“It’s very difficult to anticipate and predict what’s going to happen when there is a change in league and change in quality,” Marcelo Bielsa said back in September, ahead of Leeds’ league opener at Anfield. Of the things we can glean from Bielsa, a prediction of the future from him is rarely one of them. The Argentine only deals in the present and his principles, with faith the latter will guide him through the unknowns of the future.
The question for his Leeds side was whether they could play the way they did in the Championship in the Premier League. In truth, it was a nicer way of asking if they could afford to be as offensive, knowing the firepower they were up against.
Newly-promoted Premier League teams generally see a reduction in their attacking capabilities, for obvious reasons. It’s more difficult to attack teams with more resources than you than it is to defend them. It’s also usually a conscious decision from these teams – the result of creating fewer opportunities – through defending deeper and/or committing fewer players in attack.
Like most things with Bielsa’s Leeds, they haven’t followed the trend. Nobody who has followed his teams closely expected him to alter his approach in the Premier League. The issue was how effective it would be moving up a level.
The first obstacle newly-promoted teams have to pass when it comes to generating attacks is in progressing the ball. Unless you have a distinctly direct style which allows you to play long often – with strong aerial presence and ability to retain the ball once it travels over a longer distance – teams will have to be more creative in how they progress up the pitch, against the interests of their opponents.
Considering Leeds’ style is rooted in attacking quickly and often, they have been able to achieve the first objective soundly so far. Using sequences data from Opta – a metric which looks at a team’s ‘passages of play’ before they are ended, either with a shot, defensive action or stoppage – we can see that only Liverpool have been able to access the final third with more regularity than Leeds.
In simple terms, Bielsa’s side are arriving to the final third frequently and also doing so with a favourable recurrence, in line with their amount of time in possession. This speaks well to the spine of the team, starting with ball-playing goalkeeper Illan Meslier who – along with his defenders and midfield help – have been able to create the conditions for moving the ball up the pitch in similar fashion to how they did in the Championship.
What about when they get to the final third?
Bielsa’s side are averaging a similar number of attempts from inside the box this season (10.8) as they did in their promotion-winning season (11), and it has lodged them firmly among the most active attacking teams in the Premier League so far.
Narrowing the focus to open play attacks, Leeds currently lead all Premier League teams for the number of shots inside the box per game (8.6) this season. Rather than this being the product of Leeds simply attempting a high volume of shots per game, Bielsa’s side have consistently been able to generate their attempts from the most rewarding zone – the penalty area. They rank fourth in the Premier League for the percentage of their open play shots that have been taken from inside the box (70%).
Factoring in the Expected Goals (xG) value of these attempts, in order to assess the quality of chances Leeds are creating, their prospects are further boosted. The Whites are currently positioned as the ‘best of the rest’ when it comes to creating attacking opportunities from open play. Backing up their attempts in terms of volume, Leeds are averaging 1.3 xG per game from open play shots in the box. Again, they rank second in the Premier League in this category, behind only the reigning champions Liverpool (1.47).
Of course, we can’t mention Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds United and the pursuit of attacking without mentioning Patrick Bamford. Among the many theories as to why Bamford is scoring at a much higher rate in the Premier League, and becoming the sort of threat not many were anticipating, the basis for his prospects remain much the same.
Leeds’ style of attacking hasn’t been degraded, nor has the frequency of opportunities that Bamford is finding in the Premier League. Between the team’s process, Bamford’s understanding of his role and also his physical output, the chances are still finding him at a strong rate. So much so, Bamford has attempted more shots from open play than any other player in the Premier League this season (40).
Whatever the reason for Bamford’s improved scoring rate, the pertinent point for Leeds and Marcelo Bielsa is that the process which got Leeds to the door of the Premier League is functioning as well now they’ve entered. Using the same system with only one or two new additions to the regular starting XI, Leeds are continuing to make life uncomfortable for their opponents, doing to multi-million pound defensive units what they did to less heralded opposition earlier in the year.
In terms of a longer view of the season, Leeds’ success will of course be dictated in large part by their defensive record. Perhaps logically, the only two teams who have conceded more than Leeds this season are fellow promoted sides Fulham (19) and West Brom (18). Yet the outlook for Leeds looks to be considerably different to the sides they made the step up with, so far.
In the wake of issues they have encountered in their opening 10 Premier League games, Bielsa has reiterated his belief that Leeds defend better when they attack better. If the Argentine is correct in his assessment, the balance of their fortunes can’t be too far away.
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