Leeds United currently sit at the top of the league table in the Championship and are ever near to returning to the Premier League after nearly two decades. The side have established themselves as the dominant club in the league and are revolutionising the concept of possession and direct play.
This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Leeds United’s playing style and system tactics during their attacking phase and how the club has successfully incorporated the long pass into its style.
Attacking Shape and Philosophy
Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa have typically lined-up in a 4-1-4-1 formation (82% of the time this season). The system’s philosophy is highly possession-based as Leeds have averaged a 63% possession rate this past season (the most of any Championship club this season). He strongly favours maintaining possession of the ball in tight situations via dynamic combinations and positional interchanges. However, the system has also incorporated a direct component into its play and utilises aerial passes to exploit spaces more effectively than strictly through ground passes. Building out from the back during the possession phase is key and requires the goalkeeper to be trustworthy with his feet as the build-up typically begins with him. The back four is essentially converted into a back two with the pivot player providing additional support if needed. The midfield shape becomes narrow in possession to provide depth instead of width and to allow space for the wingers and the fullbacks to operate while the striker has the liberty to roam the channels. In possession, the shape of Leeds United can ultimately shift into a 2-3-1-3-1.
Phase I: Build out from the back
Similar to many other possession-based teams, one of the main mechanisms that Leeds deploys during the first phase of their build-up is to split the two centre-backs and for the fullbacks to push higher. The split centre-backs create a central gap that allows Kalvin Phillips (the central defensive midfielder or pivot player) to operate in and out of. The opposition is typically content with allowing Leeds to have numerical superiority in this area of the pitch and often prefer to have a man tight to Phillips in order to neutralize Leeds’ use of the pivot player.
However, Phillips is intelligent to read if the opposition player’s assignment is to play tight to him and can facilitate the build-up by moving out wide and slotting himself as one of the centre-backs. This at times draws the mark towards him and creates space for centre backs Ben White or Liam Cooper to carry the ball forward. Either way, the objective here is to quickly shift the ball away from the pressure of the opposition until one of the centre-backs has enough space and time to advance with the ball or make a pass forward to continue the build-up.
An interesting dimension to Leeds’ build out from the back is the ability to hit long diagonal passes into the wingers or advanced fullbacks. Unlike many other English clubs that default into the long pass once under deep pressure, Leeds have actually mastered it and try to use it conservatively in select situations. The key to Leeds’ successful diagonal pass is identifying moments where the full-back can creep past the back shoulder of the opposition’s outside-midfielder and create a 2 v 1 on the opposition’s full-back. Once in this scenario, the Leeds wingers, Jack Harrison or Helder Costa, can make darting runs toward the centre to lure away the opposition’s full-back and isolate the Leeds advanced fullback. Although the option is not always on, if the diagonal pass is successful, Leeds is ultimately able to skip phase II and proceed to phase III of the attack.
The typical positional set up during the first phase: split centre-backs with Kalvin Phillips (CDM) and Kiko Casillia (GK) completing the possession diamond. Leeds will generally have this 4 v 2 situation in this sector of the pitch.
The Leeds fullback is able to sneak around the right outside midfielder, while the winger begins to pull the oppositions fullback centrally and away from the touchline. The centre-back recognises the 2 v 1 and hits the diagonal long pass.
Phase II: Dynamic interchange of positions in the middle third to create gaps
As the ball is advanced into the middle third, Leeds will begin to utilise various clever movement to disorganise the defensive shape of the opposition and create gaps to play and run into. Helder Costa (the right-winger) will typically mirror the positioning of Luke Ayling (the right-full-back) – if Ayling is stretched wide, Costa will move-in more centrally and vice-versa. This mirroring has two key effects: (i) gives Costa access to an angle to receive a pass from Ayling and (ii) can cause the opposition’s left back to track him into the midfield, creating a gap in behind for Mateusz Klich (or one of the other central midfielders) to run into if its open. Right away through this mechanism, Leeds establish a short effective pass and also a calculated long option if the opportunity is right.
If the opposition can sort out the interchange, then Leeds will typically opt for the short option to maintain possession and wait for the creation of the next gap. Ayling will continue to push up towards the opposition left-back while Klich becomes positioned in a wide area from the interchange with Costa. This ultimately creates a 2 v 1 against the fullback for a potential diagonal pass or allows Klich to play on the backs of the opposition midfield line and slip in and out of gaps to receive from the centre backs.
In instances where Costa is not able to mirror the wide positioning of Ayling, the interchange of positions occurs in a different sector of the pitch but the objective is always the same: to disorganise the shape of the opposition to create gaps to expose. In these situations, the rotation of Leeds’s central three midfielders is a critical tool that Leeds utilises to break through the central third and permits Leeds to establish passing options both in front and in behind the opposition’s midfield line. The interchange typically works in two steps: (i) the initial interchange between two midfielders and (ii) the run into space from the third midfielder. If the opposition tracks the initial movement of the Leeds midfielders, then gaps to run into are created but if the opposition passes on the marks the ball is kept in circulation until the third man can break into the new space.
Phillips checks away in frame 1 and towards the ball in frame 2. The opposition’s central midfielder chooses to press him in the second. White instead plays the ball to Ayling who has the angle to find the third man run with Stuart Dallas (the far-side central midfielder not pictured) dashing into the gap around the back of the opposition’s central midfielder.
Phase III: Exposing the wide areas for intelligent service into and around the box
As Leeds enter the final third, the structure of the attack becomes very concentrated in the wide areas and targets to create favourable numerical matchups in the box. A Wyscout analysis of the season thus far shows that 70% of all of Leeds’ attacks have been generated from wide areas, while the remaining 30% of attacks have been through the middle of the pitch (the lowest central attacking team in all of the Championship). Once Klich, Dallas or Phillips break through into the gaps in the midfield from the combination play in phase II, their instinct is to release one of the wingers into a 1 v 1 situation as quickly as possible. Once the ball makes it out to the winger he generally has three options to continue a successful attack: (i) look to play little crafty balls into the half space from runs of the midfielders or striker, (ii) take the opposition’s full-back on in a 1 v 1 and deliver a cross into the box and (iii) if the cross or dribble is not available, to maintain possession of the ball and re-angle the build-up.
(i) As Harrison or Costa receive the ball out in the wide areas, Klich and Dallas continue to make runs forward to disorient the defence and create more gaps for the wingers to dribble or pass into. One of the key areas in which Klich makes these attacking runs in and out of is the half-space, which often lead to chances in front of goal or if checking towards the ball allows him to drag a defender away from the box.
Philips uses a combination to get forward and then quickly plays Costa down the wing (frame 1). Klich recognises the space in behind the defender and darts forward into the space to have a chance on goal (frame 2).
(ii) Leeds have very skilful and fast wingers on both sides in Harrison and Costa, but above all, both are consistent and accurate aerial passers of the ball. Harrison averages ~5 crosses per 90 minutes at a 27% success rate and Costa ~4 crosses per 90 minutes at a 26% success rate (vs the Championship average of 3 crosses per 90 minutes at a 25% success rate). One of the key items that Harrison and Costa scan for before engaging in the 1 v 1 is if there is a favourable numerical match up in the box. Leeds will typically proceed with a cross into the box if at least three men are inside the box (essentially 1 v 1 with the defenders) or if the striker can make a run in-between / on the back shoulder of the centre backs. If either of these situations occurs, Harrison and Costa engage in the 1 v 1 to get across into areas where the attackers can have first contact (both near and far post depending on the situation).
This image serves as a great example of the 1 v 1 situation in the box Leeds wants. One of the centre backs has been lured out of position by Klich’s half-space run and the right-back is out defending Harrison’s cross, freeing space and numbers in the box.
Harrison targets the hole in between the centre-backs. Although the striker Patrick Bamford, doesn’t make contact with it, Costa and Hernandez can pounce on the loose ball to convert the chance off the 2 v 1 set up on the back post.
(iii) If the box is too crowded or the 1 v 1 is not on, Leeds’ wingers generally display a decent sense of patience to retain possession and re-arm the play. Often the ball is circulated back and switched to the opposite side to re-initiate phase III or, in the worst case, the ball is moved back further into the middle third where Leeds can re-run phase II patiently. In other instances, the ball can find its way back to the Leeds full-back who can take advantage of the opposition’s back-line that is trying to push up by picking out an isolated player in the box via an aerial pass. Alternatively, Harrison and Costa will also look to slip clever layoffs to the edge of the box for late-arriving midfielders to get quick shots off from the top of the box.
The ball is circulated to the fullback Ayling, in an advanced position. He recognises the positioning Roberts (the striker) has on the centre-back and is able to deliver a cross, right over the back shoulder of the defender for Roberts to head into the goal.
The crossing lane is blocked off by several players, so Costa instead slips a quick ball to the edge of the box for Dallas to have a shot on goal.
The variety of weapons that Leeds has in its arsenal to launch attacks is breath-taking and truly inspiring. It would be difficult to fully cover all its aspects in just this analysis. Despite being a highly possession-based side, Leeds has found ways to effectively incorporate the long pass into their system to ultimately make them more direct and add a different dimension to the structure of their attacks. Marcelo Bielsa has undoubtedly now had two tremendous seasons at the club and with Leeds on the cusp of winning the Championship, we only hope to see Bielsa and Leeds in the EPL soon.