Against the Odds: The ‘fluke’ results which cost Leeds United promotion

After 42 games last season, Leeds United occupied second place in the Championship with a three-point buffer to third. They’d won eight of the previous eleven matches, righting the ship after a difficult period from late December to early February.

They didn’t win any of the last four games of the season.

They managed only a single point.

Two of those final matches were incredible upsets, both in terms of league position and the balance of the match. Wigan Athletic and Ipswich Town claimed 2-1 and 3-2 scalps respectively, despite the combined expected goals ‘scoreline’ being 9.14 to Leeds, and just 1.7 to their two opponents. So, how did this happen?

Missed penalties in both matches didn’t help. Pablo Hernández had his spot-kick tipped onto the post against Wigan on 19 April, while Kemar Roofe badly missed his chance against Ipswich on the last day of the season, 5 May.

Although there were many similarities between the two games — lots of chances created by Leeds, their opponents squeezing the most out of the opportunities they got, a red card for the underdogs — there were small but important differences.

The sending-off for Wigan happened after just 14 minutes, and although Hernández’s effort was saved, Leeds went ahead three minutes later through Patrick Bamford. They led, against ten men, until just before half-time, and then conceded again just after the hour-mark. The two goals were Wigan’s only shots on target of the game, with Gavin Massey scoring both.

Having had the lead and playing against ten for such a long time, this defeat might sting more than the one to Ipswich, where Leeds never had the lead and only had their man advantage for the last 11 minutes.

As a result, Marcelo Bielsa’s side spent an incredible amount of time in the final third against Wigan, getting nearly twice as many completed passes in this area compared to their game against Ipswich. But this territory didn’t necessarily translate to better chances. Their average chance against Wigan was only worth 0.11 expected goals, but against Ipswich it was 0.19.

These two matches are the two of the five worst in the past few seasons for teams losing despite creating far more than their opposition. Leeds lost against Wigan even though they created chances worth 3.02 expected goals more than their opponents, and against Ipswich this expected goals difference was an astonishing 4.41.

There are some caveats to these figures: Patrick Bamford’s shot that was handled on the line by Wigan’s Cédric Kipré, leading to the red card and the penalty, has an expected goals value. Combined with the penalty, the two shots gave Leeds 1.17 expected goals, even though the penalty couldn’t have happened without Bamford’s shot being illegally stopped. Similarly, Stuart Dallas’ goal against Ipswich came from Kemar Roofe hitting the crossbar from mere yards out. 

The main problem with Leeds’ attack in these matches was their finishing. The above caveats affect the numbers here slightly, but Bielsa’s side lost about half the value of their chances through poor finishing. In open-play, Leeds’ figures dropped from 3.23 expected goals to 1.29 once shot placement is factored in. Against Ipswich, the drop was from 3.48 open-play expected goals to 1.82 ‘post-shot’ expected goals (‘post-shot’ because it includes information known after the shot has been hit). 

Even so, these are matches that, on the balance of chances, Leeds would feel they should have won. Their opponents scored all of their shots on target in both matches, something that does happen, but not particularly often. 

With all 24 teams playing 46 matches, there were 1104 chances for it to occur, and it only happened 60 times during that season, or 34 if you only count matches where the team scoring all their shots on target scored more than once. That’s once every 32 matches, and Leeds had it happen to them twice in the crunch month of the season (as well as two other times, against Aston Villa and Blackburn in December).

To finish the story down this sideroad, this unusual phenomenon also happened three times to Bielsa’s team during 2019/20 (against Cardiff, Birmingham City, and Sheffield Wednesday – all over the festive period). It happened once during the Argentine’s 13-match spell at Lille in 2017/18 as well. 

There might not be anything in it, but an event that happens once every 30-35 games happening once every 11 games for Marcelo Bielsa sides — with five of them at Leeds happening over the winter — seems like an interesting pattern.