Will Leeds United ever not be remarkable?
Marcelo Bielsa’s team, somehow, managed to score six non-penalty goals against Liverpool and Fulham from an expected goals figure of 1.15. The reason why it felt like every time someone shot they scored in those matches, is because that’s generally true.
However, while they may not appear to have created many strong chances — just 2.84 expected goals across their opening three matches by Twenty3’s model — they’ve been extraordinary in squeezing every last drop out of them. The expected goals value of their chances more than doubles when shot placement is factored in, from that 2.84 figure up to 6.36 post-shot expected goals.
When expected goals and post-shot expected goals are perfectly equal, that’s a ‘shot placement ratio’ of 1.0. Leeds’ is 2.24; Chelsea currently have the second-highest in the Premier League with 1.43.
A lot of that simply comes from hitting the target. As the below shot map shows, Chelsea have far more off-target shots than Leeds.
Yet each Leeds match so far has been its own distinct thing. A lot is dependent on opposition, but looking at the passing networks of Bielsa’s team for each match is a bizarre journey.
Against Liverpool, they sought to build out from the back, with goalkeeper Illan Meslier involved in two of Leeds’ five most-frequent passing combinations. Generally, they favoured the left-hand side, with their right-wing and forward involved in play so infrequently that they look like outlet islands.
All change for the match against Fulham. This time, far from being isolated, it was the right-hand side that appeared to be used the most. If you didn’t know defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips’ reputation as a strong passer, you’d be forgiven for thinking Leeds were deliberately bypassing him.
But against Sheffield United, not only did Leeds mirror their Yorkshire rivals’ formation, Phillips (RCM) was back as a hub of possession.
However, there is a similarity defensively, a thread running through these matches. Against Liverpool, Leeds’ defensive duels were skewed towards their left-hand side. That might not mean anything in isolation, of course, particularly given that that’s the wing with Mohamed Salah, Naby Keïta and Trent Alexander-Arnold. But it happened again against both Fulham and Sheffield United.
It’s an interesting difference between Leeds’ in and out of possession sides that this is the case. Although their largely man-marking approach to defending will inevitably change depending on the opposition, their personnel has largely stayed the same. Perhaps the players featuring on the left are noticeably different to the ones on the right. Or perhaps the structure itself leads to this.
A skewed presence of defensive duels could mean that more work is required in that area, or that a larger share of work is being challenged in that area. Looking at the ‘flank attacks’ visualisation that Leeds have conceded this season, it would seem to be the former. Leeds’ opponents have generally attacked down the left-hand side of Bielsa’s team, and these attacks have also been a little more dangerous than attacks elsewhere.
It would be a brave person to doubt Marcelo Bielsa, but it’s worth noting that Leeds have conceded chances worth at least 1.0 expected goals in each of their first three games. Fulham and Sheffield United aren’t likely to be the most threatening attacks to face in the league this season.
Like anyone, Leeds may be fallible. But like their manager, they are, almost bewilderingly, interesting. Will Leeds United ever not be remarkable? Stubbornly, no.
All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.
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