In this piece, Calum Archibald looks at Leeds United’s two options at left-back and tries to decide between the two of them.
Leeds United’s left-hand side has been the subject of debate ever since Ian Harte was regularly witnessed in (slow) pursuit of wingers breaking past him.
Barry Douglas was brought to Leeds with a reputation as an assist-machine. But when that never quite translated into his Leeds role last season, there was significant debate about who was Leeds’ best option at left-back.
Douglas’ first season lacked rhythm as injury robbed him of a genuine run in the side for large parts. Both Stuart Dallas and Leif Davis filled in at times in what was a remarkable year of injuries for Marcelo Bielsa’s side, particularly in defence.
The main claim to Douglas’ throne came from Gjanni Alioski, who found himself restyled as an attacking wing-back in a role that made a lot of sense when you consider his skillset. His tendency to cross the ball early often left fans frustrated when he was deployed on the wing, while his lack of skill in one-on-one situations is a clear weakness.
The Macedonian, however, received significant praise for his unerring work rate. Few other players would have been trusted to play with nobody in front of them in a lopsided formation as he was for the final minutes against Brentford and much of the game against Stoke when Bielsa overloaded the right-hand side and played two strikers.
But where industry and work ethic are often celebrated in the English game, there is no substituted for pure footballing ability, right?
This is the question: who suits Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds better? Barry Douglas? Or Gjanni Alioski?
When speaking about football teams tactically, it is tempting to think in terms of formations. In the case of Marcelo Bielsa, though, it helps to think in terms of the ‘system’.
After Leeds’ game with Stoke, Bielsa spoke in the press conference about the tactics that had helped his side to a 3–0 victory: ‘Today Dallas played more on the side. Klich played further back and Pablo took more central positions today. Harrison supported Alioski on the left-side. Kalvin more in the back than usual and Adam did less attacks than he usually had to do in the games.’
Bielsa, it becomes clear, thinks in terms of the ‘system’ and tweaks that system by manipulating players within that system.
What is this system? Well, starting at the back, two centre-backs and then a third player who is a centre-back who can push forward or a central midfielder who can drop back.
Flanking the backline, there are two full-backs who can push up or drop back accordingly. These players need to be hyper-mobile, able to help out in the attacking phases, able to break down opposition plays out of possession and able to make recovery runs when their own transitions break down.
In the midfield, supporting the deep-lying central midfielder (or forward-moving centre-back) there is a facilitator: a player whose job it is to control the game, move the ball through the transitions and intercept the ball when the opponents are transitioning.
Ahead of the facilitator is the more attacking option: a player who is expected to be more creative and fashion chances for the forward line or, alternatively, to slot into the forward line and threaten the opposition goal.
There are then two wide players but usually one of them will play deeper and narrower, the other playing wider and more advanced. One of these players could become a second striker if necessary in which case the other will become even more narrow and deep.
The formation is concluded with a striker who can either play as more of a playmaker — Patrick Bamford, for example — or as an out-and-out forward — looking to break the opponent’s backline and find space in behind.
The most important thing to remember, though, is that the system is manipulable. If the opposition are more dangerous on the left, then drop the left-sided full-back. Or move the deepest midfielder into the space left by the left-sided full-back. Or push the deepest midfielder into a back three and push the left-sided centre-back wider.
The system stays the same; the formation may change.
Wherefore art thou, Douglas?
The benefit of working to a system is that the system can also be tweaked according to the strengths of the players within it.
Given that a full-back/wing-back in the Bielsa system is required both to attack and defend, you would expect Barry Douglas to be fielded in such a way as to emphasise his strengths.
As you can see from this average position map from the game against Nottingham Forest, Douglas is fielded as an attacking option who is deployed to support Jack Harrison, who, in turn, plays as the more advanced of the two wide players.
In this iteration of the system, Bielsa looks to overload the right-hand side of the pitch, keeping most of the players around Pablo Hernandez, the most creative player on the team. This allows Harrison and Douglas to work themselves into isolated situations on the opposite side of the field, encouraging the quick switch into space.
The result of this tactical approach is that Douglas plays a very advanced role in the team. Compare his position with that of Stuart Dallas at right-back and you can see the difference: in possession, Douglas is more likely to be in the opposition half than his counterpart.
To counteract Douglas’ progression on the left, Bielsa encourages Kalvin Phillips to drop into the left-back area in defensive transitions to offer some cover.
When it comes to Alioski, it is a different story. From his average position in games, you can tell that he is much less likely to get forward in possession than Douglas. This suggests that Bielsa considers him a better defensive player on balance than his teammate.
This average position map from the Brentford game shows how Alioski fitted into the same iteration of the system that Leeds played in the first games of the season with Douglas at left-back.
Obviously, the system is the same but Alioski and Harrison are much deeper than Douglas and Alioski were in the previous games. Of course, the Brentford game was a little tougher than the other games so that must be taken into account.
In addition, Leeds switched to the 3–5–2 that we saw in the next game against Stoke. Here is the average position map from that game:
Interestingly, Bielsa has only shifted to the 3–5–2 with Gjanni Alioski on the field. Why is this? Well, as the average position map shows (bearing in mind that these are based on touches rather than actual position), Alioski finds himself isolated on the left-hand side with Harrison playing much more centrally.
It should be noted that Harrison has helped cover Alioski in this set-up and Kalvin Phillips has also done his fair share of coverage. But once again, the evidence seems to suggest that Bielsa considers the Macedonian to be a better player to fit into the left-back slot in the 3–5–2 version of the system.
On the Front Foot
With this being the case, the best way to compare the two is to analyse them from the perspective of both attack and defence, putting an emphasis on the weaker side of their game as much as their stronger. If Douglas is a stronger defender than Alioski an attacker, then this is as helpful to us as assessing which player is better in their relative strong role.
What, then, do the statistics tell us?
Judging them over the period from the beginning of last season (because of injuries, Douglas has played 2245 mins to Alioski’s 3871), the data does show up a couple of interesting things.
Firstly, of the two, Alioski is probably the more direct player going forward. Douglas does complete more crosses per 90 mins (1.64) than Douglas (1.51) but Alioski has more shot assists in open play per 90 mins (1.39) than Douglas (0.76). On top of this, although the Scot has 0.24 assists per 90 mins to his teammates 0.11, when you account for set-pieces and removed them, the balance swings ever so slightly the other way: 0.08 to 0.09.
This makes sense. Alioski does like to attack the box more than Douglas, who is more likely to engage in build-up play with his winger than his counterpart.
No surprises, then, that Douglas is the hands-down winner in such metrics as opposition half passes completed per 90 (25.21 to 18.13) and passes in general (45.7 to 27.76 with a completion rate of 82.0% to 73.6%). The partnership of Jack Harrison and Barry Douglas is a more patient combination than that of Harrison and Alioski.
When you take into account the fact that Douglas is much less likely to be dispossessed on the ball than Alioski (0.68 dispossessions per 90 minutes compared to Alioski’s 1.18), the former Hull City player is clearly the pick of the two going forward.
This explains why Douglas was preferred in the more attacking left-back role. If you watch each raking change-of-play long-pass from Kalvin Phillips that has been played so far this season — and there have been several — Douglas takes up an almost identical position each time: about five yards behind Harrison.
This gives him the advantage to do two things with a decisive movement: either to overlap Harrison and create a crossing opportunity from a very wide position or to offer a supporting pass back as Harrison looks to head for space and drive towards the opposition box.
Against Nottingham Forest, this position saw Leeds create several good opportunities, including the one in which Bamford struck the crossbar.
It’s also interesting to consider that Jack Harrison struggled against Brentford with Alioski behind him rather than Douglas. Admittedly, the way Brentford sat off and pressed in midfield caused considerable issues for Leeds — and Pablo Hernandez was probably the worst player on the field for large parts of the game — but Harrison generally found time and space in the opening three games that he struggled to find when Alioski was deputising at left-back.
In Defence of the Defensible
At the other end of the pitch, the statistics are perhaps surprising.
On the balance of it, Barry Douglas is, in fact, probably the better classic defender. He loses fewer aerial duals (2.32 per 90 to 3.18), he loses fewer defensive duals (0.84 to 1.13 per 90) and he wins more possession in the defensive third than his teammate Alioski (3.16 per 90 to 1.85). He does, though, attempt slightly fewer tackles, at a rate of 2.24 per 90 to 2.41.
Where Alioski has the edge is as a pressing player. He wins more possession in the middle and attacking thirds (0.51 per 90 to 0.32 in the middle third and 2.16 per 90 to 1.68 in the attacking third) and makes more completed tackles than Douglas too (1.44 per 90 against Douglas’ 1.32).
Given the data, the question is to which player is the better defender is complexified somewhat. Douglas, as we saw, will work in a more reactive defensive system — making tackles from deep and winning headers. But Alioski will offer more in the high press that Marcelo Bielsa favours against teams who attempt to play possession-based football.
On top of this, although Alioski may seem to have an advantage in a defensive transition — his stamina and determination are matched by few of his teammates — the system has mitigated for last season’s problems with the increasingly-deep positioning of Kalvin Phillips.
All told, then, at least from a defensive point of view, both players have different strengths and could be deployed in system-dependent scenarios. If Bielsa is anticipating a game against a side who might try to possess the ball in their own area, Alioski might be preferred.
On the other hand, against teams who are looking to hit the space in behind the full-backs or who have particularly dangerous wide players, Barry Douglas might get the nod over his teammate.
Douglas or Alioski?
The argument isn’t as simple as it might appear.
In a straight choice, Marcelo Bielsa would likely choose Douglas, as he has done so when both are fit so far this season. But to fall simply on the side of ‘Douglas over Alioski’ is to ignore the fact that Bielsa’s system is able to be accommodated to the players that he fits within it.
When it comes to Alioski, it is tempting to confuse his intensity with productivity. Industry is a quality that is vastly overvalued in English football, perhaps society more generally too. However, there are times when the intensity of his pressing may make him preferable to Douglas.
Similarly, Douglas has his own upside in this Leeds system. Interestingly, it’s not the same attacking wing-back role as he played at Wolves but one where he contributes more to the overall system and style of play.
The assist king version of Barry Douglas was more a product of the system and players that Wolverhampton Wanderers deployed. Now, Douglas is contributing more in the passing phase of play rather than to the creation of an end-product.
And this is why we will be more likely to see Douglas when both he and Alioski are fit. Yes, there may be times that Leeds require a different system, such as the one that found Patrick Bamford and Eddie Nketiah playing centrally while Costa rampaged down the right with Berardi behind him and Alioski covering two positions on the left. But to generate the space, precision and fluidity that Bielsa’s system relies on, Barry Douglas is key.
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