Match week seven in the 2019/20 EFL Championship saw Leeds United make the short journey to Oakwell to face Barnsley. Leeds were looking to go top of the league, as both Swansea and Charlton failed to pick up any points in their respective matches. Barnsley on the other hand were looking for their first win since their opening day victory against Fulham. Leeds were looking to improve on their impressive start and continue the early push for automatic promotion. As for Barnsley, a big win against Leeds would give them a huge boost in their attempts for survival.
Leeds eventually ran out 2-0 winners, with late goals coming from Eddie Nketiah and a penalty from Mateusz Klich which ensured the points for Leeds, in what was not a simple victory for the Yorkshire side. Leeds, as expected, dominated much of the ball, however Barnsley created multiple chances and forced some good saves out of Kiko Casilla. Leeds were eventually able to get the victory, which sprung them to the top of the table after seven games.
This tactical analysis will attempt to look at how Leeds’ tactics were eventually able to gain the three points, and how they were able to break down the rigid defensive line that Barnsley had in place.
Marcelo Bielsa set out Leeds in their usual 4-1-4-1 formation, which is flexible and changes throughout games. Kiko Casilla lined up between the sticks with Liam Cooper and the impressive Ben White in the centre of defence. Kalvin Philips started in the defensive midfield role, who often dropped between the centre backs to create a back three. Stewart Dallas and Ezgjan Alioski were the full-backs on the day, looking to provide width in the attacking third. Jamie Shackleton and Mateusz Klich were the two more advanced central midfielders, with Pablo Hernández and Jack Harrison as the wider players. Patrick Bamford was the sole striker, looking to add to his tally of 4 goals.
As for Barnsley, Daniel Stendel played with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Brad Collins started in goal. Aapo Halme and Mads Andersen were the two centre backs, with Jordan Williams and Dimitri Cavaré as the two full-backs. The job of this back four would be to keep out one of the strongest attacks in the division. In midfield, Alex Mowatt and Toby Sibbick were the two holding midfielders, looking to provide defensive stability and protection for the back four. Luke Thomas and Jacob Brown played as the two wingers, looking to get at the Leeds back four and provide service for the other attacking players. Cauley Woodrow was in the central attacking midfield position, however, he would often go and become a second striker alongside Mallik Wilks, who was once a Leeds player.
One of the divisions best players, and for many Leeds fans, their most important player, Kalvin Phillips once again showed not only why he is vital for Leeds, but how he is someone who could one day play at the highest level. This performance once again demonstrated this.
One aspect which Phillips did extremely well was find space in the deeper areas. He would often find himself in positions with lots of space, which could allow Leeds to play through him. This was not accidental however, his awareness of the area’s around him is something which not many players in world football have. Barnsley operated in a 4-2-3-1 with a purpose of being aggressive and using a number 10 in order to stop Phillips picking up the ball and dictating the game. Even with this, he was still able to have a huge influence on the game. He always seemed to be available for a pass, which plays into Bielsa’s playing out from the back philosophy. By having such a player in a deeper-lying role, it allows more avenues of attack. As Phillips would pick up the ball it would allow the wingers and at times other central midfielders to run in behind the Barnsley midfield line. Therefore, being able to find this space was vital, and Phillips did it extremely effectively in this game. This once again highlights the importance of Phillips when Leeds had possession of the ball. As we can see below, Phillips is in acres of space to receive the ball in a deeper position. As a result, Leeds can play out from the back and are also able to play through Phillips.
Once again, we can see below another example of this. Cooper has the ball in his position and instead of having to go long he can play a simple pass into Phillips who can turn and dictate play. This happened throughout the match and looking at the bigger picture, this has been happening throughout Bielsa’s time at Leeds. These passages of play may seem simple at first glance, however, after deeper analysis, it is clear to see that this positioning from Phillips is vital for Leeds in creating situations of attack.
Another aspect of Phillips’ game which was evident in this clash is that he often drops with the centre backs to make a back three. This can be seen both on and off the ball. On the ball, it allows him even more space to dictate the play from. Often, defensive midfielders will drop right between both centre backs and become the most central of the three. However, Phillips in this game often dropped to the right side of the three. This was again to have space to be able to switch the play from. This was once a tactical usage of the 23-year old’s excellent technical ability for Leeds’s benefit. A key part of Leeds under Bielsa is the switching of play which Phillips is exceptionally endowed at doing. This also gives extra cover in the defensive transitions against Leeds when Barnsley tried to counter-attack, which they did a lot of in this game.
Once again, we can see Phillips in a back three with Cooper and White, this time in the middle of both. He is, therefore, able to dictate the game from not only a deeper position, but a more central position in this situation. Leeds had 67% of possession in Sunday’s game, a big reason for this can be explained by the positions that Phillips was picking up in these deeper areas. Leeds were able to keep the ball and start attacks in this way. Midfielders such as Pablo Hernandez and Jack Harrison could pick up much better positions also. It further allowed quick attacking football in central areas of the pitch.
Leeds wide overlapping
An interesting development throughout the game was Leeds using a numerical advantage on the wings. In different situations that occurred in wider positions, it could be evidently seen that the Whites were using overlapping runners down both flanks to cause problems for the Barnsley backline. The objective of this was to try to use their technical skills and acceleration advantage down both sides. In the image below we can see the trio of Dallas, Hernandez and Shackleton with a quick triangle of play which eventually releases Shackleton down the right side. These overlapping transitions meant that they were able to have more players in dangerous positions to potentially score or get an assist for Bamford, whose runs were excellent throughout the game. These overlapping transitions would give the man on the ball various options to play into and it also meant that Leeds played with pace and clear attacking purpose. Leeds’s tactics meant that triangles of attacking options would often form in this sense which furthermore allowed movement and meant the opposition did not know who to pick up. In this case, the Barnsley defensive line was often caught with runs in behind as seen below.
A further example of these wide transitions can be seen in the picture below. As opposed to the first picture, this was on the left-hand side of the pitch and in this case we can see Alioski, Shackleton, and Harrison. The triangle once again is evident to see, and it provides the three of them to manoeuvre themselves in behind the Barnsley defensive line. This evidently causes problems for any defence as confusion as to who to mark in defensive aspects becomes more of a problem.
Barnsley playing in behind
A way in which Barnsley tried to attack Leeds was through playing balls in behind the defensive line. Wilks is a player that thrives on this kind of service. Barnsley tried to get this ball in behind for him to run into throughout the game. Despite Cooper being an experienced centre-back, pace is not something he possesses in abundance. Wilks would therefore often go towards him to make this in behind run. This was done with the objective of stretching Leeds’s back four and getting bodies forward in counter-attack motions. This was important for Barnsley, as they did not control much of the possession at all. This plays into the narrative of the match also, Leeds with most of the ball and attacking play with Barnsley sitting deep looking to hit on the break and release the likes of Wilks on the counter-attack.
Wilks was not the only one that was trying to get in behind, many of the attacking players attempted to do so. Barnsley also tried different types of passes for the attacking players to get on to. In the image below we can see Mowatt playing a long diagonal ball over the top of the Leeds backline looking for the back post. This again was an attempt to counter-attack, but with a different style as opposed to trying to find a runner in behind on the floor. This also gave the Leeds defence something to think about when they had the ball. They knew that by losing it in a dangerous position would have meant the likes of Wilks could easily get behind the backline in order to have a chance on goal.
A key aspect of Bielsa’s Leeds is the pressing of the opposition. This is a must for all players that play for him, as this pressing leads to winning the ball back in order to have possession from any area in the pitch. In this game, Leeds pressed with emphasis on Barnsley’s backline, as they are not the most technically gifted. Throughout the game, the likes of Bamford and Hernandez would press onto the Barnsley backline, which would further allow Leeds to play the high line they usually operate with. By pressing the back four it created much more opportunities for attacking play. Pressing was also a way to stop Barnsley from counter-attacking, and in particular with the long ball. By pressing on the back four it meant that Barnsley could not get the ball up the pitch and Leeds could essentially assert their dominance in terms of keeping the ball. As seen in the image below, both the Leeds attackers press the ball when Barnsley are bare at the back. By pressing in this situation, it is likely that mistakes will be made by the opposing back four.
Another example can be seen below. In this situation whereby there are three Leeds players pressing the ball at one time. This again is an example of Bielsa’s system in peak, in order to win the ball back players must able to run throughout the game. This below is taken right at the end of the first half showing the desire the Leeds players have in order to win the ball back. Furthermore, for Leeds to be a success this season this sort of pressing must be maintained. Towards the end of last season, they capitulated, and a big reason could be assigned to the fact that they were not fit enough to play this system for the whole season. However, as seen in this game and almost every game so far this season, they are more than capable.
To conclude, Leeds dominated the game and clearly deserved the three points. Despite a few flashes from Barnsley on the counter-attack they really did not offer much in an attacking sense, however, they were extremely well-disciplined and to hold out against Leeds for almost the full match should be credited. Bielsa will be happy with the performance; however, a concern will be that it took so long for the first goal to come. Leeds look strong despite this and are most certainly favourites to be in contention for automatic promotion this season. Barnsley will be disappointed with the result, however, there is plenty of time left in the season for them to pick up form.