In a week where Leeds United won the FIFA Fair Play Award, they were hoping to rediscover their blistering form following a run of one win in the last four. They faced EFL Championship‘s surprise package this season in Charlton Athletic, with Lee Bowyer’s managerial intuitiveness pushing then up to the periphery of the play-offs. As this tactical analysis shows, it was Bowyer who got the better of Marcelo Bielsa.
The adaptations in Charlton Athletic’s tactics, solid defensive organisation and the performances of Jack Cullen and Conor Gallagher helped combat Leeds’ extensive offensive play.
It was an effort that was eventually deserving of the win. In spite of the consistent period of high pressure from the league favourites, this tactical analysis shows how Leeds just failed in achieving victory.
Charlton’s set-up was an interesting one. The regular structure of the side seemed to be a 4-2-3-1 which swayed away from the 4-1-2-1-2 that Bowyer usually operates to implement fluid attacking and rigid defending.
As this analysis demonstrates, the versatility from Bowyer’s tactical intentions were once again portrayed. Similar to their home fixture vs Brentford, they shifted Darren Pratley into defence to create a back five when conceding a cascade of chances.
An idea that Lee Bowyer stated, was, “always the plan”.
The diversion away from the midfield diamond meant they could focus defending Leeds’ strength in the wide areas with the potency of Jack Harrison and Helda Costa critical.
Charlton’s Back Five
As stated, Charlton gradually settled into a back 5 that was used to conflict the technical prowess of Bielsa’s side effectively. A good decision.
Leeds frequently overload in wide areas, engulfing the half spaces to create as many attacking options for the passer. The idea to flood certain zones usually prevents the isolation of the striker but also makes space for the out-ball on the opposing side.
Charlton though, adapted in-game to prevent Leeds from making use of their abilities in the wide spaces.
Here, you can see Charlton setting-up within the 4-2-3-1, despite it being their starting formation, it’s clear why the Addicks adapted in-game. Leeds as per, dragged their opponents ragged with the capabilities of the wingers proving its worth. Harrison’s sheer ability in 1v1 situations caused Charlton to become over-cautious, a faculty that had already seen Bowyer switch from their diamond midfield to a formation that covered more depth and cover for the full-backs.
It was therefore obvious why they then changed, whether it was planned or not. The switch to a wing-back system meant they could attempt to outnumber Leeds in certain scenarios, again, an assault to rival one of United’s biggest threats.
Combating the overloads, covering overlapping runs and preventing frequent 1v1 circumstances was key to Charlton Athletic’s gameplan.
While the back-five’s implementation created problems for Leeds, it did so too for Charlton. The effect of the defensive system is simple. Spaces behind become reduced, the box when defending low becomes crowded and the attacking opposition has to react imaginatively to carve the structure open.
But while the above became effective in Charlton’s ploy to nullify the Leeds threat, it also created other issues.
The still conveys instantly how deep the home side are sitting, with the threat of the wide areas covered. But with the intent to sit so deep, denying creative passing opportunities and therefore shutting off the penalty area, Charlton’s midfield became spaced.
The focus on containing the box left the midfield open. You can see even from one image how determined Charlton were to obstruct passes into the box despite the implications it fabricated.
The change in structure created disarray in how the midfield combined with the defence behind them. Aggressive pressing could be easily played through and sitting back just invited further pressure.
This time, Leeds attack in wide areas attempting to create beatable 1v1 situations and when forced inside, the middle zones are agape. Charlton are sat so deep that two players are free on the box, plus another out of the picture. The gap between the midfield pivot/trio to the centre backs behind is too narrow and although that blockades players within the penalty area, the surrounding zones become exploitable.
To hinder this, Charlton responded with almost a one-man press in defensive zones. Whether it is one of the centre-backs pushing up to confront the ball-player, or midfielder Conor Gallagher who was literally everywhere.
With the Leeds player coming inside to multiply his attacking options, Naby Sarr stands up which forces one of two things. The ball player retains the ball, passing back or sideways or he forces a shot.
One defender closing down the player was key to challenging Leeds’ offensive play while complementing their own tactics. Space behind is still left protected and when their aggressive frontal press is beaten, they can still contest the upcoming attacks.
Isolation of Patrick Bamford
Despite mentioning previously that a key concept of Leeds’ play, is to use overloading of the attacking zones to encourage link-up play between the striker and therefore preventing him from being isolated, Bamford struggled. The former Chelsea man fluctuated in and out of the game and statistically flattered to deceive. Bamford made just 20 touches during the game, his lowest amount this season. He had just two efforts on goal, which is his joint-lowest this season, lost possession four times and lost four out of his five duels. All while picking up an xG of just 0.37, poor considering the domination of the ball that Leeds had.
Yet, despite Bamford’s frustration to make an impression on the game, it was the foundering of the players around him that caused his failure. Bowyer’s game plan helped too.
Here for instance, when Leeds came forward, Bamford found himself repeatedly outnumbered. Slips of concentration from defensive players were countered by having so many in and around each other.
Bamford, desperate to find space or room to run into, finds himself on the opposite side of the box. Even if the passer slips a ball into one of the forward runners, he would still struggle to find space to move into and again appears isolated.
But as the image shows, Leeds players decided against risky, progressive passes. When opportunities arose, passes were played safe and sideways instead. Yes, retaining and rotating the ball within the middle thirds is a crucial part of opening up low-blocks, but no, neglecting your striker and refusing to play speculatively is not good.
Charlton did well to block passing lines constantly during the game. The use of their low block and clustering of the midfield made it difficult for any effective link-ups between Leeds’ attacking players.
The White – Phillips Effect
While Leeds struggled to open up Charlton on a regular basis, as their xG (1.6) shows, the impact of Kalvin Phillips and Ben White was still obvious.
Build-up play remained fluid, adventurous and productive. This duo especially played through Charlton’s press easily, pushed through the midfield and sparked attack after attack.
One of Phillips’ biggest assets for the club is undoubtedly his positional awareness off the ball, his intelligence that divulges the midfield and various passing options.
As the clips prove, it’s his movement that not only opens other passing options for the two centre backs but also gives himself the freedom that can then start attacks. To some, it probably seems invaluable but his role as the lone-number-six is vital to the team’s build-up play and progression through the middle thirds.
Phillips’ value to the team though, is now matched by loanee, Ben White. The young centre back is a prime example of what Bielsa wants from his centre back. Confident. Composed. Audacious.
This pattern of play alone proves his value to Leeds United. His ability to drag the ball from defence to midfield completely represents the youngster’s finesse. Instead of playing safe to his defensive colleagues, White pushes forward, transitions through the pitch, and creates a normal build-up situation to an attacking one.
The defender joining the attack by carrying the ball allows more options in the offensive zones and consequently leads to one of United’s infamous overloads.
Within seconds, Leeds are a threat. The Bielsa impact was obvious here as Leeds took full advantage of Charlton’s change to a back five. An open midfield and an aggressive press caused a serious structural imbalance.
The perfect “smash and grab”. I don’t think you can get a more apt description of this game than that. “Typical Leeds”, is probably another one.
Leeds pushed and pressured throughout, dominated possession (72%, 518 successful passes), had sixteen more shots than Charlton, only two out-field players didn’t have a shot on goal and forced Charlton into a combined 71 interceptions and clearances.
But they failed to use their control on the game to critical effect. Charlton had just one less shot on target, they were unusually sloppy (possession lost 169 times) and Eddie Nketiah was as ineffectual as Patrick Bamford was.
As this tactical analysis proved, Charlton will be happy with their win and performance, Leeds won’t. For them, it’s simply just the same old, same old. Just like Derby last weekend and Swansea a few weeks back, the Championship favourites just haven’t been clinical enough.
Leeds are by far the best team in the Championship, and at times look unplayable but boy oh boy do they need some goals.
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