Stuart Dallas — Leeds United Player of the Year 2019/20?

In 2018/19, Stuart Dallas managed only 1540 minutes on the pitch for Leeds United, scoring four goals and making zero assists.

Due to the fact that he didn’t really make a position his own, it’s unlikely that many Leeds fans would have been particularly upset had he left the club in the summer transfer window. However, due to injuries to both Barry Douglas and Ezgjan Alioski, he finished the season at left back, where he was very impressive, particularly in the playoffs. His performance in the home leg, as Leeds blew their aggregate lead in front of a capacity crowd at Elland Road, showed something of the leader that he would go on to become in 2019/20.

This season, 3515 minutes played puts him behind only Brighton loanee Ben White for Leeds this season. He has scored three goals and made one assist. Again, he’s not quite made a position his own, but he has started every league game. Marcelo Bielsa seems to have grown to trust him so much that he has utilised him however he’s needed to from game to game, even in positions he hasn’t played much of in earlier stages of his career.

As such, Dallas’ 19/20 has been a season in three acts. He began the season at right-back (for ease I’m just going to say right-back, but at times this was a wing-back in the 3–3–1–3 or a 3–5–2 and others it was a more traditional full-back in the 4–1–4–1), stepping in for the injured Luke Ayling. He was then moved to central midfield, as Adam Forshaw, Jamie Shackleton and Pablo Hernandez all picked up injuries at the same time.

At the time the season reached the current hiatus, he had started the last seven games at left-back. Pablo Hernandez had returned to start in midfield and Bielsa preferred the Northern Irish utility man at left-back over Barry Douglas, who once again has had a season interrupted by injury, and Ezgjan Alioski, who has been typically inconsistent.

As you can see in the table above, there were some marked differences in his performances based on where he played. Unsurprisingly, given the position was new to him, his output was down whilst he played in central midfield, aside from his xG and goals return. This also makes sense: a central midfielder is more likely to get goalscoring opportunities than a right-back or left-back, even in a system as attacking as Bielsa’s.

Let’s look at each act of Dallas season and assess what he has brought to the team at that particular time.

Act One: Tearing it up at right-back

As mentioned above, Luke Ayling picked up an injury before the first game of pre-season which ruled him out of the first two months of the season. Jamie Shackleton, who Bielsa had often utilised at right-back despite him having played all of his youth career in midfield, also found himself injured in pre-season. As a result, Dallas was given an opportunity to pick up where he’d left off with his performances in the playoffs by beginning the season at right-back. I wrote about how he started the season in-depth at the end of September, which you can read here.

If you’ve not got the time for that though, here are the highlights:

Build Up and Progression

In the early part of the season, Leeds’ most potent passing combination was Dallas and Pablo Hernandez, their primary playmaker. Hernandez has since shifted to a central position, but he began the season on the right of midfield, so the two of them were central to progressing Leeds up the field.

In the table above, you’ll note that Dallas plays and receives the most passes per 90 when playing at right back. This is not surprising considering that even now that Hernandez has been moved to the midfield, he still naturally gravitates to an inside-right position most of the time. This subsequently means that whoever is playing at right-back will see a lot of the ball, as Hernandez moves the ball often, looking to find space.

This graph shows how Dallas was vital to progressing Leeds up the pitch. In the first eight games of the season, Dallas made the second-most passes per 90 of any full-back in the league. But the percentage of passes he made that progressed his team forwards was vastly higher than any player that made a similar amount of passes to him. In order to find full-backs that progressed the ball more often than Dallas, you needed to look at players that made at least ten passes fewer than him per 90 and those players all primarily played long balls, as shown by their markers being in red.

In this heat-map from SmarterScout, we can see everywhere Dallas has touched the ball whilst playing as a right back: the bigger the block, the more often he has touched the ball in that position. The colour mix is based on what actions he has made in that position.

If you focus on the area which is the length of the arrow signifying direction of attack, you’ll see that is primarily made up of green/blue blocks. This shows that whilst taking up those positions on the pitch, Dallas mostly makes short passes, moving Leeds forward, but also keeping possession.

A constant attacking threat

Looking back to the table breaking down performance metrics by position, we can see that Dallas made the most dribbles, progressive runs and touches in the box per 90 whilst playing at right back. Coupled with that, his xG per 90 was only 0.01 lower than it was with him playing in central midfield. This shows that he was most adept as an attacking threat when deployed at right-back.

The aforementioned platform, SmarterScout, has a style rating for players based on how every action made on the field contributes to their team’s expected goals for and against and is weighted for player position and league quality (more on how this is calculated here). Their metric ‘receive in box’ gives him a score of 97 out of 100 when playing at right-back. His overlapping runs past Hernandez meant that he was often able to create chances for others as well as for himself.

Attacking full-backs have been a key part of Bielsa’s tactics for many years. Dallas’ fitness and ability to get into the opponent’s penalty area regularly make him the perfect player to play there in a Bielsa team.

Goal of the season contender

It was in this first act that Dallas had arguably his best moment of the season, as he scored the goal which was in my view, the best of the season.

Lining up as a right-sided wing-back in one of Leeds’ most tactically interesting games of the season, as they started in a 3–5–2 formation Dallas was tasked with covering the entire right flank, which he did in exemplary fashion.

It allowed him to come from deep, completely unmarked, to finish calmly before the Stoke defence had any idea of the danger they were in. Of course, Pablo Hernandez’s pass was majestic, but this goal seemed to have come straight from the training ground as Leeds overloaded the left-hand side, pulling all the Stoke defence across to create the space for Dallas to run into.

Personally, I think that if there hadn’t been injuries, Luke Ayling would have found it extremely difficult to win back his right-back position, such was the form of Dallas during this period. However, it just so happened that as soon as Ayling regained fitness, Bielsa needed his Northern Irish utility man elsewhere. This leads us nicely onto Act Two.

Act Two: A square peg in a round hole

That subtitle might seem a bit strange to see in an article that touts Dallas as a front runner for Leeds’ Player of the Year. But it’s difficult to argue that the period he played in central midfield wasn’t Dallas’ most difficult in terms of personal performance.

This isn’t surprising though, considering that he was only playing there in the first place due to 3 other players being injured. Dallas himself would be unlikely to claim that central midfield was one of his best positions, having played almost exclusively on the flanks.

Playing Dallas centrally exposed a lack of technical ability on the ball and Leeds subsequently struggled to dominate games in the same way that they had been doing previously, when Forshaw or Hernandez had been playing there, two of Leeds’ best technical players.

The above graphic, again taken from SmarterScout, shows Dallas’ ratings playing in all three of the positions he has primarily featured in this season. There’s a lot of information here. For now, let’s focus on the ‘ball retention’ metric. Playing at full-back he ranks in the mid to high 80s, whilst in central midfield only 51. This effectively means that Leeds lost possession of the ball half the time after Dallas received possession.

His ‘pass towards goal’ rating, featuring on the spider graphic, is highest when playing in midfield, so this could go some way to explaining why his ball retention was down in midfield — because he was playing more risky passes.

Looking at his heat-map playing in midfield, we can see a lot more yellow featuring, which signify long passes. When Forshaw or Hernandez play in the centre they switch the play from one flank to the other regularly and do so proficiently. Dallas’ skill-set is not quite suited to performing this role so this could also explain his ball-retention being low in midfield.

One particularly low moment for Dallas in midfield came in the home loss to Sheffield Wednesday when he miscontrolled the ball before Jacob Murphy went on to score the crucial goal.

However, Dallas can’t be too heavily criticised for all this. He worked extremely hard throughout his time playing in midfield and came up with some vital goals, scoring the late equaliser against Preston, the fourth goal in the 5–4 victory against Birmingham and he was excellent away at West Bromwich Albion as Leeds battled from behind to draw.

It says a lot for how much Bielsa valued the work that Dallas put in during this run that despite it being difficult for him in terms of performances, he wasn’t dropped to the bench on the return of Pablo Hernandez. Instead, he was simply moved to left-back, where Barry Douglas had started the season in good form before picking up an injury and never regaining form and fitness for long enough. Stepping in for him, Alioski had been caught out of position on a few occasions, costing Leeds goals which meant he was considered a liability, despite him being a goal-scoring threat from that position.

Act Three: Back on top form

Shifting back to full-back, albeit to his ‘wrong’ side, Dallas quickly returned to his form from the first part of the season in terms of performance quality. However, playing on the left was a little different in terms of style.

Being a right-footer, he tends not to play so wide when at left-back, making more actions in a slightly narrower position as opposed to the touchline. He also doesn’t make as many actions in the penalty box as he does playing from the right, likely because he’s less comfortable overlapping to cross on his left foot but also because Jack Harrison plays very high and wide on the left-wing so there is less space for Dallas to run into.

There is also a cluster of grey blocks just outside the box as he was coming inside to shoot more often rather than crossing (note his shooting rating of 98 in the style spider graphic on the SmarterScout comparisons — this is not a measure of accuracy, but simply based upon expected goals and his contribution to them by taking shots). He will feel aggrieved not to have scored at all this season whilst playing from the left considering how many shots he’s taken.

There are also a few yellow blocks, signifying long passes, around the corner of the penalty area. These show that he was playing inswinging crosses from deeper positions, being a right-footer playing on the left.

Build Up and Progression

As mentioned earlier, Dallas’ ball retention rating is similar to what it was in the right-back position, much higher than it is in central midfield.

Unfortunately, I can’t produce another scatter-graph like the one above without it being skewed by Dallas’ minutes played in central midfield as Wyscout doesn’t have the capability to only show stats from minutes played in selected positions in its advanced search function. It’s highly likely that if he’d been a full-back all season he’d appear in a similar position on the graph or possibly with an even higher percentage of progressive passes, considering that he plays a greater percentage of his passes forward at left-back than anywhere else at 51.27%.

Additionally, SmarterScout calculates his percentage of involvement in total expected goals as 55% when playing at left-back, whilst it is 34% in both his other positions, so he’s actually more involved in attacking build-up than ever.

A curious spike in defensive activity

One thing worth noting is that there is a spike in Dallas’ defensive activity at left-back. He contests more duels and makes more interceptions & recoveries per 90 there even than at right-back.

This is a hard one to explain. My first thought was that perhaps opponents favour the left-hand side when attacking Leeds, but there proved to be no correlation when I investigated that.

My second theory was that Dallas presses more aggressively at left-back as he comes into midfield to win the ball and play a pass inside on his stronger right foot. Looking at locations of his defensive actions, it does seem that there are more defensive actions taking place infield when he lines up on the left, but the evidence is hardly overwhelming, so I parked that theory as well.

Another theory which I have more confidence in is that Dallas’ defensive activity has gone up during his time at left-back due to the fact that the team as a whole have increased their defensive activity in this latest winning run.

That’s not to say that they’ve been forced into defending by opposition pressure. It could be due to the fact that they have relentlessly pressed their opponents into submission and have completely dominated every game, going five games without conceding. For reference, Leeds top Wyscout’s pressing metric, passes per defensive action (PPDA) with a figure of 6.39, meaning on average, their opponents are only allowed 6.39 passes before Leeds attempt to win the ball back (this does not include Leeds’ defensive third of the pitch). During this five-match-winning streak, Leeds were looking to win the ball back even quicker, allowing only 5.09 passes per defensive action on average.

Here is an example of how Leeds pinned back Huddersfield, in their final game before this hiatus. After a blocked shot from Hernandez, Huddersfield were reduced to simply booting the ball clear. Initially, it went to Ayling, who nodded it back towards their penalty area, before they cleared again, only to find Dallas, who had shifted inside from the left. He headed back to Hernandez who was able to pass through bodies to Costa to cause danger again. Leeds were simply not allowing Huddersfield any time to breathe.

However, there is another possible reason why Dallas’ defensive numbers are higher at left-back and it’s a very simple one: sample size. He has played significantly less time at left-back than he has on the right or in midfield this season. It may simply be that if he’d played a similar number of minutes as he had at right-back that they’d be almost the same.

So is he Player of the Year?

Hopefully, it’s too soon to make a conclusion on this as there are still nine games to go in this season so that there’s plenty of time for any of the front-runners for that award to make defining contributions in the final stretch, should the season eventually start up again. Leaders such as Luke Ayling and Pablo Hernandez had each made several goals and assists during the five-game winning streak Leeds were on at the time the season was paused and had they continued their form to the end of the season they might have been two of the favourites.

Kalvin Phillips, Ben White and Jack Harrison haven’t even been mentioned in this article and they have all had fantastic seasons. They’re also more glamorous players than Dallas so more likely to win a vote. However, Dallas has done more than enough to be in the running for this award and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he won the Players’ Player of the Season, such is his popularity amongst his teammates.

When we consider the fact that he had been a backup player last season, it’s all the more remarkable that he’s improved so much to be even considered as a candidate for Player of the Year. 2019/20 has undoubtedly been Stuart Dallas’ finest season for Leeds United. If he doesn’t finish it with individual awards, let’s hope he finishes it able to celebrate the ultimate prize of promotion.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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