Leeds United: Leaders Newcastle will be the toughest task yet for improving Whites

Leeds United v Newcastle United - the key battles (Graphic: Graeme Bandeira)
Leeds United v Newcastle United - the key battles (Graphic: Graeme Bandeira)
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The big-spending leaders of the division are hot favourites for promotion and roll into town on the back of a seven-match winning run. But Leeds are in fine form too at the moment. Phil Hay looks at the key match-ups.

A capacity crowd is the surest sign that Sunday’s game at Elland Road is the biggest fixture hosted by Leeds United for several years.

Having reached the Championship’s top six for the first time since 2013 it is unquestionably Leeds’ biggest game of the season. Newcastle United come to Yorkshire as the division’s leaders and the form team after seven straight wins and a streak of results which earned Rafa Benitez the manager-of-the-month award for October. but Garry Monk’s side are making waves and rapid progress beneath them.

With the countdown underway, the YEP looks at how the main players match up:

GOALKEEPERS: Rob Green v Karl Darlow

Green has been Monk’s number one since the first day of the season. Darlow is flavour of the month for Benitez after starting the term behind Belgian Matz Sels. Between them there is no more than a cigarette paper in terms of their performance. Green’s concession rate is marginally higher than Darlow’s at exactly one goal a game and the former England international is averaging 1.73 saves a match to Darlow’s tally of 1.57 but both goalkeepers boast high handling success (Darlow at 100 per cent, Green at 96 per cent) alongside a less impressive distribution percentage of 56 apiece. In a solid campaign so far, Green’s distribution has been a notable weakness but Darlow, who is much more partial to a punched clearance, has nothing in the way of a telling advantage on him. The reality is that Monk’s defence and Benitez’s defence are taking good care of the keeper behind them.

CENTRE-BACKS: Pontus Jansson v Jamaal Lascelles

There are relatively few centre-backs in the Championship who compare favourably to Jansson. In Lascelles’ defence, he is playing behind the league’s most dominant team and has appeared in only three defeats but Jansson scores higher across the board: more tackles per game, more interceptions, more accurate passing, almost 10 clearances on average to Lascelles’ eight and equally disciplined when it comes to timing his challenges. He and Lascelles, the former Nottingham Forest defender, are guilty of less than one foul in every appearance and the avoidance of cheap or excessive free-kicks shows in the clubs’ respective defensive records. Essentially you are talking about two high-quality central defenders, and neither Kyle Bartley nor Ciaran Clark rate badly either. Benitez must be questioning why he spent £5.5m on Grant Hanley.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS: Eunan O’Kane v Jonjo Shelvey

The biggest question above anything else is whether O’Kane or Shelvey will play on Sunday. O’Kane is carrying a groin injury sustained on international duty and Shelvey had until today to respond to an FA misconduct charge which could result in a five-match ban and rule him out of Sunday’s game. In their own way, both would be badly missed. Shelvey is an attacking threat with three goals and five assists to his name and an average of 2.1 key passes in every match. He can play the ball long and short and likes a set-piece.

O’Kane is more active defensively and weighed in with a pass completion rate of 85 per cent during Leeds’ rousing win at Norwich City.

The loss of Shelvey might make Benitez feel more toothless in attack but O’Kane’s absence would leave Monk feeling more vulnerable at the back.

NUMBER 10s: Pablo Hernandez v Ayoze Perez

There was a sense in August of Hernandez feeling his way into the Championship and waiting for Monk to let him loose in his best position. As Leeds’ number 10, there is no-one in the club’s squad who can touch Hernandez’s average of 3.1 key passes a game – and no player in the league who can better it either. Only Hernandez and QPR’s Tjaronn Chery total three or more in every appearance. Perez, who has been operating behind Newcastle’s lone striker, yields closer to 1.5 but has nonetheless matched Hernandez’s tally of two assists and outscored him by three goals to two. Leeds still get a higher pass percentage from their Spanish playmaker and more crosses too; in short, the level of industry and invention that every team in the Championship needs from a number 10.

WINGERS: Hadi Sacko v Matt Ritchie

For all of Sacko’s rough edges, it is plain that Championship left-backs hate playing against him. Wolves and Norwich both succumbed to his pace and persistence and the Frenchman’s tally of three assists underplays the extent to which he has increased United’s attacking clout. Benitez has more choice in that role and Christian Atsu – on loan from Chelsea – started Newcastle’s most recent game against Cardiff but Ritchie is the pick of their wingers and a marquee summer signing at £12m. His numbers stand out straight away: five assists, two goals, more than two key passes in every fixture and a good range of distribution. Even Ritchie, however, can’t match Sacko’s running and United’s wildcard makes the top 10 of Championship players who like to dribble. Ritchie brings finesse while Sacko brings power.

STRIKERS: Chris Wood v Dwight Gayle

Gayle’s reputation as the Championship’s leading forward is not in dispute. He is the only striker who has made double figures in league matches, sitting on 11 after 12 appearances, and he produces more shots on goal than anyone else. But Wood has 11 goals across all competitions, three in the League Cup, and his total of three shots a game is not far behind Gayle’s. Newcastle’s £10m signing has the advantage of pace and, without question, is as dangerous a player as Leeds have come up against yet but Wood’s strike-rate is supplemented by regular defensive contributions. As one of two free men when Leeds face set-pieces, he averages 1.4 clearances and has played a meaningful role in limiting United’s concessions to seven in their last 10 games. Newcastle get none of that from Gayle – but with the striker in such prolific form, Benitez will not be bending his ear.

Hadi Sacko fires in Leeds' opening goal.

Phil Hay Verdict: Burnley 2 Leeds United 2 (AET 2-2 90 mins, Leeds win 5-3 on pens) – Dallas holds nerve to sink the Clarets