Follow, Follow, Follow… Should it be Roberts or Rodrigo?
In this piece, Theo Hewson Betts explores the numbers behind the 21/22 season so far for both Tyler Roberts and Rodrigo…
When news broke that, alongside a whole host of injuries across the squad, Leeds’ record signing Rodrigo would also be out injured, the reaction was…Well… surprisingly muted.
On the face of it, Leeds United had a Spanish international attacker who puts up impressive creative stats now missing from a team that had already been struggling to put together a complete attacking performance this season.
Yet compared to the news that Pascal Struijk or even a (surprisingly and wrongly) much-maligned Liam Cooper would face a spell on the sidelines, the response seemed to be more on the lines of “Oh no! Not another one!” rather than, “Oh no! Anyone but Rodrigo!”
This wasn’t how it was meant to be for the former Valencia man who arrived with much fanfare at the commencement of Leeds’ maiden season back at Premier League level. But in his time at Leeds, it has never really seemed to click for him. And certainly not when Leeds are hunting the ball.
The most worrisome part of Rodrigo’s injury to some fans was that it would provide little chance that anyone other than Tyler Roberts would be leading the line for Leeds in the coming weeks.
The Welshman is who, much like Liam Cooper, seems to receive the brunt of criticism from fans when results aren’t going the Elland Road side’s way. I sit in the Kop at home games and find myself gritting my teeth when I see the 22-year-old warming up on the sidelines. Not because he is coming on but rather because I’ll have to hear the inevitable groans and complaints that “Roberts is crap” and “Oh here he comes… Tyler Roberts… super-sub”.
I always found it baffling, particularly when you look at his performances off the bench in games like the Everton draw when the introduction of Roberts and Shackleton won Leeds a point.
Since coming into the starting eleven though, the man nicknamed TyRo has slowly started turning the tide of opinion. A goal against Brentford, a quality assist against Chelsea and arguably the only half-respectable attacking performance in the Man City game (which I will try to avoid talking about as much as humanly possible) have meant that he has done all he can to grasp this opportunity.
Each player has their own strengths, so the question becomes “Which player makes Leeds better?”
Whatever your opinion of Rodrigo is, it is an inescapable fact that he is one of Leeds’ best creators. For instance, this season, he is putting up numbers that wouldn’t look out of place higher up the table. FBref has him sat on three expected assists for the season at a rate of 0.3 xA/90, which is the highest in the Leeds squad by some margin.
For context, Raphinha is second highest with 0.19 xA/90 (admittedly having made more appearances this season) and Rodrigo’s score is high enough to place him in the top 12 xA/90 players in the Premier League, above Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Harry Kane, all this without actually registering an assist this season.
Tyler Roberts is no slouch in this area either, sitting level with Mateusz Klich as third highest in the Leeds squad, but his stat of 0.14 xA/90 is more than doubled by his Spanish teammate.
A whole host of other statistics show Rodrigo’s elite creative ability. He records 2.10 key passes per game (that’s 18th highest amongst Premier League players who have played more than five 90s), whilst Roberts has “only” 1.39. He also has a much higher pass completion rate over medium and long distances, though Roberts edges it in the shorter passes.
The players are neck-and-neck when dribbling, having both completed eight dribbles past opponents. However, Rodrigo has a higher number of carries (as well as the higher number of carries that enter into the opposition 18-yard box).
In terms of shot-creating actions, Rodrigo once again is the decisive winner with 3.51 SCA/90 (top 35 in the Premier League) compared to Roberts’ 2.39.
All of the above points to Rodrigo being an elite creative player and, whilst it is worth noting that Roberts’ stats are largely impressive compared to the rest of the Leeds team, the gulf between the two players creatively in terms of pure output is clear to see.
There are some points of interest to be found in Statsbomb’s OBV (On-Ball Value) metric. OBV analyses the qualitative effect that players have on their team’s ability to advance the ball towards goal and create goalscoring opportunities. It looks at the location and destination of passes, dribbles and a variety of other actions to analyse how important a player is for their team’s overall attacking play.
This season, Tyler Roberts has an OBV number of 0.18 compared to Rodrigo’s 0.12. This backs the idea that Robert’s involvement in games allows the rest of the team to flourish more offensively than when Rodrigo is playing. It is worth noting that Rodrigo’s passing OBV (0.11) is substantially higher than Roberts’ (-0.01), whilst the young Welshman wipes the floor with his teammate in terms of how important his shot OBV is.
Speaking of shooting, it wouldn’t be right to look at attackers without analysing their finishing ability. Both players have one open play goal this season, with Rodrigo also scoring from the spot. Roberts takes 2.53 shots/90, which is higher than Rodrigo’s by 0.33 shots/90. Roberts also has a more accurate shot, finding the target with 50% of his efforts compared to his teammates’ 36.4%.
The thing that has been missing most when Patrick Bamford isn’t on the pitch is a striker who takes up space in the box. Both Roberts and Rodrigo have been too willing to drop wide to create chances but Roberts is recording a higher xG/90 than Rodrigo too, which shows that he is taking up more dangerous positions in the area, thus giving his teammates more of a central figure to aim balls towards.
This is also shown in Roberts’ average shot distance being just inside the area at 17.3 yards, whilst Rodrigo’s is 19.4, meaning that the latter shoots more from distance which is reflected in his negative OBV rating for shooting.
One stat did catch my eye that I thought was worth a mention and that is ‘fouls drawn’. Roberts has a habit of winning free-kicks high up the pitch in dangerous positions, as well as the occasional one in the defensive third when Leeds are struggling to play their way out of pressure. This is backed up statistically with Roberts having won 23 fouls this season compared to the 14 of Rodrigo.
That translates to 2.91 fouls drawn/90, which is far and away the highest in the Leeds squad (amongst players to have appeared for more than 200 minutes this season). It is 0.98 fouls/90 more than second-placed Raphinha and 1.51 fouls/90 more than Rodrigo, who also sits behind Daniel James in this measure.
Sidebar: How Do Leeds Compare Creatively With Each Player?
I think that an underrated part of a player’s creativity is their impact on how their team creates in any given game.
If a player demands the ball each time their team has possession but only one in five passes works out, the team may be less effective offensively than they would be without forcing the ball to an attacking midfielder, irrespective of how elite they may or may not be.
I think that the two games that are best to compare Leeds’ performance are those against Norwich and Brentford this season.
These were games against newly-promoted sides which (due to Liam Cooper’s early exit against Brentford) saw very similar lineups used in similar formations and saw Leeds score twice. This means that it provides us with an accurate depiction of how Leeds perform with each of Rodrigo and Roberts leading the line.
Against Norwich, with Rodrigo starting, Leeds created one big chance (which was missed), taking six shots inside the area and seven shots from outside the 18-yard box. Despite winning the game 2–1, Infogol has Leeds down as only creating 0.83 xG, compared to Norwich’s 0.99 xG.
Rodrigo created the Leeds key chance and had two shots on target, one of which squirmed past Tim Krul and into the back of the net. Though Leeds edged the possession battle during the match, it was an unconvincing performance against a team who had only amassed two points before the game.
Against Brentford, the game in which Tyler Roberts started, Leeds had a more convincing offensive performance. Two big chances were created and Leeds dominated possession, taking seven shots inside the area and six outside the area. Infogol rated Leeds as having 1.44 xG compared to 1.04 for their opponents.
Roberts scored a real striker's goal from a whipped Raphinha cross and had two other shots on target as well as three successful dribbles during the game.
The evidence on the back of the creative performances shows that Rodrigo, with his key pass, is still proving his creative ability, whereas Roberts’ ability on this front is less pronounced, but still effective in creating opportunities for teammates.
Rodrigo is a slightly better creator than Roberts. But how is Roberts compensating for the gulf to elevate Leeds’ performance?
This is the most obvious facet of Rodrigo’s game that requires improvement.
It isn’t necessarily a lack of effort that defines his poor pressing but more a lack of knowledge in how to angle and shape his runs, in order to force rushed or panicked decisions from defenders to allow Leeds to win the ball high up the pitch.
This can be best shown by the lack of blocks that Rodrigo makes. The fact he is sitting on four blocked passes compared to Roberts’ seven — with the latter having played the equivalent of two games less — shows how Rodrigo doesn’t position himself effectively in order to get in the way of passes.
Rodrigo’s running while pressing tends to be straight, like an arrow heading towards a bullseye. The problem, in this case, is that the bullseye can step slightly to the left and send the arrow hurtling out of contention for the ball.
This is clear to see in how the attacker’s tackling stats look. He has made more tackles than Roberts has in the final third (0.40 tackles/90 compared to 0.25 tackles/90) but drops behind his younger teammate in the middle third (0.51 t/90 for Roberts, 0.50 t/90 for Rodrigo) and the defensive third shows clearly the gulf in tracking ability as Roberts has recorded 0.76 t/90 compared to Rodrigo’s 0.20 t/90.
Rodrigo will often go into challenges aggressively, and when it works, Leeds have a decent opportunity of advancing further up the pitch, but when it doesn’t work, the Spaniard finds himself away from the rest of the play, so he often isn’t in position when the opponents go forward, reducing his opportunities to make defensive challenges.
Roberts makes more tackles per 90 — 1.52, to the 1.10 of Rodrigo — as well as, vitally, having a much better record against dribblers.
One of Leeds’ great weaknesses is when a centre back breaks the press and dribbles forward out of defence. Rodrigo’s record vs dribblers is poor, making 0.20 tackles/90 against dribbling opponents. Roberts’ is 0.89.
That’s a huge difference.
The trend continues with Roberts recording higher statistics than Rodrigo in defensive third pressures too.
So we know that Rodrigo is the better creator and Roberts is the better defensively. So the question that Roberts needs to answer whilst he has this run in the team, is whether or not his defensive work ethic can compensate for the rift in creativity.
For me, Leeds tend to create a decent amount of chances with both of these players. But should the current defensive injury crisis continue to mount, Roberts’ work rate will prove vital.
The former West Brom youth is still only 22 and his impressive cameos at Championship level should not be so easily forgotten. His creative numbers are improving, so too are his general performances (as they did when he was given a run in the side last season).
For me, whilst he keeps showing these positive signs, Roberts keeps his place — whether Rodrigo returns to fitness or not.