Brenden Aaronson: why Leeds pushed hard for signing and what USMNT midfielder will bring

(A version of this article was originally published by The Athletic in February 2022. It has been updated to reflect Brenden Aaronson’s appearances since then, including his upcoming move to Leeds United)

Within an hour of Leeds United averting demotion from the Premier League on Sunday, it was business as usual. Relegation threatened no end of summer turmoil at Elland Road, but it was clear in no time that survival on the last weekend of the season had kept a plethora of plans intact.

As the dust settled at Brentford, word reached The Athletic that a deal had been agreed with RB Salzburg for Brenden Aaronson, the initial fee set at around £25 million. Leeds had tried and failed to sign the midfielder in January and it was always their intention to try again this summer, but it went without saying that the move would collapse if Leeds went down.

Salzburg rejected two offers at the turn of the year but it was telling that, within no time of the season finishing on Sunday, one transfer agreement at Leeds was already a long way down the road. Aaronson is yet to undergo a medical in England, but Leeds are close to announcing that a deal with Salzburg is in place and finalising personal terms with the USMNT international should not hit any snags.

All being well, they will get their man and all the quality they hope he will bring.

The reaction to Leeds’ second bid for Aaronson in January was confirmation that a transfer would have to wait for another window. Salzburg paid it no attention — a means of telling Leeds their prior resistance to selling Aaronson was not a bluff or an attempt to drive up the fee. Game over, if only temporarily.

The offers from Elland Road began at £15 million and rose to £20 million a few days later, but the message from the perennial Austrian champions at the end of December — that their squad would remain intact throughout January, whatever the fees dangled in front of them — held firm. Leeds deduced from Salzburg’s unresponsive state that there was no point in returning with a third bid. The club decided in advance of the January deadline that they would try again for the US international midfielder at the end of the season.

Aaronson will join Leeds for an initial fee of £25 million (Photo: David Berding/Getty Images)

Salzburg had a ninth straight domestic title and a first Champions League knockout phase campaign to concentrate on, but when their own season finished they were always likely to be more open to fielding approaches for Aaronson, being sympathetic to his own ambition. Leeds’ effort in keeping their interest alive underlined the fact that they had been following the 21-year-old for longer than someone who represents a short-term solution. Aaronson was unable to influence their Premier League fate, and the midfield at Elland Road was left as short on bodies as it was when the January window opened, but they saw plenty of future value in him.

There was confidence in Aaronson’s potential and ability, and confidence in his character too. Leeds sought references about him, some from coaches who have worked with him in the past, and Aaronson — despite refusing to make any attempt to force his way out of Salzburg in January — was highly receptive to the idea of moving to England. Leeds’ head coach, Jesse Marsch, is the coach who was in charge of Salzburg when Aaronson moved to Austria from the States in January 2021.

But why the fixation on Aaronson, and why the insistence on waiting for a second bite at him when other attacking midfielders were available in the January window — not to mention the window that lies ahead?

With every target Leeds analyse, attention is paid to how closely a footballer matches up with the club’s style of play. The club had very pronounced tactics under Marcelo Bielsa and, though the Argentinian was sacked a few weeks after the original bids for Aaronson, Leeds believed that he would match up well to Bielsa’s tactics. They believed too that Aaronson’s attributes would allow him to work and adapt for a different manager and Marsch — who he had already played for — was at the top of the list of candidates to take the job at Elland Road as and when Bielsa left. If Aaronson was good enough to fit in January, it stood to reason that he should fit at a later date too — suitable for whoever followed in Bielsa’s footsteps.

Marsch and Aaronson at Salzburg (Photo: Chris Bauer/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)

Victor Orta, Leeds’ director of football, had approached negotiations with other signings in the past, Robin Koch for example, by using video footage to outline what would be asked of them at Elland Road: what their role would be, the precise responsibilities that role would entail and how their performances for their existing club compared or contrasted with Leeds’ style. Footage for Aaronson was prepared and ready to go in January, waiting only for Salzburg to accept a bid. The presentation amounted to a developmental plan that Leeds are now poised to implement.

In Aaronson they identified clear shades of Mateusz Klich and it could be argued that Klich’s position — the bridge between the midfield four and No 10 — is one of the areas where the club are most in need of additional numbers and quality. Bielsa asked Kalvin Phillips to keep order in front of the back line but in more advanced areas there was a long-standing lack of players who could operate in a more box-to-box fashion and construct attacks through the middle third and beyond. Leeds failed to address that shortage last summer, missing out on Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher, and chose to hold fire in January after Salzburg knocked back their interest in Aaronson.

Klich’s form has been intermittent in the Premier League, but for long stretches of the Bielsa era he was pivotal in making collective performances tick. The Poland international likes to vary his position, dropping deep to help Leeds pass their way through the opposition and using positive forward runs to provide an outlet as soon as he releases the ball. When he shines, his movement makes him difficult to mark and allows Leeds to attack quickly in transition, moving play around the field and taking advantage of gaps in the opposition’s structure. The interplay utilised the pace in Leeds’ squad and helped them to advance through a structured press.

Klich, Leeds

(Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Marsch’s tactics, or those seen to date, are unlike Bielsa’s — and Klich has been in and out of the club’s lineup during Marsch’s 12 games in charge. It remains to be seen how prominent Klich is from here on. Aaronson has many promising traits — in terms of age alone, he turned 21 in October while Klich will be 32 by the time next season starts. To an extent, recruiting Aaronson prepares the ground for a passing of the baton.

The New Jersey-born Aaronson’s career has been on a promising incline since his 2019 breakthrough season with his local MLS club, Philadelphia Union. Sources at Leeds say he was tracked first by their emerging-talent team — the scouts who focus on age groups below proven first-team ranks — and remained on the radar as he established himself as first-team ready for teams outside America. He had turned 20 when Salzburg finalised a deal for him in late 2020, a transfer that officially went through in last year’s January window.

Neither MLS nor Austria’s Bundesliga is on a direct competitive level with the Premier League and Salzburg’s financial might has made them incredibly dominant domestically. This season they finished top of the table by a margin of 18 points, losing only one league game. But moving to Austria took Aaronson into the Europa League and then the Champions League and Salzburg saw no reason to hold him back.

Of the eight games needed to progress to their Champions League last-16 ties against Bayern Munich in February, Aaronson started seven. He also started both legs against Bayern, producing two assists — albeit in an 8-2 aggregate defeat. A change of formation awaits him in Leeds, unless Marsch happens to turn to the 4-4-2 diamond system that Salzburg are virtually wedded to. Marsch, more often than not, has gone 4-2-3-1 in the Premier League.

By joining Salzburg, Aaronson’s physical output was going to be tested from the very start. Either he took a good engine with him from the States or he would have to show a willingness to develop one as soon as he arrived. Salzburg’s football is possession-based, but they are renowned for a strict and bullish press without the ball, chasing recoveries in high areas. It is physically demanding and the requirements have been reflected in Aaronson’s domestic performances.

Skillcorner’s analysis shows that in a typical 90-minute game, Aaronson will cover an average of 10.7km, ranking him in the top five midfielders in Austria’s Bundesliga to have played 10 or more games this season. That is in line with some of the best 90-minute distances registered by players in the Premier League — potential Elland Road colleague Adam Forshaw, for instance, was hitting 10.9km after his return from injury — and the numbers impressed Leeds, who consistently rack up more kilometres than any other team in England’s top division.

Aaronson is a committed and active presser and 27.2 pressures per 90 minutes, as calculated by Statsbomb via FBref, is on a par with the very best of Europe’s attacking midfielders — in the top two per cent across the big five European leagues.

To give the data below some context, the higher the percentile Aaronson falls into, the more impressive the comparison with his contemporaries. His high-speed running is relentless too. He is not an especially great defender, but his energy, as part of a deliberate press, suggests his running off the ball helps team-mates to position themselves and step in rather than relying on specific interventions from Aaronson himself.

While the difference in quality between the Austrian Bundesliga and other competitions can be analysed in technical terms, Aaronson’s physical numbers would transfer easily from league to league.

Straight away, it is easy to see why his name came up when Leeds applied other factors like position, valuation and potential. Most footballers required a period of acclimatisation under Bielsa, but had he signed in January Aaronson appeared to be in the right shape to make an impact straight away. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that he will be in the right shape to settle in quickly this summer.

Aaronson’s hard-running style seems tailor-made for Leeds (Photo: Franz Kirchmayr/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)

To get a feel for his attributes on the ball, it is necessary to dig deeper into his characteristics.

The picture that develops is, as Leeds concluded, similar to that painted by many of Klich’s displays. Aaronson is a low-involvement player in the sense that there are others on the pitch who touch the ball and pass it far more than him. An average of 30.5 passes per 90 is low for a player in his position, but while Klich posts a higher average of 43.6 per 90, it is only marginally above the bottom third. The key for footballers with passing stats like theirs is to ensure that quality eclipses quantity.

Aaronson’s progressive passing is also limited and as the smarterscout graphic details below, he prefers neater, shorter passes leading to a high volume of link-up play — again, like Klich.

Some of the ratings in this graphic are adjusted to take into account the Premier League’s superior level of quality. Klich has never been a prolific carrier of the ball and does not make an especially high number of progressive passes either, but he is very good at receiving them — a strength Aaronson possesses too. Klich’s style is as much about making himself available for forward balls as it is about supplying them; laying the ball off, then offering himself as an outlet in advanced spaces.

With Bielsa, it was likely that his possession-based philosophy would impact on the progressive passes that come from a player in the zone behind a centre-forward or pair of strikers. Marsch’s Leeds do not seek to dominate to the same degree, but he will also have to find ways to bring Aaronson’s on. Salzburg’s style consistently allowed Aaronson to get into advanced areas and he has had a consistent knack of popping up in the opposition box, often with third-man runs. His shot volume is not too high (59 out of 99) but considering the touches he averages over 90 minutes, he is minded to get efforts on goal when he can.

On the attacking front, his data could not be described as remarkable. The chances he creates himself (xG from shot creation) or through progressive play (xG from ball progression) are sometimes of a relatively low value — especially when adjusting for Premier League standard — though he finished this season with four league goals and four assists from 26 appearances. In Salzburg’s Champions League run, he produced 1.5 open-play chances per 90 and turned in a particularly good performance during their first leg against Bayern, a match that ended 1-1. Salzburg were completely outplayed in the return fixture, losing 7-1 on the night.

To say that Leeds are not signing the finished article is to accept that Aaronson is 21 and has only been in European football for 18 months. Klich, despite mixed form, scores extremely highly for creating opportunities for Leeds, taking shots himself and threatening assists. Aaronson is on a promising curve, but by coming to England and Elland Road his game will have to successfully go through a fresh stage of evolution. Not for the first time, Leeds are investing in a prospect.

In this window — and after such a close shave with relegation — the club are under pressure to hit the mark with their recruitment. An outlay of £25 million on Aaronson is a sizeable commitment, but his potential has seduced Leeds and their only concern was that after failing to sign him in January, the boat might sail. At that stage, reports on the continent talked of rival interest from AC Milan and RB Leipzig, the biggest club in the Red Bull stable, and Aaronson’s reputation was by no means off the grid. But Leeds had their claws into this deal and, survival permitting, did not intend to let it go.

(Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)


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