Where does Jamie Shackleton fit in at Bielsa’s Leeds?

In this article, Josh Hobbs looks at where Jamie Shackleton fits in best in Marcelo Bielsa’s system

If you were to ask Jamie Shackleton in the early part of the summer of 2018 what his best position was, he’d undoubtedly tell you it was the centre of midfield. During his time in the youth teams at Leeds United, he’s featured both as a 10 and deeper as a 4. Most people would agree, though, that he is perhaps most at home playing as an 8, where his tireless running helps move the team forward in attack but also to intercept passes in midfield and catch up with any counter-attacks through the middle.

However, in his breakout season in the Leeds United first team, Shackleton found himself primarily being used as an attacking full-back, deputising for the injured Luke Ayling with first-choice replacement Stuart Dallas — himself not a full-back by trade — also on the physio’s table. In fact, Shackleton’s minutes in his preferred midfield berth were largely limited to second-half cameos when games were already won, such as away at Reading and at home to West Brom, where he made an excellent assist for Gjanni Alioski.

That was until Adam Forshaw got injured in the 20th minute of the first leg of the playoff semi-final against Derby. Coming on, Shackleton gave a performance which belied his teenage years in the 1–0 victory. He made his first start outside of cup competitions in the second leg, which ultimately ended in disappointment, but the youngster was one of the few players to come out of the playoffs with credit.

The question we want to explore here is: where is the best position for Shackleton in Marcelo Bielsa’s team? There are some amongst the fan base who would like to see Shackleton utilised in midfield, particularly after the draw against Forest, where a common theme on Twitter was Leeds fans questioning the use of Forshaw and Klich in the same team. However, Bielsa seems to favour the balance Forshaw brings in the midfield, whilst Klich is one of the most effective attacking midfield players in the Championship.

Looking into Shackleton’s most obvious attributes, he’s got a brilliant natural fitness to get up and down the pitch, a low centre of gravity and exceptional pace.

The clip below is from his appearance in the first leg of the playoffs. Shackleton demonstrates his acceleration to drive beyond Klich, leaving the Derby defence scrambling to get back. Even more impressively, he gets his head up and pulls the ball back to Hernandez, who would certainly feel he should have scored.

In one of his cameo performances earlier in the season, at home to Swansea, the nineteen-year-old showed he was not afraid to stretch his legs running through the centre of the pitch, going on a run that was reminiscent of Lewis Cook before setting up a chance for Kemar Roofe.

This kind of run is not something Leeds fans would expect to see from Klich or Forshaw, with the former more often looking to find pockets of space and break into the opposition box and the latter being more important for his ball recoveries and long-range passing to switch the play from one wing to the other.

Even just from these two clips, then, there is an argument that Shackleton would offer something different to his rivals for the central midfield spots, either 8 or 10. However, this kind of acceleration through the middle is unlikely to reap many rewards against teams operating with a low block, trying to maintain a clean sheet. In both of the previous videos, Leeds are 1–0 up and gaps have appeared for Shackleton to work in. Against a low block, pace is more important on the wings.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons Bielsa felt that Shackleton could play as an attacking full-back. We know from Bielsa’s previous teams, that he likes his back line to consist of exceptionally technical players. He has a history of converting full-backs to centre backs — just as he has done with Gaetano Berardi — and midfielders to full-backs.

In this clip, taken from Shackleton’s full debut away at Swansea, we see an example of how Shackleton’s pace can be utilised best against a team defending deep.

Swansea were 1–0 up and defending deep on the edge of their own box at the time. Patiently moving the ball across to the right flank, Shackleton drove at the isolated full-back, beating him on the outside before drilling the ball across the face of the 6-yard box for Roofe to score.

It’s hard to see the same outcome happening here if Shackleton was attempting to drive through the middle, due to the sheer volume of players ahead of him. Coming from the right full-back position, his pace meant he only needed to beat one man before creating a goal-scoring opportunity, in this case, one that was taken.

In Bielsa’s system, one of the key skills for a central midfielder facing up against teams defending deeply is the ability to pass the ball quickly and accurately. Looking at Klich and Forshaw’s passing statistics, Klich, currently playing as the most advanced of the midfield, leads the league in chances created (11) and key passes (both per 90 (2.29) and in total (6)).

Forshaw, playing as the box-to-box midfielder, averages a 90% pass accuracy after the first 3 games, all the while doing extremely important ball recovery work (21 in 3 games). He is also one of the best in the team at switching the ball to the opposite flank (78% long pass accuracy), which is a key part of Bielsa’s tactic to break down deep defences.

Shackleton did show his ability to spot and play a dangerous pass in his most recent start in the Carabao Cup where, ironically, he played at right wing-back. In the first half, he slid a perfect pass through for Costa to create the opening goal for Nketiah.

Bielsa, though, seems to favour the balance that Forshaw and Klich together have brought to the centre of midfield. Together with Kalvin Phillips, they have dominated the midfield almost completely with Leeds top of the league for possession, xG for and 3rd in the league for xG against. Were it not for a few big chances given away from set pieces, they’d likely be top of the league in that metric as well.

That being the case, it’s extremely unlikely that Shackleton will be coming in to replace either of Klich or Forshaw, aside from an injury or suspension (which may not be far off in the case of Forshaw, who has 3 yellow cards in as many games).

With this in mind, perhaps the right-back position may be where Shackleton has the best chance of breaking into the starting line-up. But although Luke Ayling is out injured for an unknown amount of time, Shackleton finds himself behind Stuart Dallas, who is in the best form of his Leeds United career.

Whilst Shackleton may technically be a better player than Dallas — and perhaps better suited to the role (particularly when Leeds take the field in the 3-3-1-3 formation, with his ability to both tuck into midfield or patrol the flank) — Bielsa is extremely loyal to players who he feels have ‘earned the shirt’. As a result, you would not expect that Shackleton will be taking Dallas’ place any time soon, barring an alarming drop in form from the Northern Irishman.

Whilst many would love to see more of Jamie Shackleton, the fact is, the place which he fits in best at the moment is, unfortunately, the bench. He is undoubtedly an extremely talented young player who should see a lot of minutes this season and will provide excellent cover in midfield or full-back. However, with the team fit and in-form, it is hard to see him breaking into the starting 11 right now.

As much as that might be disappointing for those fans that want to see more of the youngster, it can only be a good thing that Leeds have such a strong player waiting in reserve. When his time comes, Shackleton will surely be ready.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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