Have Leeds Turned the Corner?

Josh Hobbs breaks down the numbers and statistics behind Leeds’ recent turn of form…

After Leeds’ 1–0 loss away to Southampton, I wrote a piece about how the stats showed that the Whites were in real trouble this season. The loss on the South Coast meant that Leeds looked in danger of spending the season in the relegation battle, but they’ve managed to go unbeaten in the three fixtures since, picking up a win away at Norwich, and drawing at home against Wolves and Leicester.

The performances at Elland Road were improved but it must be said that Leeds made difficult work of beating Norwich with Tim Krul letting a long-range shot from Rodrigo bounce past him for the winner.

The question is though, have Leeds now turned a corner? Was the Southampton performance rock bottom and the catalyst for improvement?

Forecasted Final Table

In the previous article, I used FiveThirtyEight’s Premier League predictions to show how Leeds had dropped from the beginning of the season.

Before a ball was kicked, Marcelo Bielsa’s side were predicted to finish 11th, based on their team rating. However, after the Southampton game, they had dropped to a predicted finish of 16th and given a 20% probability of relegation. This was due to dropping points against Newcastle, Burnley and Southampton, which were all games Leeds would have been expected to win before the season started. As such, their team rating was decreased.

Below is the final table as predicted after the 8th Premier League game week:

However, since then, Leeds drew against Wolves and Leicester, two sides with a higher team rating than them, as well as beating Norwich, a side they were expected to beat. Furthermore, the xG in these games meant that Leeds might have won, thus slightly increasing Leeds’ team rating, and therefore their expected finishing total has been revised from 42 points to 44 points, as shown below:

Leeds have now had their relegation probability decreased from 20% to 14%. Partly this is thanks to slightly increased performances, but it’s also due to Brentford and Aston Villa dropping down the league rapidly in recent weeks, increasing their own chances of relegation.

This is the first time all season that Leeds have climbed the table on FiveThirtyEight’s predictions. After every other game week, they have dropped down the league as they’ve underperformed expectations.

It should be said however that the picture at the bottom of the table could change drastically, due to new managers coming in at Norwich, Newcastle and Aston Villa, whilst Claudio Ranieri is still very new at Watford.

Underlying Numbers

In my last article, I also showed that Leeds had dropped from their 20/21 performance in underlying numbers. In terms of chances given away, they stayed roughly the same, as they have always been very open defensively since promotion to the Premier League. However, there had been a big drop when it came to attacking numbers, as they dropped from being the fourth-best team for non-penalty expected goals in 20/21, to eighth in the league after 8 games in 21/22.

Unfortunately, Leeds haven’t improved in this manner, and in fact, they’ve continued to trend downwards in terms of chance creation.

They are now 11th in the league for non-penalty xG per 90, dropping from 1.3 to 1.24. As mentioned earlier, the Norwich game saw Leeds win through a long-range Rodrigo strike but they barely put up more than 1 xG in the game, whilst the Wolves draw was earned by a penalty, with only just over 1 xG generated in open play.

The Leicester draw also saw Leeds create just over 1 xG according to Statsbomb and the goal was scored by Raphinha with a free-kick that may well have been a cross. The Whites currently have an issue with both creating and converting chances, as they are not only trending downwards in terms of chance creation but also underperforming finishing-wise.

When it comes to the defence, though, there is a slight trend in the right direction. After the Southampton loss, Leeds were the second worst in the league when it came to non-penalty xG against:

However, the last three games have moved things in a more positive direction, as now they are fifth worst and have a non-penalty xG of 1.53, rather than 1.74 per 90. As Leicester and Wolves are both in the top half for NPxG for, it’s positive to see Leeds trending upwards after games against those two teams.

In terms of expected goal difference, Leeds remain the sixth worst for the metric, as they were after 8 games:

When taking the last three games into account, they have slightly improved, going from -0.53 to -0.28, with Aston Villa falling behind them, though Arsenal’s improvement has kept Leeds in the same position:

So — The Answer Is Yes?

Overall, the underlying numbers suggest that Leeds are improving recently, but it seems a jump to say that this is the end of the struggles and that a corner has been well and truly turned.

The major concern is that chance creation hasn’t improved and in fact has got worse — despite the fact that Leeds were dominant for large parts of the Wolves and Leicester games. Problems still continue when it comes to turning dangerous territory into clear-cut goalscoring opportunities.

Also, whilst the defensive numbers have improved a little recently, we need to keep in mind the fact that although Leicester and Wolves have been top-half for attacking performance, December features Leeds’ horror run of fixtures, where they face Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool in consecutive games. This run of matches could see The Whites take a real dive in terms of defensive performance, as these are some of the best attacking teams in the league.

Returning Players Are Still Going To Be Vital

The Leicester game suggested that individuals returning to what has been a pretty broken team can still make a big difference. The match saw Adam Forshaw return to the starting line-up in a league fixture for the first time in over two years, and Leeds’ midfield looked transformed.

Whilst Leicester did allow Leeds to build up a little more than Norwich did the week before — as they didn’t press Diego Llorente as intensely as The Canaries — Forshaw’s position as a number eight provided a link between Kalvin Phillips and Rodrigo, and Leeds had a lot more control in possession than they have done in previous games this season. As a natural midfielder, his defensive work closer to Phillips allowed Leeds to look a lot less vulnerable through the middle.

I mentioned in the previous article that Luke Ayling’s return to right back would be important for ball progression, and that Leeds hugely miss Patrick Bamford when it comes to both chance creation and goalscoring. Although he doesn’t put up huge creative numbers, Bamford takes up positions in the box which create far more danger than any of Leeds’ stand-in options have managed, and the Leicester game provided an example of how The Whites missed him in possession.

Whilst Leeds got into dangerous positions down the wings, there was no Bamford attacking the area between the penalty spot and six-yard-box looking for cutbacks and crosses. To illustrate this, here is Leeds’ shot map for this season so far:

As you can see, there is a real lack of shots from around the six-yard-box in central areas, which is concerning for Leeds. Looking at Bamford’s shot map from last season, we can see a clear illustration of how he could improve this issue.

Here’s an example from the Leicester game of where Leeds could have really done with their number nine.

Here, Dan James did make himself a target for Rodrigo’s cross, but one can’t help but think that Bamford would have got to this before Schmeichel. James ran in a straight line and slowed down before Rodrigo delivered the ball in. Bamford would perhaps have angled his run closer to the near-post and got in front of the goalkeeper.

This is also an example of how Leeds can look dangerous in games without putting up high xG numbers as this was one of Leeds’ most dangerous moments in the game. However, it’s the type of attack that means nothing according to non-penalty xG as Leeds didn’t manage to take a shot from it.

Bamford’s goal against Tottenham Hotspur last season was a great example of his movement in the box:

Notice that as Alioski gets to the byline, Bamford moves from his position in the centre of the six-yard-box to run across Eric Dier and finish. Without Bamford, there simply isn’t a player in the Leeds team making these clever movements to put themselves in the best position to finish.

Bielsa did not give a date for his return when asked recently, but the blessing of the November international break is that it gives more time for Bamford to get closer to fitness.

More Points Are Necessary In The Next Four Games

Leeds have done well in terms of results over the last few games, but the next four are very important. The Whites will need some more points on the board before their brutal run in December.

First up after the international break, Leeds face Antonio Conte’s Spurs. This might be an opportunity to get a result, as before Conte took over, Spurs’ xGD was only marginally better than Leeds’, with the London side putting up some of the worst NPxG numbers in the division. Conte is likely to turn this around but the fact that his preparation to face Bielsa’s team comes after an international break means that they may still not be at the level expected.

After that, Brighton come next. Leeds have struggled against Brighton in the Premier League, but will hope to be able to find a way through this time, particularly if they have Raphinha available against the Seagulls, as he missed both games against Graham Potter’s team last season.

Following the trip to the South, two consecutive home fixtures against Palace and Brentford stand out as more ‘winnable’ games for Leeds. Palace are actually in relatively good form of late, picking up wins against Manchester City and Wolves, but Leeds would still be expected to have a good chance of turning over Patrick Viera’s side, whilst Brentford are plummeting in the table and should be seen as a team which Leeds feel they can beat.

If Leeds can pick up at least 7 points in this run, this will look a lot more encouraging, as they will have consistently picked up points since the Southampton loss, taking some pressure off going into the December matches.

If they can’t manage that, they may need a result from one of the top teams or have to rely on the bottom clubs not improving, so that they don’t drop into the bottom 3 by the end of December. If they can manage more, they could finally start climbing towards the relative safety of mid-table.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @JoshAHobbs

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A Leeds United blog which focuses on the tactical and statistical aspects of the game