How Leon Bailey evolved from feared flop to Aston Villa superstar

It’s taken a long, long time - too long for comfort, really - but we are finally seeing the best version of Leon Bailey at Aston Villa.


His performance against Nottingham Forest this past weekend was simply electric, rightly winning him both the Player of the Match award and an appreciative chorus from a jubilant Villa Park crowd. The assist for Ollie Watkins in the 4th minute was a genuinely stunning bit of play, while his second-half goal was a just reward for the carnage he caused. 


Those two goal involvements took him to 15 in the Premier League for the season, which places him in the division’s top 10 most productive players. That means he’s keeping pace with some illustrious names - and he’s doing so without getting anywhere near penalty duty, which can often inflate players’ numbers. 


He scored the winner against Manchester City, assisted the winner against Arsenal, netted beauties against Sheffield United and West Ham - to name just a couple - and against Fulham nutmegged a defender before crashing one off the bar. Seemingly every single week he does something with the ball that astonishes and entertains. 


Having signed a new long-term contract with the club this month, it’s fair to say life has never been better for Bailey in Birmingham. It’s amazing to watch him now - an authentic smile fixed on his face, Watkins pointing to him and encouraging the crowd to serenade him, footwork regularly bamboozling full-backs - when you recall how badly things started. 


How Leon Bailey evolved from feared flop to Aston Villa superstar



He arrived in 2021 both injured and under obscene pressure to deliver, as 1/3rd of the Jack Grealish high-profile replacement project. It did not go particularly well. Matchday five against Everton summed up his luck: he scored a brilliant, brilliant goal, but he hit the ball so hard he injured himself doing so. That was the story of Bailey’s first year: stop, start, stop, start en route to just 757 Premier League minutes and a measly three full 90s. 


2022/23 was a bit better, but again hardly lived up to a £30m standard. Four goals and four assists from 1,984 Premier League minutes was a step forward on every front, but injury niggles and bad decisions still plagued his game. 


This term - his third at Villa but crucially only his first with any form of stability - he’s taken off like a rocket ship. He’s now as fast as he looks, his change-of-direction dribbling is nearly impossible to contain, and he’s making consistently good decisions in the final third, allowing the goals and assists to flow.


Over the past 12 months, it’s obvious he’s worked extremely hard on becoming a "two-way" winger: Someone who can cut inside or take the outside line, willing to use either foot, therefore keeping defenders off-balance and constantly guessing. He’s also stronger, more durable, more able to ride contact and more able to cope with the physical demands of the league. 


"The adaptation for some players is longer," Emery said upon announcing the Jamaican’s new deal. "He came from Germany and the first year he didn’t play consistently and he had some injuries. He didn’t start strong [and] even last year he was not always consistent." 


"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 harder every day has improved." 


It can be difficult for wildly talented, yet eccentric players to make the leap and find consistency; for Bailey and Villa it has been an arduous two-and-a-half year process. Add in the fact that the step from the Bundesliga to the Premier League has been a treacherous one that many big names have struggled with and you can see why there’s been ups and downs. 


It has taken the patience of a saint at times, but he has steadily graduated from feared flop, to super-sub, to star player, marking himself out as one of the very first names on Emery’s team sheet as the club mount a high-stakes Champions League chase.


You can’t help but feel like there’s more to come, too.

How Leon Bailey evolved from feared flop to Aston Villa superstar