Will Leeds’ use of wingers be key to their attack in the Premier League?

In this piece, Josh Hobbs looks at how Marcelo Bielsa used his wingers in the game against Liverpool and wonders if we can see more of this going forward…

Leeds United returned to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years on Saturday, falling to a gallant 4–3 defeat at Anfield.

Much has been said and written about Leeds since the game, not least by us, with Jon putting out his post-game analysis video which you can find by joining our Patreon.

In the mainstream media, the Athletic’s Michael Cox put out a piece on Leeds’ tactics, Sky’s Monday Night Football dedicated time to talk about the man-marking system Bielsa utilises and Barney Ronay wrote that Bielsa had ‘transformed Anfield into a delirious dreamscape.’

This only covers a tiny piece of the conversation that the Whites have sparked after their big return.

One thing I want to focus on though is something that we briefly alluded to on our post-game podcast but hasn’t been mentioned much in other analyses so far.

I believe the game may have shown a blueprint for how Leeds are going to play in games that they can’t control in the same way that they have been used to in the Championship: hit the wings early and often.

As you can see from these two graphics from the Twenty3 Content Toolbox, Leeds’ threat against Liverpool came from a different side of the pitch to where it had come from in the Championship:

Notice how the volume of Leeds’ attack switched from central and wide right areas over to the left.

Given the solidity of Liverpool’s midfield and the fact that Virgil Van Dijk is one of the best central defenders in the world, it’s hardly surprising that Leeds struggled to produce much from central areas.

However, rather than try to build with Pablo Hernandez drifting to the right half-space — the prime reason for Leeds’ threat level being higher on the right in the Championship — Leeds tended to go quickly to Jack Harrison on the left.

Jack Harrison

Against Liverpool the Manchester City loanee was Leeds’ key attacking outlet, particularly in the first half as Leeds attempted to get forward quickly. No doubt this tactic was designed to exploit Liverpool’s high-line and to bypass the press of Liverpool’s midfield.

Leeds’ opening goal of the game was a prime example of this:

After a difficult early period, Kalvin Phillips was able to receive the ball to feet from Illan Meslier. Liverpool’s press had broken down — Naby Keita not supporting the work of Roberton Firmino — allowing the new England man time to turn.

On looking up, he immediately spotted Harrison, stationed high and wide on the left flank. He fired the ball over the top of the Liverpool defensive line for his teammate to chase:

This caused the entire Liverpool back four to turn and chase. Trent Alexander-Arnold went with Harrison but the winger’s first touch was too good and he drove towards the Liverpool goal, managing to shake off the England fullback and cut inside the retreating Joe Gomez, before firing in.

Leeds scored once from this tactic. They tried it on several other occasions, though. Harrison was put through on goal twice more in this fashion but was unfortunately marginally offside both times.

In this still below, it was again Phillips looking to play the long pass with Harrison preparing to make the same run:

As the image shows, Alexander-Arnold was turning toward his own goal at the time and not facing the play or Harrison. If Harrison had been onside here, it’s likely that he would have had another run toward’s Alisson’s goal.

The other occasion came with Robin Koch playing a ball directly from his position at right centre back and Harrison coming a little more centrally. He was able to lift the ball over Alisson before Alexander-Arnold headed into his own net.

The Liverpool right-back’s blushes were saved by the offside flag but he was given a torrid time by Harrison and Leeds often exposed his defensive shortcomings and his aggressive positioning.

Leeds were very direct in this game, attempting 70 long passes — well up from their average of 52.25 last season. Phillips played 13 of those with 5 switches of play (cross-field balls travelling at least 40 yards). This tactic meant that Hernandez wasn’t able to influence the game as he would have liked but it gave Leeds the best chance of catching out Liverpool’s defence.

Harrison was not the only target for these long passes, though:

The graphic above — taken from the Twenty3 Content Toolbox again — shows Leeds’ average positions, with the grey arrows going towards the players depicting passes played to the highlighted player. The dashed lines show the movements the player made in order to receive the ball if they received more passes from certain teammates away from their average position.

As you can see, Harrison most often received the ball from Phillips in a very aggressive position on the left.

In addition, Helder Costa received the ball from Pascal Struijk in a position almost level with Patrick Bamford; the young centre back playing raking passes out to the Portuguese winger.

Interestingly though, he also received the ball most often from Pablo Hernandez in a more central position and from Jack Harrison in the penalty box itself.

Helder Costa

As well as being a target from crossfield passes from Pascal Struijk, Costa attempted to get in behind Liverpool’s defence through passing combinations, rather than from direct balls. Whilst this didn’t always work, his runs were often a threat and on another day could cause damage to Leeds’ opposition.

In this case, he played the ball to the feet of Phillips and quickly span to run in behind Virgil Van Dijk. Being flat-footed, Van Dijk would have been caught cold by his run if Phillips had played the ball outside or over the Dutchman. Phillips tried to find Bamford instead but the pass was intercepted by Jordan Henderson.

Another example came with Leeds looking to counter-attack. Bamford had the ball in space and chose to try and play the ball to the feet of Robin Koch, who was moving in the opposite direction the pass and the ball was lost.

Had Bamford been aware that he could have turned, he had Costa bursting past Alexander-Arnold on the left. Note that Costa was on the left as there was a short period where he and Harrison swapped wings. If Bamford had turned, he could have driven towards Joe Gomez and committed him and Costa would have had free space to run into.

I mentioned earlier that the Portuguese was drifting centrally to support Bamford and this also translated to getting into the box.

Here, we see another dangerous situation that Leeds got into which unfortunately didn’t lead to a chance on goal.

Again, Harrison is in behind Alexander-Arnold and he whips the ball in towards the penalty spot. Costa was just unable to reach it as it sailed over his head but it showed his intent to attack the penalty spot and operate as more of a second striker when the ball was out on the opposite wing.

Costa’s presence in the penalty area wasn’t limited to this example either. He put the ball in the net from after Liverpool failed to deal with a cross into the box, only to be ruled offside. He also burst into the box after a one-two with Mateusz Klich at the very end of the first half, which led to a penalty claim that was waved away by Michael Oliver.

Another key aspect of Costa’s game was progressing the ball up the field through ball-carrying. His progressive distance totaled 168 yards. On top of this, his ability to drive forwards with the ball caused imbalances in Liverpool’s defensive structure and led to some dangerous situations. Again, Leeds were unable to capitalise on these situations but on another day they may have created big chances from these runs.

One of the standout moments was this run:

As he picked the ball up just outside his own penalty area, Costa had Alexander-Arnold bearing down upon him. Harrison, Klich and Hernandez were all blocked off by Henderson, so his only option was to carry the ball or launch it forwards. He chose to back himself and slipped the ball through the legs of his opponent and drive up the line.

Costa managed to leave the Liverpool right back in his wake but Jordan Henderson tracked him all the way to around 30 yards away from Liverpool’s goal. He was unable to make a challenge, though.

At this point, Costa got the angle of his cross wrong and Bamford wasn’t able to reach it. However, had it been a better ball, Van Dijk may well have struggled to stop Bamford getting on the end of it.

Another example of Costa’s ability to carry the ball is shown below, as he received it in the centre and quickly turned to sprint into the Liverpool half. Fabinho was forced to foul him in order to stop a more dangerous situation occurring:

As well as all this, Costa played one of the best passes that he’s made in a Leeds shirt to pick up an assist for the third Leeds goal.

A note on defensive work

Harrison and Costa did all of this whilst also being tasked with a lot of defensive work to shut down Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.

Alexander-Arnold averaged 89.2 attempted passes per 90 in 19/20 and on Saturday only attempted 67. Robertson averaged 68 attempted passes per 90 in 19/20 but only 39 in this game. Only Mateusz Klich (32) and Kalvin Phillips (25) made more pressures than Costa (21) and Harrison (22).

This work to press high up the field meant that the Liverpool fullbacks weren’t able to play their regular playmaking roles and, as a result, neither of them created a single chance from open play.

What have we learned?

In games that are a little closer in terms of player quality and against teams that sit a little deeper, expect to see a lot more of Pablo Hernandez and more attacking build up on the right and in the centre.

However, it’s clear that Leeds can cause a lot of problems for teams with a high defensive line by playing similarly to how they did against Liverpool. We may have seen the blueprint for how Leeds will attack against the top-sides in the league.

Marcelo Bielsa will certainly hope his side will take more shots on goal than they did against Liverpool. But if they can continue to get numbers forward and turn defences in the way they did, they’ll have a chance to spring a shock against one of the top sides in the league.

All the data visualisations in this article come courtesy of Twenty3. All data is from Wyscout.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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