In this piece, Jon Mackenzie looks over the season so far to determine whether or not Pascal Struijk is worthy of his place in the Leeds midfield…
With the Premier League season now eight matches old, we’re starting to get a feel for what Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United will look like in the top tier of English football. But even with 720 minutes under their collective belts, the Leeds players are yet to line up in the same starting XI over consecutive games.
This is largely down to injury problems. During the course of the season so far, we’ve seen injuries to Liam Cooper (of course), Diego Llorente, Pascal Struijk, Kalvin Phillips, Rodrigo, Pablo Hernandez, Jamie Shackleton and Raphinha.
The biggest impact of this mounting litany of injuries has been in the central defensive midfield area. Marcelo Bielsa is famously averse to flabby squads. In order to overcome this problem, the Leeds squad is manicured to within an inch of its life with players offering cover in a number of positions. This can lead to structural problems if a couple of players are out, the result being a shuffling of players around until it feels as though no one is playing in their quote-unquote “proper positions”.
When Kalvin Phillips went down clutching his shoulder against Wolves, then, there was a contingent amongst the Leeds fan base who were already fearing the worst. In the three games Leeds have missed their totem midfielder, Bielsa has toyed with two potential solutions: using Mateusz Klich or Pascal Struijk as replacements.
Struijk was the first experiment and it came to a grinding juddering halt 20 minutes into the Aston Villa game with the Belgian-born Dutch international being hauled off early as Klich was dropped deep. The Leicester game saw Klich play 90 minutes in the defensive midfield role before, after a 4–1 defeat by Brendan Rodgers, switching back to Struijk for the Crystal Palace game: another 4–1 loss.
For Pascal Struijk, the face-value assessment doesn’t look good: two starts, one hauling off, one 4–1 defeat. Unsurprisingly, elements of the fan base have been happy to take the face-value assessment as is and have written the 21-year-old off without a second thought. But the question deserves to be asked: have Pascal Struijk’s appearances in central defensive midfield been poor?
The single pivot is arguably the most important position in Marcelo Bielsa’s system. They are tasked with two fundamental assignments: facilitation during the build-up phase and covering during defensive transitions.
The Build-Up Phase
In the build-up phase, the Leeds back four and the central defensive midfielder form a sort of M-shape:
In this situation, the defensive midfielder is expected to sit between the centre backs, the full backs, and the advanced midfielders dropping in, to help move the ball into advanced wide areas eventually.
This broadly happens in two ways: the defensive midfielder can receive the ball in the middle from the centre backs and turn towards the wide area and feed the ball into the full back, winger or advanced midfielder.
Here’s a sequence from the Wolves game that shows Phillips picking up the ball from Robin Koch in the middle before feeding it out to Mateusz Klich who, in turn, moves it on to Luke Ayling:
On top of this, the defensive midfielder’s movement helps create space for the advanced midfielders to drop into and facilitate build up from there.
The skills needed to play this role are good short passing, good off-ball movement, good on-ball control and good ball retention under pressure.
The other situation that arises in build-up comes from those moments when the ball is already in a wide area. Again the defensive midfielder is expected to facilitate the movement of the ball into dangerous wide areas either by directly engaging in build-up on the near-side with the full back, winger and advanced midfielder, or by helping switch the ball to the other flank.
Here’s a screengrab from the Palace game which shows how Pascal Sruijk sits in the middle of everything with the remit of connecting all the pieces — centre backs, full backs, advanced midfielders, wingers:
Last season, Leeds played an “overload to isolate” tactic to build up over on the right to then switch the play quickly over to the left, trying to get Jack Harrison into isolated situations with opposition full backs.
This season, we’ve seen that slightly less utilised, but the defensive midfielder is still expected to feed the ball into the ball-far channel as an outlet. This requires that they have good long passing as well as good short passing.
The Defensive Phase
The most important facet to remember when considering Marcelo Bielsa’s defensive system is that it is a man-oriented defensive system. Simply put, this means that he is concerned with covering players rather than space. I see a lot of criticism of Leeds’ defending which ignores this point.
This system revolves around two phases: a pressing phase and a man-marking phase. The pressing phase commences as soon as the ball is lost. In general, the two closest players to the ball press it to disrupt the opposition’s build-up and to buy time for their teammates to find their marking responsibility and get tight to them.
With this in mind, the defensive midfielder’s role in the defensive system is to cover their marking responsibility and to make sure they engage in the press as and when it is required. Given that he is required to sit centrally in front of the defensive line, this will mean the defensive midfielder has a large amount of defensive responsibility. They are expected to make instantaneous decisions about where danger lies and which opposition players need to be covered as the defensive line moves around to stymy opponents.
The skills required for this are as much cerebral as physical. Yes, a good defensive player will improve the position over against a less defensive player. But a more assertive defensive player will not necessarily perform better in the role than a less assertive one. The position is as much about being able to help out the defensive line by offering cover as being able to jump in and make a last-ditch tackle.
With all this in mind, let’s turn to the statistics from this season.
First, a caveat about sample size. Not only have we not played enough minutes to say anything definitive about how either player is playing — you would usually want at least 1000 minutes before making any observations — neither Pascal Struijk nor Kalvin Phillips have played close to all of the available minutes.
Kalvin Phillips has played 450 minutes with the majority of those coming in the defensive midfielder slot. There was a brief period where he played around 15 minutes to replace the injured Pascal Struijk at centre back. As for Struijk himself, he only has 257 minutes to his name of which only 92 have come as a defensive midfielder.
A second caveat: Struijk’s minutes in defensive midfield came versus Aston Villa and Crystal Palace whereas Phillips has played in games against Liverpool and Manchester City.
With all that in mind, it’s important to realise that this comparison of the two isn’t intended as an attempt to clarify which of the two is better. Rather, it should help us to assess whether or not Struijk is performing well at the tasks that he is expected to in central midfield.
It is best to break the statistics down into the two areas we’ve already delineated: the build-up phase and the defensive phase.
In the build up phase, it’s hard to come to a conclusion other than that Struijk has a comparative statistical profile so far this season to Phillips (with the two caveats above taken into account). In terms of forward passing, the two are relatively similar in terms of volume (Struijk’s 21.6 per 90 minutes to Phillips 21.1). Where they differ is in success rate: Struijk completed 78% of his to Phillips 57%.
Of course, this could be that Struijk has 165 mins at centre back to Phillips’ 15. But when you compare their long passing numbers, Phillips has a greater volume of long passes per 90 minutes (13.4 to Struijk’s 8.1) but again, his completion rate is way down on his teammates: 56% to 79%.
The big area of discrepancy between them is in terms of ball retention. When it comes to possessions lost in their own half, Phillips and Struijk are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Per 90 minutes this season, Phillips has lost the ball a staggering 4.7 times, enough to put him in the lowest 5 percentile for defensive midfielders in the top five leagues in Europe, the Championship, the Eredivisie, Liga NOS and the Jupiler Pro League. As for Struijk, he only loses possession in his own half 1.4 times a game: enough to put him in the 90th percentile.
Beyond this, they are relatively indistinguishable. They make similar final third entries (3.9 to 3.7) and own half exits (4.1 to 4.3), their dribbling numbers are similar (0.6 per 90 for Phillips to 0.7 per 90 for Struijk at completion rates of 61% and 63% respectively). They even have fairly similar expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes: 0.05 to Phillips, 0.03 to Struijk.
Whatever else you think of Struijk, in terms of the build-up phases of the game, he’s been comparable to Kalvin Phillips on this season’s showing.
Looking at the defensive numbers, it becomes clear that Struijk and Phillips play different roles. Phillips makes 3.4 tackles per 90 minutes at a success rate of 62% whereas Struijk is down at 1 tackle per 90 at 53% success rate. Phillips also makes more pressures per 90 minutes (19.2 to 15.2). (Again, the same two caveats above count here, though).
That said, Struijk makes 1.4 interceptions per 90 minutes to Phillips 0.2 and his aerial ability is clearly much higher than Phillips, winning 1.4 aerials per 90 at a success rate of 43% to Phillips’ 0.6 won per 90 at 33% completion rate.
The data show that Phillips and Struijk are very different players defensively. Phillips is clearly a more assertive defender than Struijk. But it’s not clear that Phillips offers more to the system than Struijk. The Dutchman makes more interceptions, suggesting he might be anticipating better than Phillips and Phillips’ defensive numbers do indicate that he gets draw to the ball more than Struijk. The question is: which one is preferable for the system?
The Eye Test
Given the paucity of the data, I spent some time watching footage of both Pascal Struijk and Kalvin Phillips in a bid to determine what to make of all this.
In terms of the build-up phase, the data matches much of what I’ve seen in the Premier League so far. On the ball, I think Struijk has had the edge on Phillips on the admittedly-sparse evidence.
Much of this comes down to the fact that Struijk’s close control is slightly better than Phillips: the Dutchman brings the ball under control quicker, turns the ball well and has surprisingly good footwork for someone who is 6 foot 3.
In the eight games so far, this boils down to us giving the ball away in a central midfield area much more when Phillips is on the ball (as the data suggests). Here’s a classic example versus Manchester City:
Ayling plays the ball through to Phillips in space onto Phillips’ stronger right foot. At this point, Kevin De Bruyne is still five yards away.
Phillips takes a first touch which kills the ball dead which makes it much easier for De Bruyne to read. Phillips tries to cut the ball inside but De Bruyne accounts for that in his tackle.
The ball breaks to Raheem Sterling and City are in a very good counter-attacking scenario.
Of course, the case could be made that this mistake occurred against Manchester City and so Phillips should be treated with a degree of leniency. However, there are numerous examples of Phillips being wasteful in possession in games against Sheffield United and Fulham as well.
For example, here you can see Phillips picking up the ball against Fulham with space in front of him to drive into:
Instead, he takes a heavy touch and carries the ball too close to Zambo Anguissa, turning the ball over and again leading to the creation of an opposition chance:
Later in the game, there arose another situation where a little bit more composure could have resulted in the prevention of another chance.
With the ball coming into the box from a wide area without much pace on it, Phillips looks to hook it away from danger:
Instead, he loops the ball up to the edge of the box where Aleksandr Mitrovic takes a potshot but misses:
If Phillips had had a little more confidence in his touch, you might have expected him to bring the ball under control and carry it out of the box.
Why mention these moments? Well, you find almost none of this breakdown in build-up with Pascal Struijk. His ball retention is exceptional. Perhaps he isn’t the most creative option in this role but he does everything that is expected of him well. He is neat and tidy and the build-up has been breaking down in wider more advanced areas rather than with him in the middle.
The other aspect of the build-up game that is held against Struijk is that his passing isn’t progressive enough. Not only is this not true per the stats, it doesn’t really hold on the eye test. For instance, against Palace, there were two moments in the build-up where Struijk played a crossfield ball with his left foot and then, a couple of minutes later, with his right foot.
Struijk is a good passer of the ball with both feet, he moves well and he retains the ball well. There should be no worries about this side of his game in the defensive midfield role.
As for the defensive side, I have noticed some key differences between Pascal Struijk and Kalvin Phillips.
One is that Phillips is much more likely to move to the ball than Struijk is. I’m not sure how to think about this. On the one hand, it’s clear that Phillips is a much better active defender than Struijk. There are times when this is a really useful trait to have. However, I think sometimes Phillips can get caught ball-chasing which is potentially as much of a problem as not being active enough in defending.
Here’s just one example of this, against Sheffield United:
With Sheffield United breaking forwards, Kalvin Phillips is marking David McGoldrick on the edge of the box.
As the ball breaks back out, Phillips moves towards the ball.
At this point, Phillips is not attempting to get goalside of the loose man, Ben Osborn, but is trying to make the tackle despite the fact the player is heading the wrong way. McGoldrick is now unmarked on the edge of the box.
With Phillips missing the tackle, the ball is played out to McGoldrick who picks up the ball on the edge of the box.
Phillips also has a tendency to jump into tackles too quickly, something that led to a goal against Fulham.
As Anguissa picks up the ball, you can see Phillips steaming in to make the tackle.
The Fulham midfielder simply plays the ball past Phillips and into space, drawing Liam Cooper in and creating the space for Bobby Cordova-Reid to run into for the goal.
What about Pascal Struijk? He’s less likely to step in and make tackles and more likely to pressure players or shadow them, forcing them to move the ball on.
Obviously, it’s harder to quantify the impact of this less assertive approach to defending. There will be times when a more active approach is beneficial to a defensive scenario in the same way that sometimes being too assertive can lead to problems.
I had gone into the eye test of these two assuming that Struijk gets dribbled around more than Phillips. Now, I’m not so sure. We’ve already talked about how Bielsa’s defensive system is geared around man marking and buying time for teammates to get into defensive positions.
Both Phillips and Struijk are regularly put into horrible situations where they have to try and slow down a player running at them with speed with the ball. I’m not sure I think either one is better than the other in these situations. And I think both of them are fairly good at recovering from them.
There are times when I think that Struijk is better at anticipating breakdowns in the marking system. But Phillips’ propensity to follow the ball does mean that he ends up finding good positions naturally.
In looking at how Pascal Struijk fits as defensive midfielder in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, I was careful not to set this up as an either/or question. As things stand, Bielsa’s first choice for the role is Kalvin Phillips and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
What I did want to show, though, was that, so far, Pascal Struijk has performed very well in the position (as he did at the end of last season). There is a suggestion amongst the fan base that Phillips being missing is the cause of Leeds’ recent downturn in form (if you can call it that). In my analysis, this is simply not true.
In the role that he is expected to play, Struijk has performed very well and has arguably excelled in some areas over Phillips. We should be confident, then, that we have two very good prospects in an important position in Marcelo Bielsa’s set-up.
You can follow Jon Mackenzie on Twitter @Jon_Mackenzie.
All the data from this piece is from StatsBomb.
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