After an incredible rise from Major League Soccer to the Champions League, Brenden Aaronson is off to the Premier League.
A move from Red Bull Salzburg to Leeds United was long in the works, but things really picked up pace once the Whites secured their top-flight status on the final day of the season.
Aaronson’s transfer was confirmed on Thursday afternoon, with the United States international set to formally become a Leeds player upon the opening of the summer transfer window.
Though staying up on the final day was the ultimate high, Leeds fans will be hoping to avoid a repeat next season and Aaronson will have to play a big role there. So, what will he bring to the team, what can fans expect of him, and where has he come from?
Aaronson’s journey started in Philadelphia. / Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Born in Medford, New Jersey, Aaronson spent five years in the Philadelphia Union system before joining Salzburg in 2020, first joining Bethlehem Steel (now Philadelphia Union II) in 2015 and debuting in 2017, before joining the senior setup in 2019.
Aaronson scored on his senior Union debut in a 1-1 draw with Atlanta United on March 18, 2019, and from there, kicked on to notch seven goals and six assists for the club in 57 appearances before securing a move to Salzburg in 2020 for just shy of £5m plus bonuses.
Initially under the guidance of fellow American and current Leeds boss Jesse Marsch, Aaronson thrived in Austria, scoring 13 times and providing 15 assists in 65 games, helping the club win two league and cup doubles and reach the knockout rounds of the 2021/22 Champions League.
At international level, Aaronson is capped 18 times for the USMNT, hitting five goals and four assists. He’s long been regarded as one of the nation’s most exciting young talents but, having secured a move to the Premier League, could soon be viewed alongside the likes of Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna.
Given the tongue-in-cheek nickname of the ‘Medford Messi’, Aaronson isn’t a million miles away from the Argentine in terms of his style on the ball. The 21-year-old loves to dribble and beat defenders, while his diminutive stature gives him a low centre of gravity and the ability to spin out of pressure quickly.
Aaronson is able to operate as a No.10 or an inside forward, supporting attacks with his direct running, quick passing and smart interpretation of space. In the past, he has been criticised for an apparent lack of quality with his final ball, but that has improved dramatically since moving to Europe, as reflected in his goals and assists and his contribution at the very highest level; Aaronson created more chances (13) and provided more assists (2) than any other Salzburg player in the 21/22 Champions League, ranking second for completed dribbles (10).
The attacker has learned to arrive in the box at the right time to get on the end of chances and find space where he can create for his teammates.
Patson Daka’s second goal today was great. The cross from Brenden Aaronson is top class.
— Karan Tejwani (@karan_tejwani26) April 4, 2021
But for all his improvement on the ball, pressing remains his biggest asset – not surprising given he’s spent the last couple of years with a Red Bull team, of course.
According to FBref, Aaronson ranks in the top 1% in terms of pressures per 90 minutes when compared to players across Europe’s top five leagues and continental competition. The US star attempted a whopping 27.23 pressures per 90 and was successful with 8.07 of them.
Of course, pressing isn’t just about hard running; it’s also about knowing when to go and when to stay, understanding space and predicting opposition movements. When he first moved to Europe, Aaronson struggled with the increased intensity when compared to MLS, especially in Champions League games. But over time, he’s improved his understanding of the game after intense tutelage from Marsch and his successor, Matthias Jaissle.
Leeds were a relentless pressing unit under Marcelo Bielsa and although they were tamed a little when Marsch arrived, the American is another manager known for a front-footed style of play having managed at Salzburg, RB Leipzig and New York Red Bulls. Aaronson suits his style of play perfectly and their existing familiarity should make this a dream combination.
Marsch and Aaronson will link up again at Elland Road. / Chris Bauer/GettyImages
Sometimes, it’s best to sit back and let those who have worked with a player sum him up. From Philadelphia Union boss Jim Curtin – the man who gave Aaronson his professional break – to Marsch himself, there is no shortage of glowing testimony.
“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. He has a real belief in himself, but he never comes across thinking he’s better than the level,” Curtin said of Aaronson in 2019.
He added: “He has great self-awareness. It’s like a lost art. People think they’re way better than they are, but Brenden has none of that. He wants to learn, he asks questions.
“He looks like he should be in a boy band rather than a Champions League game. But when he steps on the field and the whistle blows, he’s ruthless man. He’s a killer and he’s relentless. It’s important too, his teammates love him. I can’t stress that enough.”
Upon signing Aaronson, Marsch said: “Brenden is an incredibly hard worker and we’re pleased to welcome him to the club. He adapts very well to tactical ideas and levels of play and his mentality is to do whatever it takes to help the team succeed. I know he will fit in here perfectly with our players and club with this mindset.”
And what about USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter?
“When I think back to January when he made his national team debut to now, he’s had a fantastic season of improving his performance almost weekly so I think he’s done a great job,” he said of Aaronson back in December 2020.
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