For almost a decade, Arjen Robben has been tormenting Bundesliga defences down the Bayern Munich right wing. It’s a position he’s made his own as he became the global model for inverted wingers, constantly cutting inside onto his favoured left foot, opening up the space to either whip in crosses or shoot into either corner. But a new pretender to the Dutchman’s title as the Bundesliga’s right-wing king has emerged this season: Bayer Leverkusen’s Jamaican speedster Leon Bailey.
It took the 20-year-old a bit of time to adapt to life in Leverkusen since his January 2017 move from Belgian side Genk. He featured for just 134 minutes in the second half of last season, but Die Werkself have shown faith in their youngster, for whose signature they fought so hard.
Watch: Is Leon Bailey the new Arjen Robben?
“We had to act quickly or else we wouldn’t have been able to sign him,” said Leverkusen head scout Jonas Boldt. Ajax youth coach Ronald de Boer is also a known fan: “He’s so fast it’s not normal. His speed, combined with his technique, is very rare. Exceptional. He has no weak points.”
It’s the sort of praise many have reserved for Robben himself. The six-time Bundesliga winner has long been leaving opponents in his wake, and clocked a football world-record 23 mph during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. However, the man who counts the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt, amongst his friends is not just hot on the Dutchman’s heels, but in fact pulling out ahead.
So far this season, “Rocking Robben” has a top speed of 20.0 mph – just safe from a speeding ticket in a school zone – but Bailey would be getting a ticking off from enraged parents with a high speed of 21.4 mph. “That’s only 1 mph over,” is an oft-heard defence to such disciplining, but it’s quicker than one of the fastest wingers in world football, and at the age of just 20, Bailey can no doubt get even faster.
Taking on the opposition at pace is naturally a large part of a wide man’s job, and it’s something the young Jamaican does with great pleasure. An average of 29 sprints per game, he takes on opponents on average 19.8 times per 90 minutes, and both are higher than Robben statistics in this campaign (24 and 18.6, respectively). Simply running at defenders is not enough, though. There needs to be that end product, and both the stats and Bailey himself would appear to suggest the Leverkusen man offers that bit more than Robben at the moment.
Watch: Bailey on his favourite position
“I can go down [the outside], cut inside and shoot, but for me it’s about more than that. I can make defenders think more,” the Jamaican said when asked about his favourite position and his style of play. In many eyes, it’s a string to his bow that Robben doesn’t have – or at least rarely uses.
The Dutchman famously prefers to come inside onto his favoured left foot instead of going round the outside on his right. Bailey says he can do both. He’s talking the talk, but is he walking the walk? The numbers would appear to suggest so.
Robben, Bayern’s record non-German Bundesliga goalscorer who has been a cornerstone of Jupp Heynckes’ team since the treble-winning coach returned to the club, and has contributed three goals and three assists in his 14 Bundesliga games this term,, not the sort of numbers to turn your nose up at.
Bailey, however, tops Robben on the stats front and has been a crucial component to a Werkself team pushing hard for a top four finish. The Leverkusen man has an incredible eight goals and five assists for Heiko Herlich's exciting side, the Jamaican clocking up 1,338 minutes of playing time in Germany's top division.
The 20-year-old also looks to put more balls into the box for his teammates, on both his left and right foot, with twice as many crosses as the more experienced Dutchman (22-11).
Watch: Leon Bailey's thunderbolt against Mainz!
It shows Bailey is getting more out of what he does, as well as the mature head on his still young shoulders. Currently Leverkusen’s second-highest scorer this campaign after Kevin Volland, the Jamaican is cool in front of goal with two of his three clear-cut chances converted. Robben on the other hand is yet to put away any of his four – although he has scored three goals from chances deemed less gilt-edged.
There is still a long way to go before Bailey is consistently mentioned in the same breath as the six-time Bundesliga, four-time DFB Cup and one-time UEFA Champions League winner, but the numbers and performances don’t lie. Bailey is coming for Robben’s right-wing crown faster than a certain Jamaican sprinter.