By the time Leeds came to town last December, the 17 year-old Will Hughes had already established himself in our first team. After initially using Hughes as a nominal left midfielder with license to drift infield – more to shoehorn him into the team than for any tactical reason, I think – Nigel Clough eventually bowed to the inevitable and began to start Hughes in the centre.
I did an analysis of his 60 minute performance in the pre-season friendly against Sunderland – a match in which he recorded a pass completion rate of 95.5% – concluding, “He will get hustled, harried and, frankly, kicked a lot more in a competitive Championship encounter than he did against Sunderland, but hopefully, he will have the composure to handle it. The early signs are really encouraging and he clearly has the potential to make a real impression this season.”
That he did and Fulham boss Martin Jol has confirmed that he’s on everybody’s radar, with Newcastle United the latest club to be linked with a big bid for him.
The Leeds performance seemed to confirm, to me at least, that he already had the ability to do nearly everything you would expect from a top-class central midfielder. So, for my own enjoyment in the boring post-season, I decided to review his performance in-depth.
Passes complete 33
Passes incomplete 5
Pass completion 86.8%
(Assist, 14 mins)
Cross complete 1
Cross incomplete 0
Dribbles resulting in scoring opportunity 4 (100%)
Took man on 1
Beat his man 1 (100%)
Lost possession 2
Shots on target 2
Shots off target 0
Tackles won 4
Tackles lost 7
Fouls committed 3
(Yellow card, 69 mins)
Headers won 0
Headers lost 1
(Free headers 3)
Substituted, 90 mins
Watching back, I was surprised to realise that until the 14th minute, Hughes’ contribution was actually negligible. The ball pinged up and down the pitch as the two teams battled unsuccessfully to get hold of it and Hughes didn’t even get a touch until seven minutes in, when his rather aimless first-time lob forward landed at a Leeds defender’s feet.
But when he finally did make a contribution, it was a telling one. Derby won a free kick on halfway and Hughes instantly moved forward to make himself available for Theo Robinson, who tapped it to him, releasing him into the Leeds half with almost absurd ease. Hughes ambled forward, totally free, before artfully disguising a ball into the box for Conor Sammon, who managed to get it out of his feet and make room for a shot, which he scuffed past Paddy Kenny for the first goal of the game.
Hughes was playing as the deepest of the Rams’ four midfielders and was rarely heavily involved, as Derby pushed forward and used the flanks as much as possible. However, in the 26th minute, he had a remarkable 30-second purple patch.
Sammon did really well to rush back and win the ball from dawdling Leeds in the centre circle. He laid it off to Hughes, who again found himself in acres of space and able to trundle forward. Having won the ball in the first place, Sammon had the energy and desire to charge back up the pitch, but when Hughes slid the striker clean through in the penalty area, his first touch let him down and Kenny was able to collect.
As Sammon showed his frustration, Kenny quickly threw the ball out, setting Leeds off on a dangerous counter-attack. The ball was played through to McCormack, who carried it into Derby’s final third seemingly unopposed – but he hadn’t reckoned on Hughes, who had sprinted back from the edge of the Leeds box and, having made up a huge amount of ground on the attacker, executed a perfect sliding tackle from the side, emerging cleanly with the ball, which he then calmly laid off to Brayford.
Brayford then made a hash of his clearance, which ricocheted off a Leeds man and back down the pitch, but Hughes was in position to calmly take control of the loose ball and lay it back to Adam Legzdins in goal. The teenager received an almighty ovation from the stands – and rightly so.
That little cameo of excellence would probably have been enough for Rams fans to remember his contribution fondly, but he had plenty more in the tank for the second half.
A sweetly-hit strike after 58 minutes was goalbound until it was blocked, but seconds later, he was threatening Paddy Kenny again, this time in scintillating fashion. Picking up the ball in the right-hand channel, he drove forward and shimmied nonchalantly past his man before blasting a shot which the goalkeeper had to tip around the post.
Hughes has no discernible pace, but he takes up good positions, exhibits enviable ball control and is capable of seeing and executing little tricks, moves and passes that demonstrate a level of mental agility and technical ability far beyond that of the average Championship player. In the breathtaking moment when he swayed so stylishly and effortlessly through the Leeds defence, he was an absolute joy to watch. If it had been a goal, it would have been our Goal of the Season by a street.
At that point, however, the game was still in the balance. Somehow, without having so much as got into Derby’s box before they scored, Leeds had equalised in first-half stoppage time. They improved considerably in the second half and at the point of Hughes’ next intervention, the game really could have gone either way.
As it was, Hughes’ beautifully flighted lobbed ball down the wing released Coutts and forced a corner. That corner resulted in a second corner, which dropped to Richard Keogh to smash a shot that Jake Buxton deflected into the net. But it had been Hughes’ moment of creativity which indirectly led to that crucial goal.
Later on, Hughes tired and his influence waned. He was booked for his third foul – a late tackle committed while trying to retrieve an underhit backheel by Michael Jacobs – and in the game’s final stages, he became an increasingly peripheral figure as Derby retreated into a 4-5-1 shape and tried to hang onto their lead.
Leeds peppered in a few shots, with a rasper from El-Hadji Diouf fizzing just wide and a lobbed header defeating Adam Legzdins but coming back off the post. The ball was largely travelling over Hughes’ head in either direction and he was ultimately replaced, only partly to use up time, in the 91st minute.
Over the course of the game, Hughes made 38 passes and completed 33 of them, giving an excellent pass accuracy of 87%. And one of the five incomplete passes was directly the fault of James O’Connor, who nervously poked the ball to Hughes in a position where it was almost impossible to do anything with it – even so, he still almost managed to find Jacobs. However, before we get too gushy, it’s worth comparing the number of passes to the top Premier League midfielders, who average about the same level of accuracy from a far higher amount of passes per match.
That we weren’t able to get the ball to Hughes more often probably proves that we were not in as firm control of the game as we would have liked, at least for spells, a feeling which is backed up by the overall possession percentages for the game, which were 51 – 49 in Derby’s favour.
It’s also worth pointing out that Hughes lost more tackles than he won, understandably struggling at times with the physical side of a hard-fought game. But it would be absolutely preposterous to criticise a slight 17 year-old playing against much older and stronger players for that. And I find it fascinating that every time he was able to run with the ball, he created a scoring opportunity – one of which was converted by Sammon.
It may not quite have been the complete performance, but still, not bloody bad for a 17 year-old. That afternoon, it became abundantly clear that Hughes was a major talent and a player already capable of being the man of the match in a really competitive Championship encounter. Let’s hope that this season, he shows much more of the same – if he can do so, there’s no reason why he can’t help to propel us into the top six.