In Focus: Leeds are Gnonto a winner with starlet Wilfried
Wilfried Gnonto has been a bright spark in a struggling Leeds side — and he could be crucial to their chances of survival.
The teenage forward arrived from FC Zurich on deadline day last summer and was initially eased into the fold, not making his debut until the end of October.
However, the Italian has impressed with his energetic displays, forcing his way into Jesse Marsch's starting line-up.
Ahead of Leeds' battle with Brentford, we take a look at how Gnonto can help keep the Whites in the Premier League.
Gnonto's first decisive contribution in a Leeds' shirt — setting Crysencio Summerville up to score a late winner in November's 4-3 victory over Bournemouth — was a perfect summary of his best qualities.
The Whites had cleared a corner out of their own box and the 19-year-old drove all the way into the Cherries' third before slipping the ball in behind for his Dutch team-mate to finish.
In his seven Premier League appearances, Gnonto has attempted a team-leading 0.6 through-balls per 90 minutes, completing 0.2 — he is direct with his passing in advanced areas.
Only Jack Harrison can better his total of 0.2 open-play assists per 90 among Leeds players, while his 1.41 chances created per game ranks third in the squad.
Pulling the trigger
Gnonto offers a goal threat as well — underlined by his strike in the 2-2 draw with West Ham at Elland Road earlier this month.
It was his first goal for the Whites, with Summerville returning the favour by this time turning provider.
The Verbania native drifted infield from the left and drove forward before playing a sharp one-two with his fellow winger and producing an emphatic near-post finish with his weaker left foot.
But that paled in comparison to Gnonto's wonder strike on Wednesday night in the FA Cup, as his brace helped Marsch's men romp to a 5-2 victory over Cardiff — opening the scoring with a sensational scissor-kick volley that nestled in the top corner.
The nature of that goal inevitably drew comparisons with Paolo Di Canio's memorable volley for West Ham against Wimbledon, almost 23 years ago.
Speaking at half-time, former Bluebirds frontman Robert Earnshaw was effusive in his praise for the Leeds starlet.
He said: "To do it with your right foot as well, that's an unbelievable finish. Over the shoulder, right foot, but it's great technique. That is world-class level."
Fellow Leeds forward Patrick Bamford — who also scored twice in the match — was similarly complimentary.
He stated: "I'm going to be biased and say Willy's [goal is better than Di Canio's].
"He's probably watched him being Italian so maybe he's trying to emulate that. It was a great start 30 seconds in. The reaction from everyone on the bench sums it up, like wow, couldn't believe what they'd seen.
"I don't think he realises how good he is, which is sometimes a good thing because he's so down to earth. His dad drives him into training every day, he's just a happy guy, always smiling, he's one of the kids that you warm towards straight away."
Confidence and belief
Leeds manager Marsch has been impressed by Gnonto's ability to learn — and hailed the forward's recent performances.
He said: "I think what you see [in Gnonto] is a combination of confidence and belief, that quality, that's usually, the young players that have big potential, what you'd like to see. He's been a lot of fun to work with.
"He takes on information really well. He had certain moments [against West Ham] where I thought he did really well, certain moments where he is understanding what that role is and he can continue to grow.
"But you see confidence in him right now, I think it's partly about a run of games that he's had and then adapting to the league and adapting to what we are asking of him."
The American tactician was also full of praise for his No29 after the youngster's spectacular showing against Cardiff earlier this week.
He said: "He's a very intelligent, humble, grounded, a real human being, who wants to improve, wants to work hard and believes in the process we've created for him and the group."
However, former Premier League great Roy Keane refused to get carried away by Gnonto's eye-catching display.
He concluded: "He's obviously got a bit of talent, but the big question mark over the next few months and years for the player is end product. Particularly goals and assists. Young player, early days for him yet."
Gnonto shines brightest when racing past defenders with the ball at his feet.
His 4.43 take-ons attempted per 90 is the most in Leeds’ squad and ranks inside the Premier League's top 10 going into this weekend.
He has completed 1.61 a match on average and plays with a fearlessness that Marsch's men need in their fight against the drop.
Prior to Matchday 21, just two points separated 14th-placed Leeds from the foot of the table — although the Whites have a game in hand — but the former Inter Milan academy graduate is uninhibited by that knowledge and provides plenty of youthful exuberance.
Pressing the issue
Gnonto does not only channel his energy into dribbling past opponents, however.
The eight-cap international is a willing presser off the ball, winning possession in the attacking third 1.01 times per 90.
Only Patrick Bamford and Harrison can better that rate amongst Leeds players and the young forward has clearly taken his manager's commitment to pressing to heart.
Gnonto is already making his mark at Elland Road — he will hope it is enough to keep the Whites up.