Archie Gray: The next generation of the Gray dynasty by Joe Blackburn
In football, there will always be families with several generations of talent in them- Ian Wright to Shaun Wright-Phillips, Periko Alonso to Xabi Alonso and Jorge Higuain to Gonzalo. Football talent runs in some families from top to bottom. The perfect example of generations of a skilled family remaining at a single club is the Gray family and Leeds United, with the latest example being Archie, aged 16. Despite the incredible legacy of his family, Archie has the potential to be the best of the bunch.
One of the first times the name “Archie Gray” will have graced the lips of Leeds fans was in December 2021, as a highly depleted Leeds United squad travelled down to Arsenal without enough senior players to fill an eleven. In a side full of young names, Archie became the next generation of Grays to take his place in a matchday squad for Leeds, following his great-uncle Eddie and dad, Andy. Amongst a young side, coming in at 15 years and 281 days was a standout. However, this wasn’t as big a surprise for viewers of the Leeds Under-23s side.
Gray not only holds the record for being the youngest assister in the history of the EFL Trophy, finding himself against the stern challenge of Tranmere’s older and more experienced players, but he racked up two dozen appearances across the U18 and U23 age groups. To understand the constant involvement of Gray in the squad, you need to learn more about how he is as a player.
Position and style
Archie Gray is a highly versatile option in the centre of midfield. One of his most consistent positions on the pitch is in an attacking role as a number 10. There isn’t a lot of data collected from the Premier League 2, nor is there enough information about his work in the Under 18s side. Therefore, as much as data is an ideal way of conveying his performances, this is not necessarily possible. However, there is a lot we can learn from his one appearance for the senior team (at the time of writing), a 4-1 pre-season victory against Blackpool in the form of a match report.
Attitude and workrate
The first show of Gray’s mentality was present within the first minute of the match. Gray collects the ball deep in his own half, surrounded by Blackpool players engaging in a high pressing system. Gray (circled in blue) finds a pass to Gelhardt (black), demonstrating his ability to find the right ball in a difficult situation.
This was followed by an incredibly high-speed chase the entire length of the pitch, as he tries to catch up to the play. Gray ends the move in Blackpool’s penalty area, only a yard or two behind Gelhardt’s lofted ball behind. One of the most important aspects of the development of a young player is their attitude throughout the match. Gray proved his dedication to achieving a result from the first minute in this one move alone.
Whilst Archie Gray has a lot of experience working as a number 10 or a playmaker in his time in the youth ranks, his position in this match is closer to one of a “midfield destroyer”, working as a conduit to create opportunities whilst breaking down chances that the Tangerines attempted to create. Viewers of Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa will be aware of the “Kalvin Phillips” role, a physical midfielder that roams in possession to provide an option whilst being an extremely mobile challenger that gets into firm challenges whenever possible. In spite of Gray’s slender size and age, he slotted into this role well.
In one specific instance eight minutes into the match, for example, Gray sees each of the potential passes for Pascal Struijk as being under pressure, with at least one marker each. He chooses to move from the space on the right-hand side of the pitch into the range of Struijk, picking up the ball and providing a new angle to take the move forwards. This movement and drive for availability is a constant feature of the match, and after thriving in this position it looks to be a role Gray may take up more often under Jesse Marsch as his time at Leeds goes on.
When defending, Gray is a more firm player than one that gives up in the challenge. Although the young midfielder gave up several fouls throughout his appearance against Blackpool, each of these was outside of dangerous areas and an ideal decision. Although his physique means he runs the risk of the occasional clumsy challenge, he collected only two yellow cards in all of his appearances last season. He puts himself about in the challenge and has no qualms about physicality in spite of his age, but he knows how to restrain this when necessary for providing a better performance.
Finally, passing is an essential part of Gray’s game, and his vision plays a key role in two goals in this match. The most impressive of these is a pre-assist providing an opportunity from a corner. Waiting at the edge of the penalty area, Gray sees the ball arcing out of the area towards him. As Gray follows the path of the ball, he checks over his shoulder twice to see the positioning of his own players. When the ball comes down, Gray knocks the ball back over his head into the penalty area, hitting Gelhardt precisely and enabling a Rodrigo goal. This is a clear example of not only passing precision but having the vision to pick the right pass and a constant awareness of the state of the game around him, even when under pressure from a Blackpool defender rushing out to clear.
Video of the pre-assist is here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8ce0xw
Gray’s involvement in the deeper areas of midfield, therefore, provides a further dimension to the way the team functions. Rather than receiving the ball and getting it to the more creative players on the pitch, the presence of Gray at the foot of the midfield means that there is an eye for the “next best move” at all levels of the pitch. Of course, Gray made the odd mistake in this match, after all, it’s the first match of a long preseason, but his consistent quality of ball and decision-making is going to be essential in the development of his career.
Since the arrival of manager Jesse Marsch and the potential transition away from using young players as often as in the Bielsa era, many theorised a relative drop in Gray’s matchday appearances. This doesn’t seem to have been the case. His appearance in the first friendly of the 21/22 season against Blackpool (a shared senior debut alongside brand new signing Marc Roca) demonstrates his importance in Marsch’s plans, and joining a relatively limited senior side in their tour to Australia cements his position in Leeds’ Premier League squad, rather than the Premier League 2 Division 2 side for the coming year.
Gray has a significant amount of development to come, but with a high level of versatility and strong performances comfortably above his age group to date, Archie Gray is on track to be a top talent for the Yorkshire club for years to come. One I’m sure you should look for on this blog in the coming years, watching this youngster’s development is sure to be interesting.
Stills and video from LUTV, statistics from Statsbomb via FBref.