At 17 years of age, Lewis Cook is a quite staggering talent. The use of the word ‘staggering’ is legitimate in this case, for at this present moment, Cook displays such a rare combination of qualities that his potential as a player in relation to the level that he is operating at now, does indeed fit the definition of staggering. If you were to ask any top-level scout if it is the norm to see a 17-year-old exhibiting the degree of talents that Cook is, on a regular basis, the answer would almost certainly be no.
Former Leeds manager Dave Hockaday, in spite of often playing the bumbling fool during his tenure in charge of the Whites, was near enough correct about Cook when he graphically observed; “If you chopped Lewis’ head off and put an older head on his shoulders, you wouldn’t be surprised”. It is very probable that the top scouts in England know of Lewis Cook. Not solely because of his ability, but also because Elland Road has developed quite the reputation as a hub of processing talented young players for many years now through the club’s academy. Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt, two exceedingly promising players that have emerged from Thorp Arch in the past two years, are further evidence of this. As a Leeds fan, it is sometimes easy to become irked at the pair above during their appearances for the first team, this, if they play a stray pass or a simple mistake is made too often. Often, on my part, this is due to a level of nervous tension that naturally builds during Leeds viewing, and as it builds, brings about a lessened perception of things, such as who, and how old the players in white are, they all become as one, Leeds players, all equally culpable. At the end of the game it is well to remind oneself that players like Byram and Mowatt, at their age, will make mistakes.
It is that they possess these qualities originally at their tender age that is the bigger picture to look at, especially when one thinks of the players they could become in two to three years time. The same can be said of Lewis Cook. However, there is something undeniably special about this Thorp Arch graduate. If Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt made impressive inroads into the first team at 19 and 18 respectively, Cook is doing so with the same level of conviction at 17. When watching Cook this season, it is hard not to become enraptured by that fledgling number, with all of the years ahead of it. Not only is he younger than Byram or Mowatt were at their time of accession, he also seems to be making a slightly more abiding impression than those left by the young duo above. That is in no way to denigrate the impact Byram and Mowatt made in their debut seasons, but Cook’s technique, already so advanced, and his complete ease in utilising it when so young, comes across as a trait that acquires its own uniqueness when watching him.
Cook has a crispness of touch that countless other players far more experienced than he struggle to ever attain, and many don’t. Indeed, his capability with the ball has revealed itself impressively this season with his flair for skipping past opposition players at speed, the most striking example of which came during Leeds’ game against Bournemouth. Cook, having received the ball halfway inside the Leeds half on the run, just kept running, and running, and running, zooming past opposition players a la Gareth Bale, showcasing not just superb technique to remain in total control of the ball at pace, but also a lively burst of acceleration which only supplements his gift on the ball. A ratio of one successful dribble a game this season doesn’t sound like much, but it is the 2nd highest score in the entire Leeds squad (Doukara leads with 1.3 per game), and serves to strengthen Cook’s technical credentials within this Leeds side. Players who have honed such a generous skill-set like Cook has by age 17 generally have something strong within them, an unbending will and focus in order to deliver such results in such a period of time. This definitely comes through as an aspect of Cook’s play. Aside from the adeptness on the ball, there is a welcome touch of graft, so much so that despite his tender years he strikes you as a player that you would want standing beside you in a fight.
Far from being all blood and thunder without the ball however, Cook also shows a perceptive intelligence in his defensive game, registering 1.5 interceptions per match this season. This outweighs his 1 tackle per game ratio and probably helps to account for his spotless disciplinary record this season, having not once been cautioned or sent off. In the wider reaches of the game, the defensive midfield position is becoming an area of growing importance, requiring not just brute force but astuteness in reading the game and distribution, and it is most gladdening to see Leeds producing a player that fits this progressive trend. Of course a heavy dose of realism is required when eulogising about youthful talents, as they have a lot of work ahead of them to solidify their place in the game. At a club like Leeds though, heavy doses of realism aren’t in particularly short supply.
Nevertheless, the progression of Lewis Cook has not been limited to a few tidy displays in a Leeds shirt this season. Rather, the youngster’s quality was to be seen at the back-end of last season, not in the Leeds first team, but as a vital component of England’s U17 European Championship winning side. Watching from the semi-final stage onwards, it didn’t take long to notice the startlingly high technical ability of this England side, not least the diminutive but tough-tackling schemer in the middle with a hand in most of the good things being produced. To then hear that this players’ name was Cook and that he was a Leeds United player was just a bonus.
It was already distinctly obvious from his performance level there that in this guy we had a real talent. Eye-catching throughout, Cook was clearly a level ahead of most of the players with regards to his technique. What will be very interesting to watch is if the 17-year-old can continue his rise and deliver on his already sparkling promise. Perhaps he can already be seen as the beckoning of a new era at Leeds. Perhaps this could be a Leeds that champions ball possession as a vital basis of play, a team that, at the very least, you can easily relate to a philosophy, one that is followed and inculcated throughout the team. It was only last season that if one looked at the final standings for aerial duals won that you would find Leeds at the very top, standing astride it like a great rangy creature, deeply cumbersome in all its dimensions. This stands in contrast to this season, where Leeds have played the eighth most short passes in the division, whilst at the other end of the scale they stand joint eighteenth for the amount of long balls played by any team. This is not to say that long ball sides are in some may inefficient or cannot make it past the Championship, they can, and have, rather it is the commitment to a philosophy that is key.
When one looks at the types of sides that have made it out of the Championship, and gone on to flourish in the Premier League, one comes across clubs for whom a footballing philosophy has been allowed to breathe, and these are the teams that Leeds should seek to emulate. Teams like Swansea City and Southampton for example, who through stable and solid grounding in a collectively held philosophy have grown exponentially, and are now rewarded with a sense of belonging at the highest level of English football. A vital cog in their growth has been the development of talented players from academy level through to direct involvement in the first team. Names such as Joe Allen, Ben Davies, Adam Lallana and Calum Chambers spring to mind. All of the above players have moved on at a sizeable profit for their clubs, and although one would not want the same thing to happen for Leeds, it is the actual creation of and type of player created and developed in the first place that is of importance.
For too long, Leeds have ploughed through a ceaseless mire without anything tangible being carried on to the other side. Each new start has been clogged with the remains of the last. As Phil Hay so brilliantly put it when describing the Whites recent past under Simon Grayson, Neil Warnock and Brian McDermott; “Even before Cellino got involved, United had a problem. Many of Simon Grayson’s players weren’t wanted by Neil Warnock and many of Warnock’s players weren’t wanted by Brian McDermott, Leeds were becoming a rest-home for the terminally unappreciated”. In Massimo Cellino’s first summer transfer window, it was refreshing to see a transfer policy that targeted a particular breed of player, with the arrivals all conforming to a certain technical refinement that is either already there or there to be polished.
In conjunction, the promotion of academy graduates like Lewis Cook to the first team, and the involvement of Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor has brought a wholesome aspect to Leeds’ squad this season. Bringing through more of these players in the same vein should be the ambition, and Cook’s talent allowed to flourish further. He stands in direct contrast to the herds of roving and wearyingly compatible journeymen Leeds have collected with unhealthy regularity over the years, and this bodes well for the club as a whole. With his quality and that of those around him, and hopefully those underneath him, Leeds United can now begin to practice a uniform style that could one day deliver on its grandest ambitions, and allow those playing by its tenets to succeed as well.