Given the long and illustrious managerial career that Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa has enjoyed, it’s unsurprising that he’s managed some of the game’s biggest and best players – not least Argentina icon Roberto Ayala.
The centre-back worked under Bielsa during the pair’s time together at international level, winning the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. Ayala himself has since openly credited with the Whites manager with having the biggest influence on his career, saying: “In my case, personally speaking, he was the coach who made me perform or get to a very high level in every game.”
In fact, there were even reports that Leeds were looking to sign the defender back in the summer of 2002 when the whole Rio Ferdinand saga was playing out, with his agent Fernando Hidalgo saying: “I am going to England for many issues, there is no meeting with Leeds executives regarding Ayala, but I have a good relationship with Leeds and if they call me that is fine.
“I think the club is interested in the player but it all depends on whether Ferdinand’s transfer to Manchester United is completed. Ayala is one of the main candidates to replace him.”
Ayala himself admitted: “I am flattered that a club like Leeds have shown an interest in me as a possible replacement to Rio Ferdinand.”
Despite only standing at 5 foot 10, Ayala carved out a very successful career at both domestic and international level, becoming an elite level centre-back despite his height, winning multiple trophies and earning 116 caps for Argentina.
In the 1.77m-tall (5 foot 11) Leif Davis, Bielsa may well be tempted to see if he could mould the Leeds starlet into a replica of the iconic Argentine, especially given that, like the ex-Valencia stalwart, he is someone who can play at full-back and centre-back.
A player profile on BBC Sport back in May 2002 wrote of Ayala: “He is commanding in the air and a tenacious tackler as well as being an excellent passer of the ball”.
While Davis has some work to do in the aerial department, his tenacity and tackling is something which has always stood out about him, with Stewart Drummond, his former academy boss at Morecambe, saying: “He had similar attributes to what he has now; a great engine, pace, fit, aggressive in the tackle. He had a nice left foot, delivered the ball really well, all the basic attributes you try to find in players at that age.”
With more and more teams opting for their full-backs to push up high, the onus is now on the centre-halves to be able to deal with opposition wingers when they get dragged out wide. Given Davis’ natural instincts as a left-back, he should be more than comfortable in handling those kinds of situations, just like Ayala was.
The 21-year-old also appears to be turning heads at Thorp Arch, with The Athletic’s Phil Hay making it clear just how highly-rated he is behind the scenes. Speaking on The Phil Hay Show back in November, he said: “He’s very well thought of, is Davis, and he has been since he came, and of the Under-23s, he’s really been as involved as most under Bielsa and has quite often been the go-to player when Bielsa’s needed a left-back.
“The bottom line is that at Leeds, they think an awful lot of Davis, and they think that he’s a bit of a steal for what they paid to sign him from Morecambe.”
While it would be much too farfetched to assume that Davis will certainly go on to enjoy as illustrious a career as Ayala did, converting him into a centre-back on a more permanent basis may be the kind of Bielsa masterstroke which really propels his time at Leeds.