Leeds’ Right Back Dilemma: The Big-money Signing, the Experienced Campaigner or the Young Prospect?
With the versatile Stuart Dallas a long-term absentee and cult hero Luke Ayling arguably not as reliable and dependable as he once was, the decision to part with around the reported £10 million for Rasmus Kristensen last summer looked sensible business. The Dane was coming off the back of a stellar season for RB Salzburg in Austria, having scored a division high seven goals amongst Bundesliga defenders, recording the most accurate final third passes, 421, and completing the most successful take-ons, 39.
Whilst his attacking output ranked amongst Europe’s very best, his defensive numbers also played a crucial role in Die Roten Bullen’s title success, notably not making a single error leading to a goal. Despite holding down the position for his new club in 2022, the turn of the year saw a change in the former Ajax man’s fortunes.
Continued poor performances has found himself recently deputising for Luke Ayling, meaning that Kristensen, a feature in the Denmark side having started all three games of De Rød-Hvide’s ill-fated World Cup campaign, found himself initially left out of Kasper Hjulmand’s latest squad before being added as a late inclusion.
Ayling, an integral part in the Whites’ resurgence since his 2016 move from Bristol City, saw his game time hampered before the mid-season break through injury, but since the resumption, the Arsenal academy product has impressed in an otherwise uninspired side. Defensively solid outings in a double header against rivals Manchester United helped the 31-year-old pen a one-year contract extension at the club.
In the club’s recent win away at Wolves in the Premier League however, just their second victory on the road this term, both Ayling and Kristensen scored to help Javi Gracia’s side to a 4-2 triumph. An in-swinging Marc Roca corner saw Ayling, with the freedom of Molineux, stooping to head in at the far post after escaping the half-hearted marking attempts of Nélson Semedo.
Eyebrows were raised when Kristensen replaced Italian starlet Wilfried Gnonto on the hour mark, but within a matter of seconds, 23 to be exact, the marauding full-back dispossessed Jonny inside the area and fired low past José Sá to make it 3-0. Despite a nervy end to the game as the hosts threatened to mount a comeback, the pair defended well in a compact five-back system to see out a hard-fought victory.
🔥 That 23 second intro! pic.twitter.com/9AXKqVfbd2
— Leeds United (@LUFC) March 19, 2023
Interestingly, however, many Leeds supporters would opt for neither Kristensen nor Ayling at the long-term right-back position, but a player who is currently enjoying his second loan spell in 12 months. England U-21 international Cody Drameh was brought in alongside prospects Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood and Crysencio Summerville the summer following promotion, and continued standout performances in development matches saw him touted as Ayling’s long-term, if not immediate, successor.
Under Marcelo Bielsa, however, Drameh could never establish himself in the first team and ultimately forced a loan move to Cardiff City in January 2022. Despite only spending five months in the principality, the former Fulham full-back would go on to win both the Bluebirds’ Young Player of the Season and Player of the Season accolades.
Fast forward twelve months and again after failing to nail down a spot in Leeds’ starting eleven, Drameh temporarily finds himself back in the Championship; this time with playoff hopefuls Luton Town. The Dulwich-born defender has started in nine of the eleven games since the move, with the Hatters winning six and losing only to runaway leaders Burnley. Drameh has recorded back-to-back assists in his previous two matches and continues to impress in Bedfordshire.
If at first you don't succeed. Cody Drameh proving, once again, that he's more than capable of playing Championship football.pic.twitter.com/awOnWi7LvY
— Graham Smyth (@GrahamSmyth) March 16, 2023
As Javi Gracia’s side’s fate teeters on a knife edge for next season, the West Yorkshire outfit find themselves in a precarious position when it comes to right-back options. Kristensen has struggled in his first season in the top-flight and, with Champions League experience under his belt, is unlikely to want to drop into England’s second division should Leeds suffer relegation.
Whether the club could recoup their initial outlay is doubtful, but not totally out of the question. His first goal for his new club last time out however could be the catalyst for the Dane’s career in England, potentially spurring him on to emulate his performances and output from his time in Austria.
Ayling, contract extension to boot, would undoubtedly be a viable option in the Championship, yet his Premier League credentials as a consistent starter would come into question as he enters the twilight of his career. Leaving Drameh, despite being untested at the highest level, perhaps the preferred option for next campaign, irrespective of how this season plays out.
By: Jack Douglas / @JDouglasSport
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Laurence Griffiths – Getty Images