The Leeds United Effect: Do teams change their tactics against Leeds?

In this piece, Josh Hobbs looks at the ways that other teams have set up against Leeds compared to their other opponents this season.

There was a question put to @AllStatsArentWe following our post-Swansea tactics thread: Have all of the oppositions that Leeds have faced so far this season changed from their usual tactic when coming up against Leeds?

In one sense, the obvious answer to this is ‘Yes’. Teams usually play defensively against Leeds, generally employing a mid- or low-block and only occasionally pulling out a more aggressive high press.

However, with our incapacity to let things rest, we wanted to explore this a little deeper and discover exactly how teams alter their game-plan to face Bielsa.

Structure

The most noticeable difference to any team’s game-plan against Leeds is their defensive structure.

We know that many teams sit deeper against Leeds — particularly at Elland Road — either packing their penalty box or being forced deep, allowing Leeds plenty of time on the ball. But do they alter their defensive shape or starting formation against the Whites?

Of the six teams Leeds have faced in the Championship so far this season, only Bristol City and Stoke have used formations they haven’t used in other games.

There may be underlying reasons for these two tactical tweaks: Bristol City was the first game of the season and came before they signed Benik Afobe; with his team in such poor form, Stoke manager Nathan Jones had reached desperation point and he ditched his usual 4–4–2 diamond for the visit of Leeds.

Looking more closely at Stoke’s shape against Leeds, the 3–5–1–1 is a very defensive formation to be playing in a home game, particularly when a team usually does not play with a back three.

Jones found it worked to great effect when he utilised a similar plan against Marcelo Bielsa last season, limiting Leeds to just 3 shots on target and a total xG value of 0.81 when Leeds had averaged 1.6 xG over the season. Stoke won 2–1.

Jones clearly hoped that Leeds would struggle for space to play in once again by packing the middle of the pitch. Unfortunately for Jones, though, Bielsa had a formation change of his own up his sleeve: Pablo Hernandez moved into the centre with Ezgjan Alioski and Stuart Dallas playing as wingbacks. This proved far too much for Stoke to handle and the away side picked up a comprehensive 3–0 win.

For Bristol City, their formation was not drastically different (4–4–1–1, when they now play 4–4–2) and the game came before they signed their primary centre forward.

However, one notable factor is the difference in the utilisation of Kasey Palmer. In all of their subsequent games, Palmer has played from as a playmaker drifting from the left wing, similar to the way Hernandez does for Leeds on the right.

Against Leeds, Lee Johnson chose to play Palmer as more of a traditional 10. This allowed Bristol City to set up with two banks of four in an attempt to stay tight against Leeds. Again, this proved unsuccessful: Leeds scored 3.

The rest of the Leeds’ early opponents, whilst certainly defending deeper than usual, have played with formations familiar to them.

Wigan tend to switch between 4–2–3–1 and 3–4–2–1, so it was no surprise to see them in their 4–2–3–1 against Leeds. Nottingham Forest and Brentford have both used the same formation in all of their games, 4–1–4–1 and 3–4–3 respectively.

There was one notable factor about Brentford’s shape against Leeds though. Whilst they lined up in the 3–4–3, they seemed to have a clear plan to attempt to disrupt Leeds’ build up on the right-hand side. In this map of average player positions, it is clear to see that left-sided wing-back Rico Henry (3) and left centre-back Ethan Pinnock (5) are almost on top of each other.

(It is important to note that these maps are calculated by touches of the ball and so they don’t give an accurate representation of defensive structure)

This seemed to work well for Brentford as Hernandez had one of his least effective games of the season. Unfortunately for them though, Leeds were able to bring on Helder Costa to play completely differently on the right-wing and it was him who laid on the winning goal for Eddie Nketiah.

For contrast, here’s how Brentford looked in an avg position map in their home draw against Hull:

Long Balls

Again, this may seem obvious, but when facing a team as dominant as Leeds, pretty much everybody plays more long balls than they would do normally.

As Leeds are such a high pressing team, their opponents have to be extremely proficient at passing out from the back in order to successfully play through this press. Rather than make a mistake and potentially concede a goal, most teams go long, even if they would normally look to build from the back.

Here is a graph showing the differences between every opposition’s average % long balls played against teams not including vs Leeds and the % long balls played when facing Leeds:

As you can see, Wigan played by far the highest % long passes against Leeds. This is hardly surprising considering their style of play and the contrast in quality between the two sides.

Paul Cook clearly felt they’d get the most out of Keiffer Moore producing flick-ons and knock-downs for his teammates. Whilst Moore did manage to win 11/18 aerial duels, Leeds always managed to win the second and third balls and, as a result, no clear chances came from this tactic.

The biggest increase in % long balls played, though, came from one of the league’s best passing teams: Brentford. Looking at a few clips on Wyscout, the Bees seemed to have a clear tactic: try and play early balls over the top of Alioski, who they had obviously identified as a weak link.

This image shows their most common links for long balls: goalkeeper David Raya playing it out to right wing-back Henrik Dalsgaard most often, with Ollie Watkins — playing centre forward — as the second most common link. Again, this tactic was an unsuccessful one as Leeds managed to restrict them to 0 shots from inside the penalty box and came away with a clean sheet.

It is worth noting that Swansea were the team to play closest to their usual style of passing against Leeds and came away with the win. As we know, the goal did not come from open play but this could indicate it doesn’t always work in the opposition’s favour to play an unfamiliar style against a team as dominant as Leeds.

Dribbles attempted

On the subject of Swansea, Steve Cooper spoke at length after his side’s victory at Elland Road about his game plan to encourage his players to dribble through Leeds’ aggressive man-marking in order to create space for themselves to play. This is perhaps another reason why they did not increase their amount of long balls significantly when facing Leeds.

On the basis of Cooper’s comments, it seemed like it would be worth looking into whether this was a tactic that other teams have attempted against Leeds. Here is a graph similar to the long balls one above — average dribbles attempted for games not including vs Leeds compared to dribbles attempted vs Leeds:

As you can see, whilst nobody else increased their dribble attempts as much as Swansea, five out of six of Leeds’ opponents attempted more dribbles against them than their average. The trend does suggest that Steve Cooper isn’t the only manager who has encouraged his team to try and dribble through Leeds.

In this clip, we see Kasey Palmer driving through the centre of midfield and being able to give the ball to Andreas Weimann in space on the right wing:

With the Leeds midfield pressing so early to win the ball back, there was a clear opportunity for somebody with the dribbling ability of Palmer to move into the space created.

With Leeds man-marking, oppositions may look to field teams of players who can beat a man one-on-one. However, while it would seem to be a way in which an opposition could look to hurt Leeds, any disruption it might have caused has failed to produce a goal as of yet.

Focus of Attacks

The final aspect to explore regarding a potential change of game-plan in order to face Leeds is whether an opponent changes the focus of their attacks.

My assumption before looking into this was that teams would look to attack the wings more often than usual in order to exploit how high the Leeds full-backs are typically situated. To test this theory, I created a graph to contrast how often opponents attacked centrally on average in their other 5 fixtures, compared to how often they attacked centrally vs Leeds:

As you can see from this graph, it is much more difficult to attribute a trend to this one. One thing we can see is that only Stoke played similarly against Leeds to how they would normally regarding the focus of their attacks. The other 5 opponents all decided to change their game plan.

As mentioned above, Bristol City usually set up with Kasey Palmer on the left-hand side, drifting inwards. With him as a playmaker coming from the left, their build-up play would usually take place on the left, with overlaps from the full-back. They would then look to switch to the other winger in space or a send a cross in from the overlapping full-back. With Palmer playing centrally against Leeds though, it is no surprise to see their attacks were focussed centrally more often than usual in that fixture.

Nottingham Forest are a side who play with two wingers that are their most immediate attacking threat: the excellent Joe Lolley on one side and either Albert Adomah or Sammy Ameobi on the other.

With Lewis Grabban marked out of the game by Liam Cooper, Forest were getting no joy down the centre at all in their game against Leeds and it was only when they brought on Ameobi that they created any danger at all, going on a run down the left and a run down the right. One of those runs being the one that brought the corner from which they scored.

It is hard to draw too many conclusions about the way Forest attacked in that game, though, as they hardly attacked at all.

Part of Brentford’s game-plan was to play long balls to out to the right-hand side, so it’s not surprising to see that their % of central attacks dropped significantly when facing Leeds.

Conclusion

Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a clear ‘copy and paste’ tactic that all teams are employing to face Leeds, one thing that is abundantly clear is that opposition managers know they have to do something different when coming up against Marcelo Bielsa.

In fact, it’s hard to remember a team, apart from Norwich at Elland Road last season, that backed themselves to play their usual, attacking football and get a result.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

If you have any interest in contributing to this blog, get in touch with us @AllStatsArentWe

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