Unai Emery has transformed Aston Villa’s outlook since his November 2022 arrival. Among the players he’s had the biggest impact on is Leon Bailey.

Just over a year ago, on 5 January 2023, Leon Bailey lay face down on the Villa Park turf, head in hand and tears streaming down his face. It was pretty close to rock-bottom for the Jamaican winger, who until then had largely struggled to fulfil the promise he’d shown prior to his move to Aston Villa a season and a half earlier.

The trigger for this emotional outburst was a late miss in a Premier League game against local rivals Wolves. He’d raced in behind the defence to collect a lofted through ball from Danny Ings, skipped past goalkeeper José Sa to leave him with an empty net to slot into from 17 yards, but his feeble right-footed effort bobbled wide of the near post.

He sunk to the floor a few minutes later at full-time and was consoled by teammates before posting an apology to fans on social media, saying he felt he was “at [fault] for not coming away with all three points tonight” and settling for a 1-1 draw.

Leon Bailey after Wolves miss

“Surely [it] will be very difficult to sleep tonight,” he added. But suffice to say, the only sleepless nights occurring this season are those of left-backs either about to face him or who just have.

It would be a slight exaggeration to say Bailey has completely turned his career around since that Wolves draw; a bad miss it may well have been, but he was still playing regularly in the Premier League, something many can only dream of. Nevertheless, he’s in a much better place now, thriving as one of the most productive forwards in England’s top tier for a Villa side really capturing the imagination.

Bailey’s professional career has been somewhat erratic. He’s gone through a few periods of lesser productivity, such as when he seemed to stall in 2018-19 with Bayer Leverkusen and didn’t really find his feet again until 2020-21, his form then earning the move to Villa. He then took a while to establish himself properly in England, with injuries causing havoc and consistency eluding him.

“The adaptation for some players is longer, then we need to understand the adaptation, how each player can do it differently,” Emery told reporters earlier this month when asked about Bailey’s form, so it’s certainly not as if the Basque coach’s arrival in November 2022 triggered a sudden improvement in the player.

“When I arrived here, I tried to set him as a second striker and for him to take the best characteristics,” Emery added. “He was still in the adaptation when I arrived here and the adaptation is everything. This season he didn’t really start strong, and last season he was not consistent always.”

Bailey even suffered the ignominy of being subbed on and off in the defeat to Liverpool in early September, which preceded a discussion with Emery about his output.

“It was not me trying to punish him or make him feel bad, it was tactical, but he can think it was a little bit harsh on him for me to change him. I explained it to him: ‘No Leon, I want more. We need more of you. You have to be consistent and focus more than you are doing because it is not enough’. His commitment has improved and his focus, working every day harder, has improved.”

In fairness to Bailey, he had already chipped in with three goals (two in the UEFA Europa Conference League) in the four games before that Liverpool defeat, but since then his influence has continued to grow, to the extent that his productivity is up there with the Premier League’s very best.

Few others can be considered as much of a dual threat as Bailey, with the 26-year-old offering plenty of creativity as well as goal threat. With non-penalty expected goals (np xG) per 90 of 0.32 and expected assists (xA) per 90 of 0.36, he ranks among the most dangerous players in the league, with those metrics reflecting the promising positions he finds and the quality of his final pass.

Premier League creators and goal threats - Leon Bailey - xG plus xA
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Only seven players (minimum 500 minutes played) can better his combined np xG+xA figure of 0.68 per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season, and he’s one of just three to record 0.3 or more for both metrics alongside Bukayo Saka (0.34 np xG, 0.36 xA) and Mohamed Salah (0.5 np xG and 0.3 xA).

So, he’d be in esteemed company even if he was only producing goals and assists in line with his xG and xA, but he’s actually exceeding both by a considerable margin.

Bailey’s managing 1.07 goal involvements on a per-90-minute basis this season, which is better than any other Premier League player to have featured for at least 500 minutes. Furthermore, he’s the only player averaging 0.5 goals and 0.5 assists per 90.

Premier League creators and goal threats - Leon Bailey - assists plus goals
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

He’s also got the best minutes-per-goal-involvement record among the same group of players, recording one every 84 minutes; Liverpool pair Diogo Jota (88 minutes) and Salah (89 minutes) are the only others to go sub-90.

Premier League goal involvement frequency

A couple of his goals were aided by deflections, granted, but he also possesses an unpredictability that helps make him such a threat. While he’s undoubtedly more comfortable on his left side, and several of his goals this season follow a similar pattern of him tearing towards a central position and unleashing a shot off his left foot, Bailey has adapted himself to ensure he’s no one-trick pony.

A “cut-in merchant” he certainly isn’t and this is most notable with respect to the chances he creates for others, with his tendency to get to the byline being fairly unusual for an inverted winger, who can be seen as predictable – like Manchester United’s Antony – if they don’t mix things up.

Bailey’s explosive pace often gives him an edge over his marker when it comes to chasing through balls, but he doesn’t then obsess over trying to get the ball back onto his left foot, knowing he’s strong enough on his right to pick out the correct pass.

Four of his seven Premier League assists this season have involved Bailey getting to – or very close to – the byline on the right side of the goal, and three of those decisive passes have been with his right foot.

It’s not that this is a completely new phenomenon for him this season; the last two of his four Premier League assists in 2022-23 were similar, but it feels like a more deliberate ploy this term as Villa use Bailey to stretch the pitch and pack the penalty area.

The heatmaps below of his first two seasons at Villa and then this campaign support the theory, with the graphic for 2021-22 and 2022-23 showing a far greater tendency to cut inside from the right flank before getting to the penalty area, whereas in 2023-24, Bailey is more often cutting onto his left foot after reaching the box, if he’s cutting in at all.

Leon Bailey 21-23 heat map
Leon Bailey 23-24 heat map

He’s more direct and getting into the box with greater regularity, tallying 7.1 touches in the opposition’s area every 90 minutes, a significant increase from before (4.2 in 2020-21 and 4.5 in 2022-23). Considering he’s always had fine ability in tight spaces, it’s no wonder his productivity has increased in line with being a more present threat in the area.

But we also have to note that Bailey’s improved output is obviously helped by those around him and the runs they make. Villa are very fluid in attack and blessed with real pace and technical ability. Overlapping and underlapping runs from the likes of Moussa Diaby, Matty Cash, Ollie Watkins and even Ezri Konsa on occasion have created overloads that have ultimately led to numerous chances, with Bailey’s use of the ball in such scenarios often very astute.

His understanding with Watkins appears to be strongest, though. They may have only linked up for 12 chances between them, but, incredibly, six of those have led to a goal: three for Bailey, three for Watkins. That makes them the most fruitful pairing in the Premier League this season in terms of goals.

Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey combination
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Bailey deserves huge credit for how he’s taken his game to a new level at Villa, and while you have to acknowledge some hints of good fortune along the way, his xG+xA figures highlight the quality he’s bringing to Emery’s team.

The impact of his manager isn’t lost on Bailey, though.

“You can see [Emery] has improved every single player at the club. Not just the club, but the staff; everything around this club, he has improved,” Bailey told Football Focus recently. “He knew I had a lot more to give when [he] first came in. At the beginning of the season, we did have a discussion.

“He said to me: ‘Listen Leon, I know you have a lot more to give and I want you to be more consistent with your game’. I am a mature enough person to understand when somebody is trying to help you and when someone is trying to be harsh. I have never got that [harsh] feeling from him. It has always been trying to lift my spirits and raise my confidence. He’s done that.”

That Wolves miss is now but a distant memory that can be merely considered a character-building moment; Bailey is finally fulfilling his potential and it’s a thrilling sight.

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