Exceptional Leeds subvert the norm under 'El Loco'

          FEATURE | What even is a good defence?

          2021/01/07 19:16
          Alex Lawes

          “Attack is the best form of defence.” An over-used phrase that has worked its way down several generations across several fields; whether that be in martial arts or in football. It is over-used, not because it doesn’t have some truth to it, but because it is often wrongly applied.

          Time and again this season, it has been used in TV punditry or broadsheet and tabloid newspapers to describe Leeds United and their highly intense style of play under Marcelo Bielsa.

          Although it is usually offered as an attempted defence of Bielsa and his tactics, it is reductionist in its analysis. It is suggestive of something one-dimensional and therefore fairly simple – whereas the reality is far from it.

          ©Getty / Alex Dodd - CameraSport

          To clean sheet or not to clean sheet?

          Positive analysis of Bielsa and Leeds can often drift into a pretentious ramble, which is what probably irritates most of those who criticise the “media love-in”.

          However, the methods and practices of ‘El Loco’ as well as the results and style on the pitch are so unconventional and complex that it can lead to a philosophical debate. The debate in this instance being: what is a good defence?

          A week ago, Leeds United had conceded the joint most goals in the Premier League. However, their 5-0 win followed up by Arsenal’s 4-0 victory over West Brom means the Baggies are now comfortably outstripping Leeds for goals against. However, nobody has conceded three or more goals on more occasions than Leeds; they’ve done it seven times.

          They also have the second worst xGA, behind West Brom, of 33.57 across the season and have conceded the third most shots per game (14.8) behind the hapless Baggies and Newcastle.

          And yet only three clubs have kept more clean sheets than Leeds. They have also relied on more clean sheets for wins this season than champions and league leaders Liverpool; Leeds have won five games to nil whereas Liverpool have won three games to nil.

          They have made the second most tackles per game in the league, 19.5, as well as having the most effective high line and offside trap in the league by catching the opponents out 2.4 times per game.

          It is plausible possibility that Leeds concede over 70 goals this season but their goalkeeper, Ilan Meslier, wins the golden glove award for most clean sheets.

          That sentence alone proves the extreme curiosity about their manager to be justified. Outside of the English elites and European super clubs, a good defence is all about perception and context.

          It is about maximising the percentages of improving the results of the team; therefore, given his ideologies and processes, it is paradoxically a pragmatic method that Bielsa and Leeds indulge in.

          ©Getty / Dave Rogers

          Bielsa v Big Sam

          Sam Allardyce will often be credited with helping the advancement of sports science and data analysis in English football. His management is often percentage-based. For example, when he took over as England manager, he outlined his view that specifically “one in four chances must result in a goal at international level”.

          His style of play differs from Bielsa, but the aim is to ensure his style of play maximises the points his team can achieve; that is pragmatism, and that is the same for Bielsa; they just do it differently and the results, therefore, can wildly differ but it doesn’t mean the thought processes weren’t similar.

          Allardyce would suggest that if his style can close down angles and stop opponents in the middle-third of the pitch then it will lead to his side conceding less than a goal and a half per game over the course of a ten-game run and they would then have collected a solid amount of points.

          This could lead to a run of two clean sheets, three games where they let in one, four games where they concede two and one game where they concede three. It is controlled and measured leading to a total of 14 in ten.

          Bielsa would suggest that if his style can overwhelm the opposition in their defensive third and suffocate them in the middle third then it will lead to his side very rarely not having possession and therefore rarely conceding goals and chances; however, if they come up against superior personnel who are brave enough to play through the press then they could come severely unstuck. This could lead to a run of four clean sheets, two games where they let one in and, due to the extremes of the style, four games where they let four or five goals in.

          The Bielsa side would concede more goals but also keep more clean sheets – so which is the better defence? They are both percentage-based approaches but both very different in their outlook.

          ©Getty / James Williamson - AMA

          High risk, high reward

          The Bielsa-Leeds style is widely berated and diminished for being gung-ho and the aforementioned quotes about attack being the best form of defence almost denigrate the complexities of what is an adventurous and entertaining form of pragmatism. It is just a pragmatism that isn’t necessarily common – and that is why it is also constantly covered, discussed and analysed.

          In the Championship, this system and process simply minimised all of the opposition’s chances.

          Obviously the standard of player and coach attempting to break Leeds’ press was lower but their defence almost worked perfectly in line with Bielsa’s strategy.

          They suffocated their opponents when pressing, were fitter than them in transition and very rarely lost possession. Therefore any counter-attack or deeper build-up from the back is already combatted against. It meant that Leeds only conceded a 34.5 xGA in their title-winning campaign last season and kept a league high of 22 clean sheets. 

          They were unlucky to only win the league with 93 points when their xPTS was 114; the biggest discrepancy between performance and result in the league. They were better than the table suggested, both in defence and attack, and they still won the league by ten points.

          It is a high-risk and high-intensity style of play that is bound to be torn apart or cut open by better players at bigger clubs on occasion; especially when it is being deployed by a newly-promoted side. It also doesn’t help when their current defence, due to injury, features a left-back who is a converted forward and back-up, a right-back who is a converted winger and more regularly a left-back, a centre-back who is a right-back and another centre-back who is fourth choice.

          Defending and ‘a good defence’ is often pigeon-holed and reduced to bare statistics without context or caveats. Leeds will get hammered now and then but, conversely, it is their defence that will keep them in the league.

          It is traditionally ill-advised, and the principles pretty much inefficient, but the complexity of the man imposing this philosophy and the detail to which it is unconventionally enforced makes it actually effective and enjoyable. There are a few reasons he is nicknamed ‘the crazy one’.


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