A player compared to Virgil Van Dijk is one to take notice of; once Leo Hjelde was signed to Celtic, the whispers from the club were that he was next in line to make the big step Van Dijk took at his time with the club. Hjelde has had scouts all over Europe chasing his signature ever since he was 14 years old, he was earmarked at an early age to become one of Norway’s best players and lead the next generation alongside the likes of Ødegaard and Haaland.
During his time on loan to Ross County, his former manager John Hughes likened him to Virgil van Dijk: “Leo is going to be the next van Dijk. Trust me on that. The quality he has shown, the physical challenge, playing real men’s football and standing up to it – it’s been a wonderful experience for Leo. He’s got massive things in front of him.”
Leeds were very fast to act and acquire Leo Hjelde when he became available, the youngster was part of a recruitment drive led by the club and has produced the likes of Pascal Struijk, Illan Meslier and more recently Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood.
Leeds United signed Leo Hjelde from Celtic in a deal worth £1 million, just days after he turned 18-years-old. He signed on a four-year deal, and was marked to take the same path to the Leeds first team as Pascal Struijk.
Hjelde was born for football; his father, who has been a huge influence on his life and career, was a footballer who had played a considerable number of games in his career between Norway and England. Hjelde was a prodigy, he was a regular at youth level in Rosenborg but he never made a first team appearance in that span; but his talent was so great that Celtic took a chance on him and brought in a 16/17 year-old into the club. Hjelde’s father pointed out that the move was based on the fact that the club laid a proper path for his development to first team football.
The defender has featured for Norway at international level – making over 16 appearances for Norway’s Under-16s and Under-17s, he is now at Under-21 level for Norway and is knocking on the door of the senior national team.
Hjelde is a very intelligent footballer, he reportedly based his game around fellow Countryman Kristoff Ajer; another prodigy- the two share similarities aside playing style and it was said that the two were very close during his time at Celtic. The Norway under-21 international can play as a centre-back or left-back, with two caps and one goal currently to his name. He likes to put the ball on the floor and play; that is his whole game – a modern ball-playing defender; his technical ability is his standout attribute.
Hjelde can pass the ball very well and it’s not a surprise that he featured in midfield during his younger years; he looks so comfortable with the ball in the middle of the park. His ability to break lines makes him very valuable and was the reason why many scouts had their eye on him at youth level, he is not afraid to drive the ball into open space or attempt to pass the ball through tight spaces.
Defensively, he’s very sound, he can handle himself against Premier League opposition, as seen in his debut against West Ham. He is big and tall; he uses this to his advantage, he rarely gets beaten in the air. Due to his frame, he likes to use his body to shield the ball anytime the opponent comes close. You would be mistaken if you took him by face value, his blonde hair and height would mislead you into thinking he avoids physicality – it is quite the opposite, he loves to go toe-to-toe with opponents.
He made his debut this season, starting at left-back against West Ham – a performance which earned rave reviews from club legend Jermaine Beckford. He gushed: “The young boy, Hjelde when he came on as well, what a player he’s looking by the way. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him. But that’s twice we’ve seen him, twice we’ve seen him against West Ham, against a very physical, very strong, very quick centre forward in Michail Antonio and a tricky player in Jarrod Bowen. I don’t want to say he had them in his pocket, but I think he did.”
Looking into the future, Leeds technical team must decide on where to play Hjelde and how to use him; as mentioned earlier he has shown the versatility to play multiple positions across defence and midfield.
Leeds U23 coach Mark Jackson discussed Hjelde’s ideal position after his debut against West Ham: “It’s always a challenge for a player to come in and make their debut when he’s not been with us long after signing and going away on international duty. He [Hjelde] has not trained a lot with us.
“We know he can play left-back, he played left-back during his loan spell at Ross County but ultimately he’s a centre-back and I think he showed that in the second half. I think his second half performance was really pleasing. He was finding his feet in the first half and found it tough, but he stuck at it so overall it was a good performance from him.”
In defence, his value on the ball will shine – modern systems and philosophies are based around player ability on the ball, this is what has made Europe’s elite teams elite. A technical player in your back line or in deeper areas of the pitch, makes playing out easier and facilitates ball movement.
With the number of first choice centre-backs at the club at the moment, Hjelde has quite a long line of players to beat before he can make a name for himself in the first team; because of that I believe his future may lie at left-back.
Leeds have struggled with that position since the departure of Gianni Alioski. Junior Firpo’s acquisition has not been a good decision as of now and asking Stuart Dallas to deputise on that flank is not ideal – as his qualities suit different positions more. This could provide Hjelde with a much-needed and much-deserved opportunity to shine on a consistent basis in the Premier League.