West Ham victory should be the blueprint for how Leeds United get the best out of Raphinha creatively
In this piece, Josh Hobbs looks back over Raphinha’s season so far and argues that the West Ham game has to be the blueprint going forward…
Full disclosure: before Sunday’s fantastic victory at West Ham — courtesy of a Jack Harrison hat-trick — I was working on a piece on the theory that Raphinha hasn’t been as good for Leeds United this season, despite his goalscoring.
After his performance in that win in London, it really didn’t feel an appropriate article. Raphinha shredded West Ham down the right, playing a part in all three of Leeds’ goals and also setting up Klich to score the goal which was disallowed for offside after hitting Rodrigo on the line.
However, the performance was a perfect example of one of the points I wanted to make about why it seemed like Leeds haven’t been getting the best from Raphinha from a creative standpoint this year, so I thought I’d explore that.
Has Raphinha really been worse?
I won’t expand on this in the way I was going to in the other article but from a creative standpoint, yes. He’s not laying on chances for his teammates anywhere near the way he did last season.
To illustrate this, before Sunday’s game his expected assists per 90 in 21/22 was 0.17. This was down from 0.31 in 20/21. The seven chances he created against West Ham boosted that figure to 0.23.
I would suggest that not having Patrick Bamford in the box has been a big part of the reason why this has happened with Raphinha often going it alone this season in the absence of a goalscorer in the box. However, a major thing I’ve noticed is a real lack of the winger getting to the byline and making cutbacks. Before this weekend, it was hard to think of a chance the Brazilian had made through a cutback from the byline when he had created chances like that pretty regularly last season.
Here is a selection of the biggest ones:
This season, I could only really think of a chance for Klich — notably also against West Ham, only this time at Elland Road — which was created in this manner. Unfortunately, this chance was missed when it would have made the score 2–0 and Leeds went on to lose the game 2–1.
However, on Saturday, we saw these two chances created in this manner:
Often this season Leeds have got the ball into good areas in attacking transitions and looked dangerous, but when it comes to actual chances created, there haven’t been many of this sort of quality.
Why has this been the case?
With some of Leeds’ other attacking players, I would argue that their decision-making in the final third is lacking. Daniel James and Harrison can get into some excellent positions but both really need a striker in the box they can hit. Harrison with crosses from deeper, James from a little higher up.
Those two players have been most badly affected by the lack of Bamford as they don’t possess the same quality as Raphinha in terms of being able to conjure something out of nowhere as often.
That’s not to say that Leeds’ number 10 hasn’t been to blame for some of his downturn in creativity this season. I would say he has been forcing things too often. He has attempted very ambitious balls in behind, which have often just been wasting the ball and his shot volume has increased from 2.6 to 3.12 per 90. These are signs of a player who has, at times this season, fallen into the trap of playing ‘hero ball’.
That being said, I believe there is another reason why we haven’t seen Raphinha create in the same manner this term and this excellent graphic, courtesy of @Maramperninety illustrates exactly the point I want to make. It details the positions on the field Raphinha receives the ball from progressive passes from his teammates:
There are two things to note here.
Firstly, Raphinha has played almost exclusively on the right this season, whereas last term, he was shifted to the left at times as only Harrison had a preference for the left. As a result, substitutions on the wings usually brought Helder Costa or Ian Poveda onto the right and Raphinha moved to the left. This hasn’t happened this season with the arrival of James, who also prefers the left wing.
Secondly, and most importantly, Raphinha is receiving the ball in deeper areas more often this season. The 20/21 graphic shows him receiving the ball behind the defensive line far more often with the most concentrated area on the right-hand side of the box, near the byline. Meanwhile, this season he has been receiving the ball in front of defences more, with the most concentrated area being outside the penalty area, more towards the right half-space.
With that being the case, he is much more likely to try to swing in ambitious crosses from there or dip inside to shoot.
Of course, he can be effective from those areas, as we see here:
As well as here:
Note as well that these come with Leeds being effective in transition. Leeds got the ball to Raphinha with opposition defenders backpedalling. I would suggest that is a key factor in how effective he can be. It should be said that he had similar situations to these on several occasions against Burnley a few weeks ago but he was poor in his decision making and final ball.
All that being said, the main point I’m making is this: Leeds need to get Raphinha in behind and in one-on-one situations with defenders more often.
So why have they struggled to do it? And how can they do so more often?
My first suggestion when it comes to why it’s been a struggle to get Raphinha in this position as often this season is that the Whites have been without Luke Ayling for a large proportion of this season.
Ayling played every single game of the 20/21 season and was one of the most progressive players in the Premier League. His carrying out from the back, either from centre back or full back, meant that Leeds got the ball forwards more easily and allowed Raphinha to move higher up the pitch before receiving the ball. This season, whilst Ayling was out, Raphinha would often drop a lot deeper to receive the ball, subsequently looking for the long ball over the top or attempting a dribble from around the halfway line.
With that in mind, to get Raphinha on the ball higher up, Leeds need to be regularly progressing the ball up the pitch better, without needing their primary attacking threat to drop deep. With Ayling playing regularly now, one hopes that will improve but they could do with finding other avenues to progress the ball well, be that a ball-carrying central midfielder, or in another way.
Funnily enough, it was Ayling who provided the passes to Raphinha before the cutbacks against West Ham last weekend, although neither passes were preceded by one of the aforementioned progressive carries.
However, there are two things we can draw from the West Ham game in terms of how Leeds can look to create these kinds of chances more often.
Firstly, the starting position of Raphinha is important. When Ayling plays the chipped ball forwards from centre back, Leeds’ right winger is positioned high and wide. He’s not drifting centrally or coming short to show for the ball at his feet, as he has done at times when taking responsibility for trying to progress the ball. When the ball is played, he’s then able to sprint beyond Aaron Cresswell and take full advantage when the fullback doesn’t deal with Ayling’s pass.
That high positioning is also important in the Klich disallowed goal, as well a couple of other factors:
Observe how Raphinha isn’t doing a tight man-marking job here as Cresswell is allowed to go past him. He is just trying to block a passing lane. The fact that he wasn’t going with Cresswell meant that he was able to spring forwards and attack the space and run at Issa Diop immediately after Leeds won the ball back.
This may not have been the brief, as Marcelo Bielsa’s man-marking system is pretty rigid, but perhaps allowing his best attacking threat a little freedom from the marking could reap rewards for the Argentine. Had Raphinha been closely following Cresswell, he simply wouldn’t have been in the position to take advantage here.
Finally, see how Ayling won the ball back and immediately released Raphinha. By getting the ball to him so quickly in transition, Leeds can negate the fact that some teams are now looking to double up on him, making it harder for him to attack the box.
Here is an example of how Burnley did this in the previous league fixture, with four players closing down his option to attack the box and forcing him backwards:
This was more of a build-up attack with Burnley in a set defensive structure but it showed how Raphinha’s threat can be negated. Any attacking player will find it hard to dribble past four players.
However, as Ayling got the ball to Raphinha quickly in the West Ham game, Diop was totally exposed. Raphinha toyed with him before blazing past him into the box for the cutback.
It’s also worth pointing out that for the Brazilian’s assist for Harrison’s hat-trick goal, a similar thing happened, as Dallas won the ball and immediately gave it to Raphinha in space, albeit in a more central area.
This further illustrates my point: when Leeds can turn the ball over in the midfield third and get the ball to Raphinha quickly, he can really cause havoc.
Of course, they don’t want to fall into the trap of forcing it and trying to play the ball to him when it’s not an open pass. Nor do they want to be so direct as playing passes like Ayling played for the first goal every single time they have possession. That will just mean giving the ball away far too often. There is always a need for balance and mixing things up.
That being said, getting him free to receive the ball in more dangerous positions should be a key part of Leeds’ strategy in the second half of the season. He already scored more goals than he did in 20/21 in the first half of the season alone, if they can get him creating to similar levels of last season, he — and subsequently Leeds — will really be cooking.
Be sure to check out Josh’s video scouting report on Brenden Aaronson here.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @JoshAHobbs
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