In many ways the match against Real Madrid is a free swing. Miss and, unlike back in 2016, defeat doesn’t mean Anfield won’t be hosting European nights. Win and the players become immortal Liverpool legends.
It means Jurgen Klopp and the recruitment team are in an enviable position. The squad was good enough to finish fourth and reach a Champions League final meaning drastic changes aren’t necessary.
Instead, however, subtle improvements in key areas appear to be on the agenda. Ousmane Dembele was revealed to be a Liverpool transfer target recently and, if reports are to be believed, Leon Bailey is one of their contingency plans if they don’t manage to strike a deal for the Barcelona forward.
Our friends at Football Whispers have run the rule over the versatile attacker to find out why he makes the shortlist at Anfield.
Who is Leon Bailey?
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1997, Bailey made the move to Europe at the age of 13. He ended up at Austrian club USK Leube Anif – now known as FC Liefering after being bought by Red Bull Salzburg to act as their feeder team – and Craig Butler, his adoptive father, was appointed as head scout.
Bailey had trials with Genk, Standard Liege, Anderlecht and Ajax but, due to European laws which stated clubs weren’t allowed to sign non-Europeans under the age of 18, teams weren’t prepared to risk being sanctioned for acquiring him.
However, after undergoing a trial at Ajax, the Amsterdam club’s then-boss Frank de Boer was impressed. It was clear he would’ve been snapped up had the Dutch giants been allowed: “We tested him in different areas. In speed and agility, he was already better than some guys of the first team. He’s so fast it’s not normal. His speed in combination with his technique is very rare. Exceptional. He has no weak points.”
Bailey did eventually seal a move, joining Slovakian side AS Trencin. After just four months he secured a switch to Genk with the Belgians paying €1.4million. At the end of the 2015/16 season Bailey’s impressive showings were recognised when he claimed the Belgian Young Footballer of the Year award.
His 2016/17 form resulted in a host of clubs attempting to pry him away from Genk during the winter window. Ajax had a bid reportedly worth £10million rejected while Paris Saint-Germain were told that their £8million offer wasn’t enough. He was also named as a Chelsea transfer target but an offer failed to materialise
It was Bayer Leverkusen, however, who did enough to tempt Genk into selling. A bid of €14million plus future add-ons did the job and Bailey made the move to Germany, putting pen to paper on a deal to tie him to the club until 2022.
What are Bailey’s strengths?
He’s a quintessential modern-day wide forward. The 20-year-old can play anywhere across the front line, operating comfortably on either flank, but his best position as things stand is on the right.
His style is aggressive and he looks to isolate players and attack them. He’s fleet-footed, has a bag of tricks and explosive acceleration. All of these traits aid his dribbling, a strong point of his, and he completes 2.35 per 90 minutes.
But he doesn’t rely on his pace to beat players. He’s intelligent, has great spatial awareness and has the vision of a playmaker. He plays 1.62 open-play key passes per 90 minutes – the fifth highest of those aged 21 or under.
This translates into assists and this season he’s averaged 0.36 per 90, the most of any player under 21. The Bayer Leverkusen man also makes the top 10 for goals per 90, too, showing he’s got the full package.
There’s also a bit of Arjen Robben about him. With a dip of the shoulder he cuts inside onto his left foot and curls the ball home before the opposition have time to react. It’s obvious what he’s going to do but it’s difficult to stop.
What are Bailey’s weaknesses?
Like with the majority of young players, his decision making often lets him down. However, this will improve with experience and, unfortunately for now, there’s no quick fix for it.
The need to get the ball onto his left foot causes problems at times. As soon as he works a favourable situation he’s looking to fire off a shot, even when team-mates are in better positions.
How much will Bailey cost?
Chelsea reportedly bid £20million for the flying winger in January and it was immediately rejected. Bayer Leverkusen are believed to want closer to £50million and even that would make him a bargain.
During the 2017/18 season only two players under 21 were involved in more goals across the big five leagues and one of those was Kylian Mbappe. The Frenchman is set to move to Paris Saint-Germain this summer for around the £150million mark.
The other player above Bailey is Maxi Gomez. The Celta Vigo forward was recently named as a Tottenham Hotspur transfer target.
What is Bailey’s most likely destination?
Manchester City are keen on the 20-year-old and want him to team up with close friend Raheem Sterling. They aren’t the only Premier League team interested in him, though.
Liverpool and Chelsea have been courting him since before he joined Genk. He revealed as much after signing for the Belgian club in 2015: “Chelsea, Liverpool, Juventus, were all clubs that my name had then been linked with, contacted by.
“Everyone wanted me, but not everyone could get the paperwork in order. I did it (joining Genk) for my development, not the biggest club. I have to play at my age and progress.”
In a recent interview with German newspaper Bild, Bailey opened up about moving to the Premier League: “Of course I have a dream club, but I will not tell. Basically, England was and still is my dream. And if I keep working hard, I’m sure it will work someday.”
The lure of Pep Guardiola and the riches of Manchester City make it difficult to look past a move to the Etihad but, as he’s shown with his career moves to date, he values playing time. Liverpool could offer him more game time and they have the money to turn Bayer Leverkusen’s head.