or threading a pass behind the defence. More notable examples of his style would be Modric and Thiago Alcantara.
In breaking down defences, you need to be able to hold the ball in advanced areas without turning it over – O’Brien provides security in possession, he rarely gives the ball away. In a sense, the Huddersfield man is a version of Adam Forshaw with greater skill and more mobility – the transformation of the team in possession in the middle part of the 2021/22 season was due to the 30-year-old in the middle of the park. Defensively, O’Brien can handle himself on that end. Earlier this month, O’Brien’s fee was quoted just below £10 million – a very affordable fee for a Premier League side. All Leeds need to do now is send over the bid, the Englishman would be the perfect fit in the squad and a much-needed asset for the remainder of this season and beyond.