Leon Bailey is hard to hold on to. Bundesliga defences have struggled all season, and on Matchday 20 in the Bundesliga Mainz were no different.
Three minutes after the restart, the 20-year-old winger took a touch a few yards outside of the box, let the ball sit up and then lashed a stunning drive into the far corner. It was a spectacular, unstoppable effort. For Leverkusen, a goal that set them on their way to another three points. For Bailey, it was yet another moment of magic in a breakout season.
Even before a ball was kicked in Leverkusen on Sunday, highlights of Bailey were on the screens inside the stadium. His crosses and that neat way he controls the ball close to his body but still has enough space to whip a perfect cross into the box. His goals, which tend to be shots hammered goalwards with great power. His ball control that plays to his agility, allowing him to shimmy and sliver through the tightest of spaces, leaving defenders in his wake.
The same Bailey depicted on the screens came to life on the pitch on Sunday afternoon. The 20-year-old showed presence in the box to fool his opponents, energy to confuse and frustrate the opposition and pace to leave even France’s U21 captain Abdou Diallo looking older and worse than he is.
He is both the classic winger and the modern forward. He is fast – top speed clocked around the 22 mph mark. He is dangerous – he has the most shots and shot assists at Leverkusen. And he delivers – he has ten goals and five assists in all competitions this season. All at the tender age of 20.
Beyond the numbers lies an intelligent player. Bailey started the game on the left wing, scored after cutting in from the right and appeared to finish it in the middle. As the players left the field at halftime after a relatively quiet first half, Bailey told Julian Brandt they should swap flanks because he recognised he would have more space on the right. “It’s about cleverness. You just have to see where you need to make the change,” Bailey said after the game. Three minutes after the restart, Bailey opened the scoring.
The Kingston-born rising star admits he’s more comfortable on the right because there are more options as a left-footed player there. He says there he can leave the defender guessing, and Mainz’s defence were certainly left flat-footed.
His intelligence shines through when he didn’t have the ball too. Bailey often worked back to win it, or drifted elsewhere to bring others into play. With 10 minutes left in the game, he was still giving instructions to teammates.
Bailey credits manager Heiko Herrlich as playing a key role in getting the team playing the right way, but it’s Bailey’s individual quality that once again won the game for Leverkusen. His real skill is the effect his overall play is having on the team’s performance.
Leverkusen’s desire to return to continental relevance through Champions League qualification took another step towards reality thanks to Bailey's role in the win against Mainz. It’s an observation that has proven true a number of times this season and likely will again before the campaign is over.
“I’m trying my best to go on the right path, keep developing even with pressure on your shoulders. That’s what makes you a better player and a stronger person,” Bailey said afterwards about the growing pressure on his shoulders. Right now, he’s Leverkusen’s best player and perhaps the most impressive player of his age anywhere.
Leon Bailey is already hot property and Leverkusen’s resolve will be tested when the bids inevitably come rolling in.
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