Pressing Forward

In the last three games, Leeds United have steadied the ship in terms of results after one hell of a wobble. During this recent run, they have re-established their dominance and control, and limited their opponents to just 10 shots in the box between them.

Whilst it is true some aspects of performance data have been consistent throughout Leeds’ bad run, and they were largely undone by a combination of bad luck, poor finishing and individual errors, there is something I noted as an improvement during this upturn in results: pressing.

Ever since his arrival in West Yorkshire, pressing has been one of — if not the — defining characteristic of Leeds United’s play under Marcelo Bielsa. They have become the top side in the division for pressing under his management and it’s often a topic spoken about by opposition managers after facing Leeds.

Take Gary Rowett, for example. He said, ‘They run with incredible energy for long periods of the game,’ after his Millwall side were completely overwhelmed by the Leeds press in the second half of their game at Elland Road just a few weeks ago. Millwall surrendered a two-goal lead to lose 3–2.

Before we look more carefully at this phenomenon, we need to ask an important question:

Can we see pressing in the data?

There can be issues in using performance data concerning pressing (and defensive metrics in general — but that’s for another day) as a lot of what happens during pressing is not recorded in traditional event data.

For example, a player may run to close down their opponent which causes them to make a sloppy pass and give the ball away. Most data collectors would record the misplaced pass, but not the act of closing down.

In the clip above, taken from Leeds’ 1–0 win v Reading, every individual defensive action attempted by a Leeds player is ‘unsuccessful’. However, as a team they force an error from Reading’s Pele after a combination of Mateusz Klich, Helder Costa and Patrick Bamford forced him to turn back inside, Pablo Hernandez and Jack Harrison cut off the most simple passing lane to John Swift, and Pele gives the ball straight to Stuart Dallas.

This issue in data collection was picked up on by StatsBomb. As a result, they began to record ‘pressure events’ to give value to closing down so that teams could see how it benefited them in winning the ball back. To read more about that see this article.

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to StatsBomb data. However, Wyscout use a metric called PPDA (passes per defensive action) which looks at how quickly a team tries to win the ball back from their opponent. It is worth noting that it is recorded only in the midfield and final third of the opponent’s half and so it won’t pick up on actions taking place in the defensive phase, rather than transition.

When in comes to PPDA, the lower the number, the more a team are considered a ‘high pressing’ team.

As you can see in the table above, Leeds rank top of the division for PPDA. Interestingly, Nottingham Forest want the ball less than any other team in the division: we know they like to play on the counter-attack, but this is surprising for a team with aspirations on the automatic spots.

Looking back on Leeds’ season performance for PPDA in the three seasons before Bielsa’s arrival in the 18/19 season, we can see a clear desire to win the ball back quicker under his management.

For reference here, the graph above shows that Leeds PPDA numbers were highest in their season under Garry Monk, where they played a counter-attacking style. So whilst it’s hard to quantify pressing through numbers without having Statsbomb’s pressure events, we can see an obvious change in the figures we do have.

Alongside that, Leeds make the second most ‘duels’ in the league (71.75 per 90). These are essentially attempts at a standing tackle or a tussle for the ball.

When we consider the fact that Leeds have the highest average possession figure in the league (63%), this is absolutely remarkable. Contrastingly, Fulham are second in the league for average possession (60%) but make the fewest defensive duels with 57.1.

What was different in the Brentford, Bristol City and Reading games?

In the games against Brentford and Reading, Leeds’ PPDA was pretty much in line with their season avg of 6.44. However, against Bristol City, they swarmed all over them, particularly in the first half and didn’t allow them any time on the ball at all, averaging 4.84 PPDA. They even went as low as 2 PPDA in the time immediately after opening the scoring as they looked to quickly press their advantage.

Over the course of the season, Leeds average 29.71% of their total challenges attempted in the opposition final third. In the three games above, Leeds made 37%, 40% and 37% of their total challenges in the final third: Costa, Harrison and Klich the leaders in challenges attempted in all three games.

The most notable of these was surely this one by Jack Harrison that really should have resulted in a Leeds goal.

It’s notable that Leeds pressed Brentford so aggressively that they held possession of the ball for the lowest percentage of time in a home game for a full calendar year (31.68%) and it was their second-lowest figure for the whole season: they had possession for only 31.29% of the time when they faced Leeds at Elland Road.

The return of Kalvin Phillips

He may have gone off injured in the first half of the Reading game but Phillips’ influence on the Brentford and Bristol City games was undeniable.

Against Bristol City he managed seven interceptions in the opposition half, ensuring that they had no respite from the constant waves of Leeds attacks. Whenever they cleared the ball, he was there to pick it up again.

Meanwhile, in the Brentford game, he made 13 ball recoveries, which are any defensive actions that lead immediately to a change of possession. This was the most of any midfield player.

Keeping it up

All of this has added up to Leeds only conceding once in their last three games.

Their opponents have struggled so much to get out of their own half that they’ve barely troubled Kiko Casilla, who had previously been in horrendous form (of course, we all remember the error that gave away the only goal in this run).

Not only have Leeds limited shots in the box to a combined 10 from all three opponents, but they’ve also kept them to a measly 12 passes completed inside the penalty area. That’s not 12 each. 12 combined: half of those being Brentford, who possess one of the most feared forward lines in the division.

If Leeds maintain pressing like this for their final run-in they will give themselves a great chance of keeping many more clean sheets.

This could well be the key in achieving their aim of promotion; we all know their issues in front of goal, keeping clean sheets make picking up wins that much easier.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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All Stats Aren’t We

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