Chris Taylor of LUFCDATA delves into Whites' defensive stats

          FAN FARE | Leeds' title charge has solid foundations

          2019/11/29 14:46
          By Stephen Gillett (Intro)

          As anyone who's seen the documentary 'Take Us Home' will attest, Leeds United's ultimately unsuccessful promotion bid under Marcelo Bielsa last season was as eventful as it was agonising.   

          Four points and one league position better off than they were at the same stage last year, Leeds fans are now hopeful that 2019/20 will be the season that marks their return to the promised land of the Premier League. 

          Although doubts persist regarding their cutting edge in attack, the Whites have been simply outstanding at the back this term - and this fantastic article from @LUFCDATA's Chris Taylor focuses on the defensive strengths of Bielsa's title challengers. 

          Having secured a fourth consecutive league victory for the first time since December 2018, Leeds fans have every reason to be in a buoyant mood right now. 

          A late winner against Reading on Tuesday night propelled the Whites back into the top two, extending a five-point gap over third-place Fulham. A commanding position to be in 39% of the way through the season.

          Goals may be harder to come by for Marcelo Bielsa this season, but they are accumulating clean sheets in abundance. The White’s latest shutout at the Madejski Stadium was goalkeeper Kiko Casilla’s ninth clean sheet in 18 league appearances this season, three more than any other goalkeeper in the division. The 33-year-old has now kept clean sheets in 41% of his competitive appearances since joining the club in January (16/39).

          Leeds’ clean sheet record under Marcelo Bielsa is more impressive than you may think. Since the Argentine head coach took charge, no side in the top four tiers of English football has kept more league clean sheets than Leeds (26); level with Sheffield United and Newport County.

          What is even more impressive is the fact Leeds have produced so many clean sheets despite having suffered injuries and suspensions to every first team defender with the exception of Ben White in 2019/20. Leeds’ back line has been unchanged in just 10 of their 18 league matches so far this season.

          Perhaps Bielsa has taken a leaf out of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United blueprint for promotion. The Blades returned to the top flight have conceded just 41 goals in 46 matches last season. Since a 2-1 defeat at Millwall, Leeds have shipped just 3 goals in their last 7 matches, much lower than the club’s xGA of 7.21. 

          The former Real Madrid goalkeeper has looked much more assured and been in superb form this season. His 80.4% shots on-target to saves ratio can only be bettered by Nottingham Forest stopper Brice Samba (84.7%). Leeds’ first choice goalkeeper has also made 4+ saves in 33% of his Championship appearances this season (6/18). 

          At the heart of Leeds’ defence, centre-back duo Ben White and Liam Cooper have formed a formidable partnership, most frequently flanked by the ever dependable Stuart Dallas, Gjanni Alioski or Luke Ayling. 

          ©Getty / Stephen White - CameraSport

          Leeds’ full-backs are every bit as integral to the success of Leeds’ resolute defensive line. What separates Leeds from the rest of the pack is how they defend and turnover possession at speed. Dallas is one of the best at it, now deployed in a more central role following the absence of Adam Forshaw through injury and excelling with a series of exceptional displays. 

          Leeds’ energetic full-backs provide the necessary width Bielsa demands, but track back and regularly interchange with teammates to ensure the team are protected from overloads on the counter without the ball. They cover huge swathes of ground both on and off the ball, and are heavily active in both halves of the pitch.

          Brighton loanee White has fast emerged as one of England’s best young centre-backs, thrust into the Championship under Marcelo Bielsa and is so far revelling in the opportunity. 

          The 22-year-old ball-playing centre-back has performed incredibly well for Leeds, so much so that he would be regarded as the leading candidate for the club’s Player of the Year (if awards were dished out in November). Talking of awards, a string of superlative performances has seen him pick up Man of the Match awards for performances at Hillsborough, Kenilworth Road and the Madejski Stadium.

          His impressive displays have earned rave reviews, Team of the Week awards and he was voted the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month for August. He has also attracted the attention of some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. He may have only made 20 competitive appearances for the Whites, but I would happily go as far as to place him as one of the best centre-backs to have represented the club since relegation in 2004. He is honestly that good.

          His stats this season are nothing short of remarkable, particularly for a player who had never previously played at Championship level or above. His reading of the game is exceptional. An old head on young shoulders who turns over possession and acts as the catalyst for attacks, the Poole-born defender has made 49 interceptions this season, five more than any other player in the division. No Championship defender has also been involved in more clean sheets than White (9) this season.

          There are so many strings to his bow. His calmness on the ball, the progressive runs and sheer confidence in possession is a joy to behold. The Brighton loanee has completed more passes (934) than any other Championship player aged under 24 this campaign. He has also completed 85.7% of his total passes, only Adam Forshaw can better that (89.7%) by any player with 5 or more starts.

          The former Newport County and Peterborough loanee has also won 71% of his ground duels, more than any other outfield Leeds player (+5 matches) this campaign. His recent Man of the Match performance at Luton was magnificent, capped with a majestic first Championship assist with the outside of his boot for Patrick Bamford. He also made the most touches (109), completed the most passes (91) and making the joint-most ball recoveries (9) in the same game. Something which Leeds fans have become accustomed to seeing each week. 

          Alongside White, club captain Liam Cooper has returned from injury looked every part a Leeds United skipper fit to lead the club through another promotion charge. Cooper has won the most aerial duels for Leeds this season (63), with White a close second with 59. 

          Yet Leeds’ solid defensive foundations are only effective due to a mass collective effort. Leeds' defensive philosophy is based on a man-to-man philosophy and has so far reaped its rewards this season. 

          Bielsa has set up his side to stifle opponents, pressing and harassing them at pace from the front, with the aim of turning over possession as quickly and as high up the pitch as possible. The former Argentine and Chile national coach demands that his entire side attacks and defends as a cohesive unit, constantly rotating positions and morphing into different team shapes in and out of possession. 

          Bielsa’s Leeds are meticulously fit and statistically press harder than any Championship side. Something which will come as no surprise to any Leeds fans. Murderball has been well documented, a gruelling training exercise played at Thorp Arch in blocks of five minutes of extreme high intensity football, where if the ball goes out, staff are on hand to throw the ball back in and restart immediately without breaks. 

          Challenge intensity is a valuable metric that measures duels, tackles and interceptions per minute of an opponent’s total possession. Leeds have a value of 8.8, which once again measures as the highest in the division. 

          Leeds also have a PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) of 6.7, the lowest amount in the division, which effectively means Leeds have allowed their opponents the fewest amount of passes between them before making a defensive action. 

          Unsurprisingly, Bielsa’s side have also won the most defensive duels in the division after 18 matches (1471). Most importantly, the West Yorkshire side have conceded just 10 goals in 18 matches, three goals fewer than any other side. At this rate, Leeds would concede 26 goals over the course of the 46-match campaign, almost halving the 50-goal tally conceded in 2018/19. 

          Leeds have faced just 156 shots this season, only Brentford have faced fewer (155). Bielsa’s side have also faced just 51 shots on-target faced; 10 of those have been conceded, the remaining 41 have been saved by Kiko Casilla. 

          Opponents have conjured up 100 chances against Leeds this season, 12 of which are big chances created; both of these figures are the lowest by any Championship side. 

          When it comes to minutes trailed, Leeds have been behind in matches for just 145 minutes this season, the shortest amount of time for any Championship outfit this season. 

          Leeds have also conceded just five goals from open play, the lowest amount by any side in the top four tiers of English league football this season. Three of the goals have come from counter attacks following heavy spells of pressure from Leeds. Leeds have conceded just four first-half goals and six second-half goals this season, no Championship side has leaked fewer either side of half-time in matches in 2019/20. 

          It was apparent last season that Leeds committed a high volume of individual errors, particularly in the second half of the campaign, something Marcelo Bielsa believes his squad have learned from: “We make less mistakes than last season because we have learned from it. The mistake that allows the opponent to score, those mistakes have an affect that helps the player to improve.” This season, no Leeds player has committed a single recognised individual error leading to a goal (that includes Gaetano Berardi’s conceded penalty and red card against Millwall, the later was rescinded by the FA). 

          Leeds are controlling matches with the ball and doing so with purpose. This season, Leeds' possession percentage is up 0.2% on last year to 59.7%; only Fulham 61.7% have managed more. 

          Opponents’ possession share has dropped from 37% after 18 matches in 2018/19 to 36% after 18 matches this season. Leeds have also conceded 7 fewer goals have a lower xGA (expected goals against) down to 12.9 from 15.8 last campaign. 

          Leeds faced 169 shots after the opening 18 matches last season, which is down to 156 this campaign. The Whites have also faced seven fewer shots on-target (down to 51 from 58). 
          Marcelo Bielsa’s side have also increased ball recoveries from 938 to 1000 from the same stage last season.

          Whether Leeds set up in a 4-1-4-1, 3-3-1-3 or most recently a 3-5-2, they are always protected by Kalvin Phillips at the base of midfield. Phillips’ reading of the game allows him to thrive at breaking up play. Bielsa has allocated him the specialist role of specifically man-marking key playmakers out of the game. The 23-year-old midfielder’s most recent task was nullifying Blackburn playmaker Bradley Dack, which he did in some style by winning 12 of his 16 duels against Blackburn’s leading scorer. 

          Phillips has won more tackles than any other Championship player this season (70), and he has also created more chances (36) than any other single season as a professional after just 18 matches. His previous highest tally was 28 chances in 44 appearances last season. 

          Leeds’ very own Yorkshire Pirlo has been in fantastic form this campaign, and has had more touches than any other Leeds player (1424), closely followed by Stuart Dallas (1393) and Ben White (1356). 

          Boyhood fan Phillips has also increased his tackles won per game from 2.6 last season to 3.9, interceptions have gone up from 1.3 to 1.4 per game, blocks are up from 1.3 to 1.6 per game, and his long key passes have increased from 0.6 per game to 2.0. All indicators of Phillips’ continued progression under the guidance of Marcelo Bielsa. 

          Leeds’ biggest Achilles’ heel is leaking goals from set-pieces, or more specifically from corners. The Whites have conceded four goals from 77 corner routines this season (5.2%), and one from the penalty spot. 

          Leeds have faced their third-lowest amount of corners this season behind only Stoke (65) and Fulham (72), so set-piece goals have accounted for 50% of the goals Leeds have conceded this season (5/10). 

          Leeds may be struggling to score as freely as Slaven Bilic’s West Brom, but they are creating enough quality chances, committing fewer mistakes, and have laid the perfect defensive foundations on which to mount a serious title charge. Leeds fans will not be best pleased for me referencing a fierce rival, but to quote Sir Alex Ferguson: "Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”

          Thanks very much to Chris for this article - please give him a follow on Twitter for more fantastic content on Leeds United. 


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