West Bromwich Albion hosted Leeds United on New Year’s Day in a showdown between the Championship’s top two sides. These two teams went into this past Wednesday’s clash level on points at the top of the Championship table. This will have made Wednesday’s game one of, if not the most highly anticipated games of the Championship season.
The two league leaders were 11 points clear of their two closest challengers, Brentford and Nottingham Forest respectively, heading into Wednesday’s fixture. This lengthy points gap was representative of the difference in the standard of football that these two teams had produced throughout the 2019/20 season so far, compared to the rest of their league rivals.
These two evenly matched sides were as difficult to separate as the league table had suggested, in Wednesday’s game. Ultimately, the spoils were shared at the final whistle as the clash between the Championship’s top two finished 1-1.
In this tactical analysis piece, we will analyse the tactical decisions made by both Slaven Bilić and Marcelo Bielsa. We will analyse how Bilić and Bielsa’s respective tactical setups influenced this game to the stalemate that it resulted in.
Lineups and formations
Firstly, Bilić set up his West Bromwich Albion side in a 4-2-3-1 shape for this game. The 4-2-3-1 has been Bilić’s go-to shape this season. Furthermore, it has proven to be an effective shape for this West Bromwich Albion side. They enjoyed plenty of success throughout the first half of the season utilising this shape.
Bilić pulled no major surprises with regards to personnel either for Wednesday’s clash. All seven West Bromwich Albion players who have started 20+ games this season unsurprisingly started in this game. As a result, it’s safe to say Bilić had a relatively full-strength side at his disposal here.
West Brom attacked in a 4-2-3-1 shape, however, during defensive phases, their two wingers, Filip Krovinović and Matt Phillips, dropped deeper. As a result, West Brom defended in a 4-4-1-1 shape throughout this game.
Meanwhile, the visitors set up in a 4-1-4-1 shape for Wednesday’s fixture. Similarly to West Brom, the 4-1-4-1 has been a relatively typical shape for Leeds United throughout the season. Leeds also had a relatively full-strength side at their disposal.
The only somewhat surprising element of Leeds’ starting lineup was the inclusion of Eddie Nketiah in the starting 11. Nketiah had started just one Championship game prior to Wednesday’s fixture. However, the youngster on-loan from Arsenal was given the nod for Wednesday’s game.
Leeds United dominated the ball-possession throughout this game. They ended the game having accumulated a total of 67% of the ball possession. This was despite playing against a West Brom side who enjoy dominating possession in their own right.
West Brom have kept an average of 53.8% possession in the Championship this season. However, Leeds have been the Championship’s most possession-based side throughout this campaign. They showed why as they delivered a possession-dominant performance this past Wednesday.
Leeds’ pressing was instrumental in helping them to gain control of possession in Wednesday’s fixture. They didn’t allow West Brom to enjoy time or space on the ball. Leeds were quick to shut down West Brom’s attacks during the build-up phase throughout this game, through the effective use of high pressing.
In the image above, we can see a clear example of Leeds pressing West Brom high during the build-up. Firstly, Leeds’ centre-forward Nketiah is pressing the ball carrier Kyle Bartley. As he closes in on Bartley, he intelligently keeps the passing option of Jake Livermore in his cover shadow.
Meanwhile, circled in this image, we can see Leeds’ Kalvin Phillips tightly marking Matheus Pereira of West Brom. Pereira had dropped deep to try and pick up possession, however, Phillips diligently tracks the creative midfielder back preventing him from getting on the ball.
We can see left-back Kieran Gibbs being pressed by Leeds winger Heldér Costa, which takes him out of the game. Meanwhile, higher up the pitch, we can see West Brom winger Krovinović beginning to come deep to receive the ball. However, Krovinović is also being marked tightly by Leeds right-back Luke Ayling.
As play proceeds, Bartley ultimately opts for the longer passing option of Krovinović. The winger subsequently plays the ball back to Gibbs under pressure, who again plays the ball long searching for centre-forward Hal Robson-Kanu. However, Gibbs’ long-ball is ultimately unsuccessful, and Leeds successfully win back possession.
This is just one example of the effectiveness of Leeds’ high press. Throughout this game, they were effective at ending West Brom attacks quickly and forcing turnovers with their high press. Their effective pressing helped them to control the ball-possession this game.
West Brom’s defensive set up
West Brom also deployed an effective defensive set up throughout this past Wednesday’s fixture. Firstly, West Brom pressed Leeds relatively intensely at times during the build-up. West Brom’s press became particularly intense when Leeds played the ball into wide areas during the build-up.
In the image above, we can see an example of West Brom’s press in action. In this image, we can see that Leeds’ left-winger Jack Harrison is in possession of the ball. He is being aggressively pressed by West Brom left-back Darnell Furlong.
While Furlong prevents Harrison from progressing the ball forwards, West Brom winger Phillips also begins to press the ball carrier aggressively while keeping Leeds midfielder Stuart Dallas in his cover shadow. We can also see Dallas being marked tightly by West Brom midfielder Romaine Sawyers in this image.
Harrison is subsequently forced to play the ball back to his supporting left-back, Ezgjan Alioski. As we can see in the image above, Alioski attempts to carry the ball towards the centre of the pitch.
However, the left-back is pressed aggressively by West Brom winger Phillips. Phillips successfully tackles the ball carrier and wins possession back high up the pitch for his team. He plays the ball on to centre-forward Robson-Kanu. This specific attack ultimately fizzles out. However, it provides a clear example of West Brom’s dangerous pressing strategy.
West Brom effectively pressed Leeds high up the pitch on just a couple of occasions in this game, however. Leeds were generally effective at retaining possession throughout this game. Furthermore, they were generally successful at evading West Brom’s press attempts and building up effectively.
Leeds enjoyed a lot of possession in West Brom’s half of the pitch throughout this game. However, despite this, West Brom were generally successful at preventing Leeds from creating clear-cut opportunities.
Despite their dominance in possession, Leeds managed just two shots on target in this game. In comparison, West Brom had an impressive seven shots on target, despite enjoying far less ball-possession.
West Brom utilised a very effective low-block when Leeds had possession in their half of the pitch.
In the image above, we can see an example of the low-block frequently utilised by West Brom during this game.
Firstly, we can see that West Brom congested the centre of the pitch. In particular, they put plenty of numbers in their own box. They did this by keeping their back four very narrow.
In the image above we can see that three of their four defenders are situated within the length of the semi-circle on the edge of the penalty area. Their two centre-backs and the right-back essentially create a central back three.
The space between left centre-back Bartley and left-back Gibbs is plugged by Livermore who drops to cover the half-space. Meanwhile, right-winger Phillips also drops into the last line of defence. He provides cover at the full-back position while Furlong plays more centrally.
This leaves West Brom with essentially six men in the last line of defence. We saw West Brom deploy this many men in their last line frequently. They played with six men as a part of the last line in their low-block particularly often when they were in the lead. They could afford to commit more numbers back throughout the first half as they took an early, second-minute lead.
As we can see in the image above, all of their six defensive players placed themselves inside the penalty area. This defensive shape made West Brom very difficult to break down as they congested the centre of the pitch.
Nketiah lacked the physicality necessary to compete with West Brom’s defenders in the air. This also made life difficult for Leeds as the space in the wide areas lead to crosses which were dealt with by West Brom’s centre-backs.
West Brom’s low-block was effective at preventing Leeds from creating many clear-cut chances, despite their high possession.
Leeds’ wide overloads and crossing
As a result of West Brom’s horizontally compact backline, Leeds were able to find plenty of space in wide areas. Their wingers and full-backs frequently exploited this space and threatened the West Brom defence with crosses.
We can see an example of the space that Leeds enjoyed in wide areas in this image above. As we discussed previously, West Brom’s backline is very compact and narrow. They allow Leeds’ players very little space in the penalty area.
In the image above, we can see all of West Brom’s back four playing narrow, inside the penalty area. We can also see West Brom’s midfield five defending deep and equally narrow in this image.
This congests the penalty area but allows Leeds to get the ball into dangerous areas to produce crosses.
In the image above, Leeds winger Hélder Costa is the player who finds himself in plenty of space on the wing. Leeds find him and he manages to enjoy plenty of time to play a dangerous ball into the West Brom penalty area.
Despite delivering a dangerous cross, Costa is unable to create a goalscoring chance on this occasion. This is because of the aerial and physical superiority of West Brom’s defence, versus Leeds’ attackers.
Attempting to create wide overloads was a big part of Leeds’ tactics throughout this fixture. During the build-up, they often attempted to create passing triangles and diamonds high up the pitch in wide areas. Furthermore, they also attempted to create 2v1 situations versus opposition full-backs in order to get in behind the West Brom defence.
We can see both of these occurring in the image above. In this image, substitute left-back Barry Douglas, along with midfielders Mateusz Klich, Dallas, and Harrison are in a passing diamond shape high on the left-wing.
Meanwhile, Dallas and Klich are threatening to probe beyond West Brom’s last line of defence. Dallas is positioned wide, while Klich is positioned in the channel between the right-back and the centre-back of West Brom.
This shape creates a wide overload for Leeds. Meanwhile, Dallas and Klich’s positioning sandwiches the West Brom right-back, creating a 2v1 advantage for the attackers.
As this sequence plays out, we see Leeds play the ball in behind the West Brom backline. Dallas ends up on the ball in the wide area and manages to play a dangerous cross into the West Brom penalty area.
Leeds’ wide overloads were a common feature throughout this game. They were effective at helping Leeds to play in behind West Brom’s last line and helped immensely in creating chances for the visiting side.
The central battle of Kalvin Phillips vs Matheus Pereira
West Brom’s primary creator Matheus Pereira found himself engaged in somewhat of a game of his own with Leeds’ holding midfielder Phillips throughout this contest. The Leeds midfielder man-marked the West Brom ‘10’ for the entirety of the game.
In this image, we can see an example of the extent to which Phillips marked Pereira. Here we can see that Phillips has vacated his holding midfield position, as is circled in the image above. This is because West Brom’s attacking midfielder, Pereira, has dropped deep to get on the ball.
In the image, we can see that Pereira has dropped into somewhat of a holding midfield position himself. This is a testament to the effectiveness of both Leeds’ high press and Phillips’ man-marking job in this game. Pereira found it difficult to get on the ball throughout this game.
He dropped deep on this occasion, attempting to lose his marker, however, Phillips diligently follows him. This will have frustrated the West Brom creator. Phillips prevents him from enjoying time and space on the ball, as we can see here.
Phillips is covered by Dallas as he leaves his holding midfield position unattended. As we can see in the image, this prevents the roaming Livermore from probing into unmarked space.
It is clear that Leeds were set up to specifically prevent Pereira from playing in this game. Phillips prevented him from enjoying space no matter where he travelled to on the pitch.
We can see another example of Phillips’ effective and thorough man-marking job in this second image. This image is taken from a later stage in the game. However, Phillips’ marking remained just as tight at this point.
On this occasion, Pereira has moved to the left-wing to try and influence the game. However, Phillips tracks him over there once again preventing him from enjoying time and space.
Once again this creates space in the centre of the pitch. However, West Brom were ultimately unable to exploit it due to the intensity of Leeds’ and Phillips’ press.
Pereira was marked out of this game due to the effective defensive work of Phillips. Phillips’ effective defending can be summed up by the fact that Pereira attempted just three dribbles throughout this game. Furthermore, Pereira completed a total of zero dribbles in this game.
Phillips vs Pereira was a key battle throughout this contest. The Leeds midfielder managed to keep the West Brom creator quiet with effective defensive work.
The impact of substitute Patrick Bamford
Leeds introduced Patrick Bamford to the game at the beginning of the second half. Bamford features more regularly for Leeds and the centre-forward made an immediate impact upon his introduction to the game.
The image above is taken from the very beginning of the second half. This emphasises just how quickly Bamford managed to make a recognisable impact on this game.
Nketiah was effective at pressing the West Brom backline. However, he generally sat on the very end of West Brom’s defence, attempting to get in behind. Nketiah rarely offered support in the build-up. Furthermore, when he did offer support in the build-up, it was evident that he lacked the hold-up play necessary to effectively influence the game.
Bamford is a different type of forward to Nketiah and he offered much more in the build-up than Nketiah. In this image, we can see that Bamford has dropped deeper to get involved in the build-up play. His hold-up play is evidently superior to what Nketiah had offered in that regard.
Bamford was immediately effective at offering a more effective long-ball outlet for his teammates. He helped his team to advance with the ball more quickly during the build-up.
Bamford frequently dropped deep to get involved in the build-up throughout the second half. His hold-up play was important for Leeds’ gameplan in the second half.
Bamford also offered more aerial ability and a greater physical presence than Nketiah. This was important for Leeds who were finding it difficult to win aerial balls in the congested West Brom penalty area during the first half.
Nketiah often found himself being outmuscled by West Brom’s centre-backs. However, Bamford was much more comfortable competing in the box. In the image above, we can see an example of the importance of Bamford’s physical presence.
In this image, Harrison had just played the ball from the left-wing into the West Brom penalty area. Bamford moves intelligently in the box and manages to peel away from the West Brom centre-backs. He subsequently gets onto the end of the cross and heads the ball into the West Brom net, with the help of a deflection from West Brom defender Semi Ajayi.
The additional physicality and aerial presence of Bamford was crucial in earning the equalising goal of the game for Leeds. His was an excellent tactical substitution which helped immensely in salvaging a point for Leeds.
To conclude, it is clear that this game provided a very interesting tactical battle between the Championship’s top two. As stated previously in this analysis, Bielsa’s Leeds dominated possession throughout this contest. However, they frequently struggled to create clear-cut chances due to a solid West Brom defence.
West Brom were kept quiet by the effectiveness of Leeds’ press, which prevented them from enjoying possession, along with the excellent individual defensive work of Phillips which nullified the effectiveness of West Brom’s main creative threat, Pereira.
Both of these teams defended very effectively throughout this game. This fixture provided a tactical battle worthy of the build that surrounded this game. In the end, a draw may have been a fair result for both teams in this contest.
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