Leeds United kicked-off their 2019/20 EFL Championship home campaign against Nottingham Forest last Saturday. Marcelo Bielsa was looking to repeat last weekend’s performance where they beat Bristol City 3-1 in Leeds’ first game of the season. In contrast, Nottingham Forest arrived at Elland Road after suffering an opening day defeat to West Bromwich Albion.
Leeds dominated the game from start to finish with Forest offering very little threat going forward. However, despite the supremacy showed by Bielsa’s team, Nottingham Forest managed to snatch a very lucky point at the end. Pablo Hernández put Leeds in front after a cool finish in the 59th minute with Lewis Grabban equalising for the visitors with 13 minutes remaining.
This tactical analysis will explain the reasons behind Leeds’ dominant display and Forest’s inability to challenge them.
Leeds lined-up in their traditional 4-1-4-1 formation which usually transforms into a 3-3-1-3 when in possession. Kiko Casilla started between the sticks with Ben White and Liam Cooper forming the centre-back pair. Either Kevin Phillips or Adam Forshaw were the ones who dropped deeper to form a back three.
Both full-backs Stuart Dallas and Barry Douglas supported Leeds’ attack down the flanks with either Phillips or Forshaw positioned in the middle of the park forming the second line of three. Energetic Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich was the most advanced of the three centre-midfielders who likes to make runs from deep and support the front three. Concerning the attacking line, there was no surprise seeing Jack Harrison on the left, Hernández on the right and Patrick Bamford up top.
On paper, Nottingham Forest also opted for a 4-1-4-1 shape. They were unchanged from the game against West Brom. Arijanet Muric started in goal and was protected by a back four consisting of Matty Cash, Joe Worrall, Michael Dawson and Jack Robinson. However, it seemed more like a 4-2-3-1 set-up with Alfa Semedo and Ben Watson as a double pivot and Portuguese attacking midfielder Tiago Silva just in front of them. Joe Lolley and Albert Adomah were the two wingers with Grabban as a lone striker.
Leeds United’s two-way attacking approach
Under Bielsa, the West Yorkshire club is known for its preference to build-up down the flanks after creating overloads in specific zones. This particular game saw this tactic being employed once again by Leeds. Nonetheless, it was not used as a single approach for reaching the opposition’s final third. At times, Nottingham Forest were defending with a quite high defensive line that Leeds sought to exploit by playing long balls over the top.
The first example is concerned with Leeds building-up down the flank. Below we can see Leeds overloading the right side, having a three versus three situation there. Bamford occupies both Forest’s centre-backs by positioning himself in a right half-space. Klich is hugging the right touchline, thus, he drags out the left-back with himself. Due to the positioning of both Bamford and Klich, Forest are forced to shift their back-line down that side accordingly. As we can see, the distance between the players in the backline is not equal, leaving Forest’s right-back Cash quite isolated.
In the illustration below, Dallas swiftly switched the ball to the middle of the park to Cooper who sees both Harrison and Douglas making forward runs on the far left side. Nottingham Forest’s backline was too slow to shift across that means Cash was unable to situate himself wider on the right. Consequently, both Douglas and Harrison had enough space to run into and create a temporary two against one numerical superiority.
When the teams defend using zonal marking, it becomes a lot harder to drag players out of their original positions. In zonal marking, emphasis is put on defending certain zones and not the players. However, when those zones are not protected properly, the attacking team can reach them more or less unchallenged. As we can see in the image below, Forest’s left-midfielder Lolley was caught ball watching and was unaware of Leeds’ left-back making an overlapping run.
Overall, Nottingham Forest’s midfield and defensive lines were not quick enough in shifting across that would have reduced the space on the left side.
The illustration below displays another almost identical episode to the one mentioned above. Forest’s defensive and midfield units were too slow anticipating Forshaw’s pass to the left to Harrison. Additionally, Leeds’ midfielder dragged Forest’s left-midfielder Lolley inside by carrying the ball deep. It resulted in an identical two against one situation on the left-wing.
After successfully taking advantage of an overload created on the left, many Leeds’ players tend to end up in the opposition’s box. Both centre-midfielders Klich and Forshaw were frequent guests in Forest’s penalty area throughout the match.
The second most prominent attacking approach used by Leeds was long balls over the top. There were quite a few occasions when Forest defended with a relatively high back-line. One of the reasons for that could be that Forest wanted to force both Leeds’ full-backs to stay in their own half. One of the risk factors when playing a high defensive line is the defending team’s inability to play an offside trap. Sadly for Nottingham Forest, they were unable to apply it at most times.
Bielsa’s side took advantage of Forest’s defensive approach quite well with Bamford being put through on goal on at least two occasions. From first sight, the Leeds striker looks like a traditional, old-fashioned number ‘nine’. Nevertheless, he possesses good first touch and has the pace to get in behind which makes him a good target man. Bamford’s finishing was the only let down in otherwise smart tactics utilised by Bielsa exploiting Forest’s high back-line and lack of pace shown by both centre-halves.
Nottingham Forest’s build-up struggles
Throughout the whole game, Nottingham Forest did not create a single goal-scoring opportunity from an open play. Funnily enough, they did manage to score a goal but it was a scrappy deflection from the corner kick. The reason behind Forest’s non-existent chances in front of goal is that they simply could not play out against Leeds’ high press. As a solution, they opted for a long ball tactic which was ineffective. Nottingham Forest had only 32% of ball possession with the passing success as low as 61%. They made only 284 passes in total from which 24% were long passes. In comparison, Leeds dominated the game with 68% of ball possession, performing 615 passes in total with only 11% of them being long.
Below we can see a few examples of Leeds’ high-press that prevented Nottingham Forest to keep hold of the ball for sustained periods. Neither of Forest’s centre-backs nor goalkeeper Muric are the most comfortable players with the ball at their feet. Thus, Leeds’ adopted man-to-man press paid great dividends for the West Yorkshire club. Forest simply did not have enough time on the ball to pick the right options which forced them to play hopeless long balls upfront. The difference here from occasional Leeds’ long-ball tactics is that Bielsa’s team was not pressurised at all. Consequently, Leeds’ ball holder had enough time to pick out his teammate.
Isolated man up top
As mentioned in the previous section, Forest struggled to play out from the back, therefore, they were forced to find the lone striker Grabban by playing direct. The first issue that Grabban had to face during the game was the quality of the pass. Majority of the passes were poor in quality not utilising Forest striker’s pace to run in behind Leeds’ centre-backs. The second issue was a complete lack of support from his teammates.
As we can see in the images below, there is no one even remotely close to Grabban who he could lay the ball off to. It indicates Forest’s very cautious approach to the game with protecting their goal being the number one priority.
In comparison, when Leeds played a long ball to Bamford, he had enough support around him. The only Leeds’ goal was scored when Bamford controlled the ball and laid it back to Klich who played it into the path of Hernandez.
As we can see in this heat map, Nottingham Forest spent most of the time defending in their own penalty box. On the other hand, a lack of ‘redness’ in the opposition’s box devotes Forest’s inability to reach Leeds’ final third and create chances.
Nottingham Forest’s disorganised press
As much as Leeds tried to make their visitors’ life difficult by pressing them high up the pitch, the same can not be applied to them. At most times, Nottingham Forest’s players looked labour when off the ball and seemed to lack understanding of how to press collectively. In the illustration below, we can see how Forest’s first line of press comprised of Grabban and Silva is easily bypassed with a single pass.
Forest tried to press their opponents zonally higher up the pitch but were unable to do it as a unit. Leeds, with Phillips in particular, were able to exploit acres of space and bring the ball up to the half-way line practically unphased.
Looking at the episode illustrated below, it can be stated that in this case Leeds’ sophisticated tactic to overload one side and thus invite opposition’s players played a big part in Forest’s flawed press. Leeds created numerical superiority on the left flank containing three Forest’s players. It opened up massive space in the centre for further ball progression. Nonetheless, it can be argued that Forest’s midfield line could have pushed higher up the pitch and made Leeds’ build-up process from the back more difficult.
When the ball was played back to the feet of one of the centre-backs, Forest’s midfield line retrieved immediately and did not pressurise the ball carrier at all. Douglas and Harrison were already in advanced positions on the far left side with a massive distance between Forest’s midfield and defensive lines.
As this analysis explained, Leeds completely outplayed and were better in every single department than their opponents from Nottingham. Flawed zonal marking and inability to press allowed Leeds to reach the last third of the pitch relatively easy. Bamford’s poor finishing kept Forest in the game for far too long which should have been a three- or four-goal lead at an hour mark.
Leeds United’s manager will be fairly disappointed with the outcome after seeing his side dominating for the full 90 minutes. Contrarily, Nottingham Forest got away with an undeserved point but future performances must improve if Sabri Lamouchi’s side wants to think about a possible promotion to the Premier League.
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