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Leeds must improve their defence to prosper in the Premier League

Leeds United
(Image credit: PA)

Leeds are top of the Premier League. Leeds are bottom of the Premier League. It just depends on which table you consult. Marcelo Bielsa’s hyperactive players have made the most challenges in the division, an average of 21 per game. And yet they have conceded the joint-most goals, 17, with West Bromwich Albion.

It is not a contradiction as much as a consequence of idiosyncratic tactics. Pep Guardiola, one of the host of managers influenced by Bielsa, once infamously said he did not coach tackles. A mentor has adopted a very different approach. Leeds’ 21 tackles have been necessitated by the Argentinian’s policy of man-marking all over the pitch; at times they have required more. The flaw in the theory is that if one opponent escapes, the entire system is under threat. As Leeds only have one spare man, in a centre-back, there can be no one else to halt the suddenly free runner. 

Leeds may highlight how simplistic some of the thinking around football can be. The implication behind Guardiola’s much-mocked words was that defending can be accomplished without resorting to tackling and, usually, the elite sides make the fewest tackles, partly because they have the ball most of the time. Leeds are a rarity: high in both the possession and the tackling charts.

In some ways, Leeds are good at tackling: Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas are tied for fourth-most in the division while, until he was injured, Kalvin Phillips was regaining the ball at a similar rate. Meanwhile, only five clubs average fewer fouls per game. In other respects, Leeds are bad at tackling: they have conceded four penalties already this season.

The plaudits have stemmed in part from the entertainment they have offered. Their games contain an average of 27 shots and 3.9 goals. They are conducted at 100mph and the flurry of late goals at either end shows they are not running themselves to a standstill. 

And yet there is broader question, which is if the style of play that has earned them admirers is sustainable in a league with a talent gulf. The pragmatists would say no: the safety-first efforts to avert relegation of Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce were invariably based on an inferiority complex. Whether or not either had the prowess to implement a Bielsa-esque blueprint, neither would have adopted such an ambitious style of play with lesser players, and each would have noted that Leeds have already conceded four set-piece goals, excluding those penalties, this season. It would be anathema to Pulis or Allardyce to have a side who have the fourth most possession in the Premier League, as Leeds do, and it is a greater feat for Bielsa that he can name a side containing a majority of players who finished in the lower half of the Championship in 2018, but it underlines the scale of task of imposing their brand of football on more illustrious opponents. 

In another contradiction, Leeds were not a defensive team last season, but they were a good defensive outfit. They conceded the fewest goals, had the joint fewest expected goals against and their goalkeepers made the fewest saves, which is only partly a reflection on Kiko Casilla’s performances. Ben White topped the division’s interception charts but none of their players finished in the top 10 for tackles. Winning the ball back high up the pitch and attack proved a fine form of defence.

Is it now? Shorn of Phillips, Leeds have suffered successive 4-1 reverses. They have been picked off by counter-attackers, in Leicester and Crystal Palace. Early-season statistics can be deceptive, but they are on course to concede 81 goals, score 67 and stay up. It is an equation most neutrals would happily accept. If other sides had such numbers, it would be used as evidence of naivety. With Leeds, it is more a case of obstinacy, daring to be different. And this season amounts to a test of how successful Bielsa’s boldness will be.

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