Can Tyler Roberts be a Creative Spark for Leeds United?
Leeds United’s 2–0 win at home to QPR was supposed to have been the game where Eddie Nketiah made his long-awaited first start for the Elland Road club. Unfortunately, injury struck him in the final training session before the game and he dropped out of the squad completely. It was hoped that Nketiah’s pace and finishing would be the difference for Leeds and they would finally score more than a solitary goal at home, having not done so since March.
Leeds did manage to score twice, but instead of Nketiah getting his first opportunity to start, Patrick Bamford continued as Marcelo Bielsa’s number 9. On top of this, as both Leeds’ preferred left-backs, Ezgjan Alioski and Barry Douglas, had picked up injuries, Tyler Roberts was given a start. This saw Leeds adopt an unorthodox formation; although it looked like Stuart Dallas would start as left-back, in-game he seemed to switch to right wing-back before taking on the role of man-marking Eberechi Eze. As a result, Jack Harrison had the left wing entirely to himself, operating as a left wing-back, with Roberts playing as an attacking midfielder in what looked to be an asymmetric 3–5–2.
Roberts managed his first goal in over a year with the opener: incidentally, the first goal scored by a Leeds United player in the first half at Elland Road this season. It was a very smartly taken goal, stroked into the bottom corner from just inside the 18-yard box. However, there were plenty of other moments that didn’t lead to goals that provided the sort of excitement the fans have been looking for. There was also, perhaps, a glimpse of something different to what has been coming from the centre of the pitch so far this season.
Leeds already knew a lot of what the Welshman could bring to the team. After a strong breakout season in 2018/19, Roberts started the season as third choice striker, scoring all 3 of his goals in an 8-game run as he deputised for the injured Kermar Roofe & Patrick Bamford. In the second half of the season, he shone when utilised as an attacking midfielder.
The 20-year-old’s driving runs through the middle of the pitch meant Leeds still had somebody capable of progressing the ball in that fashion after losing the homesick Samu Saiz back to Spain, although there remained questions about his final product. In the radar graph above, you can see that he made 0.475 key passes per 90, creating a chance for a shot on goal for his team-mates almost every other game, which is a number he would hope to improve on.
His standout performance came in the 4–0 destruction of his former club, West Bromwich Albion, where he managed to marry up his ball-carrying ability with goal contributions, leading to two assists.
In this first assist, he shows a deftness of touch to get the angle and weight of pass just right for Bamford. In the second one below, after picking the ball up in his own half, his stepover in the centre circle allowed him to drive past Gareth Barry and deep into the West Brom half, where Bamford was able to score again.
Starting the season with a midfield three of Kalvin Phillips at defensive midfield with Adam Forshaw and Mateusz Klich playing ahead of him as 8s, Leeds tended to progress the ball through passing. As Roberts is more naturally a forward, he interprets the role as more of a 10: a natural ‘enganche’ or the ‘1’ in Bielsa’s famous 3–3–1–3 attacking shape.
Roberts’ directness in the centre might well be an option Bielsa might want to look towards in order to disrupt teams who are content to let Leeds pass the ball wide.
As is perhaps expected due to the first choice make-up of Leeds’ midfield, there are no Whites players on this graph below which features the top 20 ball carriers in the championship who play in central or attacking midfield.
During Saturday’s game, Roberts was constantly searching for space in which to receive the ball, sometimes dropping deep in order to charge forward with the ball and set his side on the attack.
In the above example, his pass into Bamford was poor and allowed QPR to win the ball. However, this demonstrates his willingness to get Leeds on the front foot.
When Leeds faced Sheffield Wednesday in their previous game, there seemed to be several gaps opening up in the centre of the field for Leeds to drive into particularly in the second half. This was not something that Mateusz Klich was keen to attempt. Instead, Nketiah was dropping deep from centre forward to receive the ball and driving forwards. Perhaps if Roberts had been there to link the play, Nketiah could have operated closer to the penalty area, where he can be so dangerous.
As shown in this example from Leeds 1–0 win against Birmingham, Nketiah and Roberts seem to have the start of a partnership brewing. One can only hope that, when the Arsenal loanee finds fitness again, this partnership will be rekindled, bringing the goals Leeds have been missing. Whist this might mean a tweak the style that has seen Leeds dominate the Championship in terms of both xG and xGA, it may be a tweak ‘El Loco’ is willing to make, as Leeds strive to turn their dominance into regular goal-scoring.
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