Player Profile: Ethan B. Laird

Last season, Manchester United’s matches became increasingly unbearable to watch. The gears of the team were soiled, and Ralf Rangnick, who had been heralded as the spearhead of yet another ‘new era’, became the poster boy for a forgettable year at the club. To make headway and move on from that mess, United appointed Erik Ten Hag–a man they hope will make a ‘restructured’ Manchester United more competitive.

Nevertheless, a few weeks into the transfer window, the activity (or lack of) around the club has been starkly similar to previous years, and the now purged squad that crawled to the end of the last campaign remains practically identical–with no new additions.

Amid the seemingly impending doom of another underwhelming transfer window, I evaluate the prospects of Ethan Laird, one of Carrington’s prospects of yesteryear, to see where he is at with his development and opine whether he can make an impact in the first team this coming season.

Who is Ethan B. Laird?

Ethan Benjamin Laird is a 2001-born right-back that came through the United youth ranks a few years ago. With a strong reputation at the youth level and a modest youth-international career to boast of, Laird got a loan move to MK Dons, an outfit in the Sky Bet League One, during the 2020/2021 season—where Russel Martins was the coach.

After a fair loan spell (clocking over 2000 minutes), Martins, now the newly appointed Swansea manager, signed him on loan again at the start of the 2021/2022 season. Laird played an integral part for the Swans, starting in all but two of their twenty league matches he was available for.

“He’s spent a year with us [at MK Dons and Swansea] and I think he’s grown incredibly in that time. He’s been a really good performer for us this season, his first season in the Championship…He has an infectious personality and he’s had some brilliant performances”

Russel Martin

Midway through the season, United decided to recall Laird and loan him to a different championship outfit, AFC Bournemouth, hoping that their promotion-challenging status would provide more competition for Laird. That move ended up a disaster. Laird spent the most parts of his loan move injured or sidelined and couldn’t get a sniff into Scott Parker’s side. Unfortunately, such injuries have plagued Laird’s young career so far.

Where did he featured last season?

For Swansea:

Laird was deployed as the right wing-back in Russel Martin’s 3-4-2-1 formation. The two wing-backs in this system were the widest players on the pitch and rarely ever dropped deeper to support the build-up. With the absence of on-ball responsibilities in build-up and progression, Laird was exclusively a third-phase player while his side was in possession, with the ball quickly funnelled to him when final box-penetration was needed. He also played a similar role during his previous loan spell at MK Dons under the same manager, where he ranked in the 1st percentile for deep progression (passes/carries into the opposition’s final third) according to StatsBomb data. Whilst this number was concerning for some data-observers early on, it just shows how methodological his role was defined in these teams. While the responsibilities were rigid, they helped amplify Laird’s best abilities.

For Bournemouth:

Laird was deployed as a right-back in a 4-2-3-1 formation. By Russel Martin’s admission, the move to the Cherries was partly initiated by the hopes that he would play deeper and work on other facets of his game that his parent club felt were crucial for his development.

“But his parent club have decided it’s better for him to go and play in a slightly different position with a different club in this league who are fighting hard for promotion. That’s their prerogative. That is the danger you have with loan players.”

Russel Martin

The loan spell was plagued with injuries, but in the few minutes he played, Laird had drastically more responsibility in the first two phases of play and reduced expectations in the final phase; he failed to reach the standard of performances he had set at Swansea. It was a different challenge for him, albeit one eventually alleviated by Scott Parker employing build-up rotations to allow him to assume slightly similar positions to his previous loan spells.

Understanding his style

Ethan Laird is an attacking full-back who relishes carrying the ball; as a bonus, he can do it off either foot! He has a low centre of gravity, good balance, and a decent burst, so he can consistently use his acceleration to create separation over a few yards but plateaus over longer distances. Consequently, during transitions or when in possession of the ball in deeper positions, Laird will seldom take players on by knocking the ball past them into space. Despite this limitation over longer distances, Laird remains a lethal take-on threat and uses feints and a neutral set position–enabled by his two-footedness–to create indecisiveness and leverage his acceleration. Laird’s strong balance and guileful touches mean opponents often have to foul him to stop him when carrying the ball; he is a strong offensive dueller. He averaged two successful dribbles per 90 for Swansea City (via WhoScored).

Laird displaying two-footedness when taking players on

Laird backs himself against most opposition defenders and, when fed the ball in the final third, will often drive towards the byline and attempt a cut back across the box. Whilst he can strike the ball reasonably well, Laird rarely attempts crosses from deeper or wider positions and almost exclusively does so from the byline. He does not currently display a variety of deliveries in the final third.

Laird attacking the byline and attempting across from there

This hesitance to strike through the ball has different consequences when Laird is in the build-up phase. He is a relatively safe passer from deep and often funnels the ball wide to his wing-partner (which he had at Bournemouth). Even when a pass infield is a more appropriate (or progressive) option, Laird hesitates even to attempt the pass. He would much rather attempt a quick one-two with the wide player to receive the ball at a higher position.

Laird being indecisive about a pass-selection mis-hitting the ball out of play
Laird choosing a conservative option although his teammate was available between the lines

When given the ball with pace, and into his stride, in the first phase of the build-up side, Laird can drive the ball into midfield past oncoming pressure before releasing it to his nearest man. He also rarely attempts long balls, and his medium ranges balls are limited to the ones mentioned above–down the line. Laird has shown glimpses of more incisive passing in the final third but tends to only do so after carrying the ball.

Despite his build-up flaws, Laird is terrific and a constant nuisance to opposition defenders in the final third–whether with or without the ball. He has a very natural and almost spontaneous feel for the game, employing various approaches to receive the ball in dangerous positions. Laird consistently attacks the space behind the backline by sneaking in, occupying, and then attacking the blind side of the opposing defenders to receive a through pass from his teammate. Through these, Laird capitalises on a ball-watching defender’s neutral stance and steals a march on them. The timing of his runs in these situations is immaculate, and he can create a reliable means for box penetration if he develops synergy with a capable near-side centre midfielder or winger.

Laird making an out-to-in run past the blindside of the opposing full-back then getting a dangerous ball across the box
Laird making another out-to-in run and catching the defending full-back flat-footed

When he doesn’t have support on his flank or cannot exploit the opponents blindside to get in behind, Laird can also utilise double-movements.

Laird making a double movement to steal the march on the opposing full-back then misjudging the flight of the ball.

Laird’s movement in the final third is one of his most impressive abilities. This element of his game could even be more potent if he’s paired with a ball-dominant, playmaking wide-player or near-side centre midfielder. From my observations of popular narratives, this facet of his game is likely the most ‘hidden’, and he still has plenty of room to grow into a more prominent presence in that regard.

Pointers for the future

Ethan Benjamin Laird is a very gifted attacking full-back. Nevertheless, his limited passing variety currently prevents him from being a much more rounded attacking full-back and could render him a liability, especially against teams who sit slightly off the press and demand that he play that incisive pass.

Whilst he has a reliable technical assurance across most facets of his game, Laird often loses concentration and is culpable of miscontrols. Across both loan spells last season, he averaged a startling 2.5 unsuccessful touches per 90 (via WhoScored).

Laird’s acceleration allows him to make important challenges in a settled block, but his inconsistent decision-making means he can be found wanting when defending transitions. Unfortunately, there is not an expansive array of evidence at professional-level evidence of him defending in a back four to give a more indicative assessment of his defensive acumen. We’ll have to gauge that during the upcoming season.

With his contract expiring next year, it is crucial that Laird makes an impact this year–starting with preseason. 

What could his place be at Manchester United?

At United, Laird would play as the RB in a 4-2-3-1. And with the transfer of Frankie De Jong looking ever-more likely, there are a variety of rotations Erik Ten Hag could employ to cater for Laird’s shortcomings and amplify his lethal attacking nous.

Here are a few examples of what that could be look like:

Ultimately, like James Garner asserted last week when asked about his own prospects of breaking into the first team, it is up to Laird to “go on pre-season, impress…and hopefully make a mark” [via MEN]. With better fortunes with injuries, I am cautiously optimistic about the right back’s prospects.

LEIGH, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 13: Ethan Laird of Manchester United U23s in action during the Premier League 2 match between Manchester United U23s and Manchester City U23s at Leigh Sports Village on December 13, 2020 in Leigh, England. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

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4 thoughts on “Player Profile: Ethan B. Laird

  1. Really informative Joel. With Dakota looking promising and Wan bissaka seemingly on his way out, it will be interesting to see how things pan out for him in Ten Haag’s side. It will be a shame to see him loaned off again and get injured without getting a chance to prove himself for United. Once again great Piece!

    Liked by 1 person

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