Leeds United put in a stellar display against Watford on Saturday, as Phil Hay relayed the thoughts of Daniel Farke following the emphatic 3-0 drubbing of Watford: “Farke thinks this was Leeds’ most complete performance so far. ‘To dominate such a good side totally is pretty pleasing.'”
He has good reason to walk away delighted with such a performance, as despite failing to find the net with numerous first-half chances, his side exploded into life in the final 45 minutes, blowing away the visitors.
Elland Road played host to yet another impressive victory, with their Championship season now well and truly underway. Under the leadership of this affable German, who continues to slowly endear himself to his new fanbase, they are certainly on the right path towards promotion success.
However, one of the interesting stories to emerge pre-match was the absence of Luke Ayling from the starting lineup, despite the full-back having started all of their previous seven league matches this term.
The 32-year-old has, for better or worse, been a mainstay for years now in Yorkshire, so to see Sam Byram and Jamie Shackleton preferred to him must have taken many by surprise; even if it is clear that his powers have clearly begun to wane in recent seasons.
Despite that, it is still expected that the experienced star will have a huge say in their hopeful push for the title, as someone seemingly always fit, and always ready to give his all even if a lack of quality sometimes lets him down.
How has Luke Ayling played this season?
After the year he and his side endured last campaign, it came as a huge surprise that Farke neglected to overhaul the full-back positions over the summer despite them being a key problem area for Marcelo Bielsa and Jesse Marsch on occasion.
It seems like no matter who is signed for these positions, whether it be former Barcelona man Junior Firpo or Denmark international Rasmus Kristensen, Ayling refuses to be displaced from the team.
Fortunately, a fine start to the new season has eased fears over this transfer inactivity, with the ex-Yeovil Town ace boasting a 7.23 average rating after just eight games. It seems the defender is poised to roll back the years to their 2020 promotion campaign, having added one goal, one assist, 1.5 key passes and 2.9 tackles per game to uphold the aforementioned figure, via Sofascore.
To compare this with that 2019/20 term, and his eight goal contributions helped uphold a 7.26 average rating, despite his key passes dropping to 0.8 per game, and his tackles down to 1.8 per game. History could be set to repeat itself.
That’s not to suggest that Ayling has been completely free of criticism in recent times though, having arguably been the victim of consistent recruitment errors that have forced the ageing star to continue as a starter.
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher branded him an “idiot” back in 2022 after a reckless red card challenge against Arsenal had seemingly doomed them to the drop, whilst a few months later Leeds pundit Conor McGilligan had even harsher words on his quality levels: “I think he’d [Ayling] be struggling to get in a lot of Championship starting XIs right now. Maybe bottom-half Championship, but absolutely no chance, top 12.
“But yet, he’s coming on for Leeds United to try and secure the game, as we saw at the weekend. Now, this is no disparaging comment on Luke Ayling. It’s just got to a point now where he’s not good enough. There are several Leeds players who, for me, are not good enough. Luke Ayling is not fit for Premier League football, for me.”
Although he seeks to dispel this notion by, ironically, impressing in the Championship, it is fair to say that Ayling’s contribution across the 260 games played for the Yorkshire outfit makes him a cult hero regardless, sure to be lauded when he departs.
How much did Leeds United sign Luke Ayling for?
Given how important the defender has grown to be, having been plucked from the lower leagues as they themselves strived for a top-flight return, it is amazing to think back on the frugality of the deal.
After all, to pluck the former Arsenal academy ace for just £200k marked phenomenal business, as Gary Monk saw attacking potential in the full-back which was later realised.
Bristol City were the side who lost his services, and then had to watch him grow into a mainstay under Bielsa, and an important cog in that enthralling system. Journalist Hay would even write in 2020: “The more you look at him and analyse him, the more you realise he’s integral to everything Leeds do.”
How much was Luke Ayling worth when he first signed?
To emphasise just how much of a coup that deal was, Transfermarkt actually valued the defender at €500k (£435k) even before he had even moved to Elland Road.
Unsurprisingly, a switch to such a historic institution drew more eyes onto his game, and he would soon crack a €1m (£871k) valuation within just one year of being in Yorkshire.
Such steady growth marked a hallmark of the 6-foot rock’s career, which remains at an admirable level even today.
What is Luke Ayling’s market value now?
When viewing the current-day value of Ayling, CIES Football Observatory offers the most flattering figure to emphasise the importance still boasted even with their relegation.
After all, for someone at 32 years old to still be starring at such a high level deserves praise, with his €5m (£4.3m) valuation being more than fair.
To compare the growth enjoyed throughout a career forged on hard work, from that £200k move back in 2016, Ayling has seen his value grow by 2,050% across a seven-year period.
How much does Luke Ayling earn?
What further makes the defender a fine asset to Leeds is the fact that he is never one to kick up a fuss regarding play time, recent form or financial incentives.
As such, despite being one of the squad’s longest-serving members, his £25k-per-week salary sees him earn less than Illan Meslier, Helder Costa, Daniel James and Firpo, via Capology.
Leeds United’s Top Earners
Wage via Capology
Admittedly a tiny wage for someone who has proven so important, perhaps this campaign could mark his last final push before accepting his exit in order to usher in a new age at right-back. Ayling has been a true hero at the club, even if he has come under fire at times, and should he steer them towards promotion, he could depart a content man.