Kevin Phillips has heaped praise on “phenomenal” Leeds United defender Luke Ayling as it emerged he has carried the ball further than Lionel Messi.
Speaking exclusively to Football Insider, the ex-England striker was blown away by a new statistic that reveals Ayling tops the call-carrying charts in Europe’s top five league this season.
The United right-back, who has been used as an emergency centre-back for nearly half the season due to injuries, has brought the ball forward a combined 4517 yards in Premier League matches.
📊Best progressive carrying distance (yards bringing the ball forward; #Uefa's top 5 leagues; 20/21):
— playmakerstats (@playmaker_EN) January 14, 2021
That is more than all-time great Messi, who is sixth on this season’s list, as well as Villarreal centre-back Pau Torres and Leeds’ midfielder target Rodrigo De Paul.
Phillips is a big admirer of Ayling and has been stunned by his improvement during Marcelo Bielsa’s three seasons as manager of the Yorkshire giants.
“I think he is the unsung hero of that Leeds side,” Phillips told Football Insider. “He has come from nowhere.
“He has slowly worked his way to the top but to have that stat is phenomenal, really. To hold that for the whole of Europe, wow.
“Ayling is a very versatile player and he has been so important for them, stepping in at centre-half with all of the injuries.
“He fits Marcelo Bielsa’s style and that includes his defenders carry the ball out of the back and playing out.
“It is a great stat for him and he deserves credit for it. He keeps getting better and he is so reliable – a seven or eight out of 10 every week.
“A player that rarely puts a foot wrong. He has been a stalwart of that Leeds side.”
Ayling, 29, has started all 17 of Leeds’ Premier League matches this season and is set to return this weekend after being rested for the humiliating defeat at Crawley Town.