Ilia Gruev’s time at Leeds United has been rather uneventful since his transfer from Werder Bremen this summer. Despite the club spending £4 million on the midfielder (as reported by Daily Mail on August 31st), he has yet to secure a starting position under manager Daniel Farke. Instead, he has made only three brief appearances as a substitute, while Ethan Ampadu, Glen Kamara, and Archie Gray have been making their mark in the midfield.
During his initial two months at Leeds United, Gruev has had an equally limited role when representing his national team, Bulgaria. His most recent outing with the Bulgarian national side was in their 2-0 defeat to Lithuania during the Euro 2024 qualifying match on October 14th. In this game, he played on the left side of a back three, a departure from his preferred central midfield role.
The match took an unfavorable turn for Bulgaria as they were reduced to 10 men after 42 minutes when Andrian
Kraev received a second yellow card. Despite the challenges, the 23-year-old Gruev displayed glimpses of his quality on the field. He completed 88 percent of his 57 attempted passes, including one key pass that created a scoring opportunity in the first half. Impressively, six of these passes were into the final third, and he successfully executed five accurate long passes. On the defensive front, Gruev made five ball recoveries and won one ground duel, in addition to a remarkable 100 percent success rate in his two aerial duels. This is particularly notable given his relatively modest height for a center-back and lack of physical imposingness.
However, Gruev received a yellow card in the second half and missed a headed chance from a set-piece just 20 minutes into the game. Nevertheless, considering the sustained disadvantage of playing with ten men, it’s difficult to be overly critical of his performance.
Given the fierce competition for midfield positions in Farke’s team, Gruev might find more playing time at Leeds United if he’s open to playing in a defensive role, similar to what he has done with the Bulgarian national team. Though playing as a full-back demands different skills compared to a back three, the 23-year-old could follow the example of Gray and Shackleton, who have filled in on either side of Joe Rodon and Pascal Struijk at various times this season.
In other Leeds United news, a significant 71 percent of fans are optimistic that Farke will guide the team back to the Premier League this season.