Marcelo Bielsa’s Case for the Defence

The hottest topic amongst the Leeds United fanbase is the team’s problems scoring goals. This has become such a huge deal amongst fans of the Whites that it has given rise to a myth: due to Leeds dropping points in games that they dominated and missed chances in, before seeing their opponents go up the other end and score with seemingly their only chance, there is a feeling that Leeds United concede goals too easily.

Is that really true, though?

In fact, Leeds have conceded the fewest in the Championship so far with 7 goals against and have the most clean sheets with 5.

7 goals against translates to 0.59 goals conceded per 90. If Leeds were to continue conceding goals at such a miserly rate, they would end the season with 27 goals against. Bear in mind the 54 goals they conceded in 2018/19 was only bettered by promoted Sheffield United and Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough with 41 against.

Cardiff and Wolves went up in 17/18 conceding 39 each whilst Middlesbrough were runners up under Aitor Karanka in 15/16 with a miniscule total of 31 goals against. All of that to say, if Leeds can maintain such a tight defence, they’re looking at a record-breaking season. That’s anything but easy to score against.

One thing to note is that Leeds are slightly over-performing their xG against, which is 8.28 (0.75 per 90). If we adjust these calculations to reflect their opponents meeting their xG, added to the 7 already conceded, this would still come to a measly 33 goals against.

So Leeds are not just not conceding goals, they’re not conceding many chances. In fact, according to Infogol, they have only had 3 games at over 1xGA and their most recent game against Millwall was the first time they conceded over 1.5xG, which included a penalty and came in a game Leeds were reduced to 10 men.

So what is it that’s making Leeds such a formidable defensive unit?

The System

Under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds are a side who focus on possession and a high press. They have dominated the ball in all but one of their games so far this season and are second only to Fulham for average possession with a figure of 63%. The principle is simple: as long as Leeds have the ball, they can create chances to score and their opponents can’t.

The video scouting and data collection platform, Wyscout, have two metrics in which they attempt to quantify a team’s pressing. The first of these is called ‘Challenge Intensity’ and it measures how many defensive actions a team attempts per minute of opponent possession. The second is called PPDA, or passes per defensive action.

In the case of challenge intensity, the higher the number, the better, whilst PPDA is the opposite. Leeds rank highest in the league for challenge intensity with 8.6 and 3rd for PPDA with 7.01. (Fulham are 1st with 6.82).

So the numbers back up the idea that Leeds are committed to the high press. They want to win the ball back from the opposition as soon as possible so that they can get back onto the attack. But again, this has an effect on their opponents' ability to put together attacks of their own. If they have no time on the ball, they will struggle to string any decent moves together.

If numbers feel like a strange way to describe a team’s pressing, here are visual examples of all Leeds’ ball recoveries and tackles from their home game against Derby, where they pressed extremely high and disrupted Philip Cocu’s side from passing out from the back.

As you can see, Leeds made a large proportion of their ball recoveries in Derby’s half and almost half their total amount of tackles. All of this resulted in Derby having just 36% possession and only 1 shot on target (which they scored from… more on that later).

Kalvin Phillips

Another key aspect of Leeds’ excellent defence is the deployment of Kalvin Phillips in defensive midfield. Phillips ranks 3rd in the league for tackles attempted at 4.3 per 90, which is more than any other midfielder.

Below is a particularly excellent tackle from the win away at Barnsley. It was also an extremely important one as, whilst it was a long way from the Leeds goal, had he not made it, Barnsley would have had a 3 vs 2 counter-attack.

With Leeds committing so many players forward in attack, it is vital they have a player like Phillips who is capable of covering every blade of grass as well as physically dominating his opponents. Without Phillips covering in front of the defence the West Yorkshire club would be far more vulnerable to counter-attacks.

Phillips is also often tasked with man-marking the opposition’s creative outlet. In one of his stand-out performances from last season, he managed to stop Jack Grealish from even getting a touch in the Leeds 18-yard box.

It should also be noted that, until he picked up an injury, Leeds employed Adam Forshaw in a number 8 role where he has also done excellent work on recovering the ball and breaking up attacks. He ranks in the top 30 midfielders for defensive duels. He’s also not afraid to give away a tactical foul in order to stop an opponent breaking away, ranking in the top 30 for the whole league for fouls made, picking up 3 yellow cards in the first 3 games.

Centre-Backs

When Leeds signed Ben White on loan from Brighton early on in the transfer window, many believed this was Bielsa learning from the ‘mistakes’ of last season and finally adding another centre back to a squad lacking in them. Nobody was expecting Leeds to sell cult-hero centre back Pontus Jansson, the man Marcelo Bielsa called Leeds’ ‘best player’ from the 18/19 season.

With Jansson being unceremoniously shown the door by the club, the 21-year-old, who had never played higher than League One, impressed in pre-season and began the Championship season as Captain Liam Cooper’s partner at centre-back.

Since that moment, he has played every available minute in the league and is the top centre back for defensive duels attempted with 10.01 per 90, winning 77% of those. His anticipation and reading of the game have been exceptional and he hardly ever seems to be caught out of position, possessing an uncanny knack of stealing the ball off the toes of a forward just as they seem to be taking it into their possession.

White is also a clear upgrade on Jansson regarding the way Marcelo Bielsa wants his team to play. He is extremely comfortable on the ball, as he showed in this moment against Stoke City.

With Stoke pressing high and the pass from Gaetano Berardi being short, many would just want to hoof this one clear. However, White backed his ability to beat the man and Leeds kept the ball which, as mentioned above, is a key part of keeping the opposition from scoring.

White’s partner and Captain, Liam Cooper attempts almost as many duels as the Brighton loanee, being ranked in the 92nd percentile for centre backs. However, there is a clear division of labour as the ex-Chesterfield man is tasked with winning the ball in the air should the opposition take the aerial route against Leeds with White sweeping behind to cover. This is reflected in the fact that Cooper ranks in the 94th percentile for aerial duels, whilst White ranks in just the 12th.

Between them, they have managed to limit Leeds’ shots against to the least in the league at just 7.04 per 90.

‘Big Chances’ Given Away and Conversion Rate

Another myth regarding Leeds is that their opponents have a ridiculously high conversion rate against them. In fact, Leeds have conceded from 14% of all box shots, which is below the league average of 16%.

However, in games Leeds have dropped points, that goes up to 30%, so teams have to extremely clinical in order to take any points from Leeds. Whilst it’s frustrating that Leeds dropped points in the way that they did, it is extremely unlucky for the opposition to be as clinical as they have been in those games and more often than not, Leeds would win games in which they concede such few chances.

When it comes to ‘big chances’ (chances over 0.3 xG), Leeds give away less per game than any other team in the league and their opponents have actually been wasteful with these chances: their conversion percentage ranks below average for that as well, as shown by this graph below.

Set-Piece Problems?

Finally, one area which has caused concern has been set-pieces and particularly corners. After Leeds lost to Charlton, the ‘#lufc’ hashtag on twitter began to feature tweets asking if Leeds made a mistake selling Pontus Jansson. Another 3 points lost and another goal from a corner!

But have Leeds got a genuine problem with corners?

So far they have conceded 7 goals in total with 3 of those coming from corners. None of the goals have been attempts immediately from the initial cross into the box, but have all come as Leeds have failed to deal with the second ball, or in the case of the Charlton goal, from a rebound off a Kiko Casilla save.

Leeds have faced 49 corners in the Championship so far, conceding only 6% of them. 24% of these corners have led to attempts on the Leeds United goal. Comparing this to the team with the lowest xGA in the league, Brentford, who Pontus Jansson is now playing for, should allay the fans’ fears somewhat. Brentford gave up opportunities on their goal from 23% of all corners faced, so it’s hard to say that Leeds have a terrible issue here.

Perhaps it just seems like an issue because they’ve happened to score those goals when Leeds should have already had the games dead and buried?

Projected Goal Difference

Marcelo Bielsa will surely want an answer for the team’s goal-scoring woes. But the facts are that even if Leeds continued with their current scoring rate of 1.27 per 90, they’d end the season with 59 goals which, combined with the lower number of projected goals against above, would give a goal difference of +32. With the higher number, it would be a goal difference of +26. For reference, Cardiff City were promoted to the Premier League in 17/18 with a goal difference of +30.

This sort of number would be unlikely to be successful this time around with teams like West Brom and Fulham scoring as freely as they are. However, if Leeds can increase their own conversion rate to the league average of 11.45%, coupled with continuing their current shots per 90 (14.93), they would score another 60 goals, giving them a total of 75.

Their defensive base would give them an opportunity to rack up a fearsome goal difference as even the conservative number of 33 goals conceded would mean Leeds would have a massive goal difference of +42 which would certainly be enough for promotion.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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