Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United were looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2-1 away loss at Millwall which occurred before the most recent international break. They came up against Pep Clotet’s Birmingham City who were looking to build on an impressive 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough. Leeds had impressed thus far in the 2019/20 EFL Championship and would be hoping that a win would be able to put pressure on league leaders West Brom. The Blues, on the other hand, had shown mixed form, with some impressive youthful and energetic football. A mixture of experience and consistency would be needed in order to push for a successful season. An interesting clash between two contrasting styles was upcoming.

Leeds eventually ran out 1-0 winners in a game which saw many chances in both halves. The Blues showed excellent defensive qualities to keep Leeds out for most of the game, however, the quality of Leeds meant they were able to peel away. Leeds will be pleased with the result as it pushes them to 2nd and only two points behind leaders West Brom. As for Birmingham, they will be disappointed with the result, but the performance should give them confidence going forward. This tactical analysis will attempt to look at the tactics both teams deployed on the day and how this impacted the running of the match. This analysis will also attempt to highlight where both teams can improve.

Lineups

Leeds lined up in a 5-4-1 formation, although this often transitioned into a more 3-4-3. Kiko Casilla lined up between the sticks with Liam Cooper, Ben White and Luke Ayling as the three centre backs. Stewart Dallas and Ezgjan Alioski were the wing-backs on the day, looking to provide width in the attacking third. Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Philips were the two central midfielders looking to add an element of control in the game. Helder Costa and Jack Harrison were the two inverted wingers who were looking to provide support to the main man upfront Patrick Bamford.

As for Birmingham, they lined up in a flat 4-4-2. Lee Camp started in goal with Maxmine Colin, Marc Roberts, Harlee Dean and Kristian Pedersen making up the back four. Jude Bellingham and Ivan Šunjić were the two defensive midfielders looking to provide central stability. Dan Crowley and Fran Villalba were the two wider players looking to provide service to Álvaro Giménez and Lukas Jutkiewicz who were the two central strikers.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
The Lineups of both teams on the day.

Leeds’ build-up

An interesting development throughout the match was that of the Leeds centre-backs. As they were playing with three central defenders in meant that their build-up play was much different than usual. In this game, the three centre-backs would often form a diamond based shape with one of the two holding midfielders, often Kalvin Phillips. This was to beat the press from the two central strikers that Birmingham operated with. This was, therefore, a deliberate tactical setup by Marcelo Bielsa in order to get over this tactic from the Blues.

This worked to great effect, as the centre-back on the ball would always have options to pass to. This also further allowed more movement in the final third, and it was an excellent way to play out from defence. Below is a clear example of this. Ben Cooper has the ball at his feet and despite the press from both central strikers he has three passes he can play due to the space created by the diamond shape. This therefore highlights the clear tactical benefits of this shape in defensive build-up play. A big part of Leeds attacking play often starts in defence, so doing this was vital for success in the match itself.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Build-up play is vital for the way Leeds attack. Having a diamond shape in deeper positions meant they could beat the press to good effect.

This worked to great effect, as the centre back on the ball would always have options to pass to. This also further allowed more movement in the final third, and it was an excellent way to play out from defence. Below is a clear example of this. Ben Cooper has the ball at his feet and despite the press from both central strikers, he has three passes he can play due to the space created by the diamond shape.

This therefore highlights the clear tactical benefits of this shape in defensive build-up play. A big part of Leeds attacking play often starts in defence, so doing this was vital for success in the match itself. Kalvin Phillips is also someone with excellent defensive positioning and more importantly, an exceptional range of pass and technical ability. This therefore makes him perfect for a deeper position whereby he can dictate the game at a more controlling tempo. Below we can see another example of this build-up positioning being in operation. Luke Ayling has possession of the ball and has options to either play a pass or bomb forward knowing he has defensive cover.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Another example of this positional build-up play by Leeds.

Birmingham’s midfield shape

Another interesting development throughout the game was the shape in which Birmingham were able to keep in a defensive sense. When Leeds had the ball in the centre of the pitch and were looking to attack the Birmingham goal, Blues would keep an excellent defensive shape to prevent them doing so. Birmingham played in a 4-4-2, which meant that when they didn’t have the ball the two defensive midfielders in Jude Bellingham and Ivan Šunjić would sit just in front of the defensive line to provide support. This is of course expected, however, what was interesting to analyse was the fact that the two wingers, Dan Crowley and Fran Villalba were also in shape and did not allow much space to be played in and around them. They would keep in line with the two defensive midfielders which was a clear tactic to stop Leeds being able to play their usual game.

This workmanlike attitude from the Blues midfield was key to them being able to frustrate Leeds from operating in their usual fashion. Below we can see a clear example of this. Leeds have the ball in a deeper area of the pitch and Birmingham are in excellent shape to prevent them from playing through them. This means that Leeds have to play sideward balls which do not get them near the goal. This excellent defensive discipline was apparent throughout the whole match and is good evidence as to why Birmingham were able to keep Leeds out for much of the match.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
An example of Birmingham’s excellent defensive shape which prevented Leeds space to attack into.

This workmanlike attitude from the Blues midfield was key to them being able to frustrate Leeds from operating in their usual fashion. Below we can see a clear example of this. Leeds have the ball in a deeper area of the pitch and Birmingham are in excellent shape to prevent them from playing through them. This means that Leeds have to play sideward balls which do not get them near the goal. This excellent defensive discipline was apparent throughout the whole match and is good evidence as to why Birmingham were able to keep Leeds out for much of the match.

Another example of this can be seen below. Leeds have the ball in a more advanced area of the pitch, which means that Birmingham have to get men back. They are able to do this by making sure they are in defensive shape. This therefore means the man on the ball has fewer options to play into. Therefore, this discipline of defending in shape clearly worked to effect. Space between the midfield line and the defensive line is vital in so many ways. By keeping this space to a minimum is something Birmingham did to great effect.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Another good example of the excellent defensive shape that Birmingham were able to keep.

Leeds playing in behind

Leeds often struggled to break down the defensive line that Birmingham had in operation. Therefore, a way in which to break them down was to try and play in behind. Birmingham’s defence as resolute as they were on the day lacked pace which was something Leeds used to their advantage. This was especially evident with the wing-backs. Both Stewart Dallas and Ezgjan Alioski understand the role of wing-back and have the ability to make excellent runs In behind. Due to Leeds playing with three at the back, it also meant that they could do this at a more regular rate. This allowed movement in the forward areas as the Birmingham defensive line would have to shift in order to deal with this.

Below we can see this in full effect. Alioski makes an excellent run on the left hand side in behind the Birmingham defensive line. The pass from Ben White was perfect and it allowed Leeds to attack in this way. This was another way in which Marcelo Bielsa looked to break down Birmingham, as they did not allow Leeds many opportunities to do so during the match. Wing backs as mentioned previously are an area in which Leeds have good options and players which understand what their manager wants from them in their specific role.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Playing in behind was a way in which Leeds attempted to get through the rigid defensive structure Birmingham had in play.

This was also the case when Leeds were in more attacking areas of the pitch. Intricate passes in behind in tight spaces were also on show. This was once again to attempt to breakdown the defensive line of Birmingham. This would mainly come from the wider areas, as the wingers would come inside to receive the ball off the full-back to create a 2v1 situation against the Birmingham full-back. This can be seen below, where Helder Costa receives the ball in behind and into space so he can attack the goal.

This was once again a common theme throughout the game and this type of play in the final third was essential for Leeds to break down and get the goal they needed to win the match.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Having runners in behind was key to breaking down Birmingham.

Birmingham’s strikers

The final aspect of the game which is worth looking at is the role of the Birmingham strikers. Since Leeds were playing with three central defenders, it was vital for them to put pressure on them both with and without the ball. Álvaro Giménez and Lukas Jutkiewicz were essential for Birmingham getting the ball forward. Having them playing right up against the three central defenders meant that Leeds were not comfortable when they had the ball in deeper areas and needed an extra man back to provide this support. Both strikers were excellent in holding the ball up and bringing other players into the game also. This is a benefit of having two strikers when playing against a team with three central defenders.

Below is the best example of this. Álvaro Giménez has the ball and is right up against Luke Ayling. This means the Leeds defender is occupied and runners can make good intelligent movements in behind the spaces that have been created by this. This therefore shows the effectiveness of having two strikers. Both of the two centre-forwards constantly provided the centre backs with physical problems which they often struggled to deal with. This therefore highlights why playing with two strikers is something in which Birmingham could use to their advantage during the course of the season.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Birmingham’s two central strikers provided excellent hold-up play and physical advantages.

Below is another example of this play in motion. The ball is in the central midfield and both strikers are backed up against the three central defenders. This was a good outlet for Birmingham which allowed them to play a multiple of different.

EFL Championship 2019/20: Leeds United Vs Birmingham City- tactical analysis tactics
Another perfect example of the role of the two central strikers.

Conclusion

To conclude, it was an overall tight game which saw many chances created. Overall Leeds struggled to break down the rigid defensive line that Birmingham had in place, but got there in the end. Birmingham looked dangerous in certain areas, however, lacked the overall quality to be able to force through a goal. Looking forward, Leeds will look to improve against teams with good defensive structures. Birmingham will look to improve in their overall quality in the final third in terms of looking ahead in future games. Overall it was an interesting game, which was shadowed by some off the pitch incidents which put a dark taint on the beautiful game in which we all love.


 

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