Who deserves the plaudits for giving Leeds United the best defensive record in England?

No team in the top six tiers of English football has conceded fewer goals than Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United.

Tuesday, 5th November 2019, 11:45 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th November 2019, 12:45 pm
Marcelo Bielsa's organisation, structure and intensive training has helped Leeds build a mean defensive record (Pic: Getty)

Their defensive record is matched only by a pair of Premier League sides, who have each played four games fewer than Leeds.

The Whites, like top flight duo Leicester City and Sheffield United, have shipped just eight goals – yet they have played 15 league games.

No one else in the Premier League, the Championship, League One, League Two, the National League or the National League South can boast of a single-digit goals against column.

Liam Cooper, left, has been rock steady for Leeds United in the heart of the defence (Pic: Getty)

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Only York, top of the National League North, with nine goals conceded, can say that.

Other than Bielsa himself and the organisation he has drilled into Leeds United, there are some obvious candidates for plaudits when it comes to their defensive solidity.

Liam Cooper, back in the side after injury, is enjoying a rock-steady start to the season.

The captain is their most dominant player aerially, winning around 60 per cent of his battles and Leeds have conceded just five times in the 858 Championship minutes he’s played.

Cooper is one of 12 defenders in the league who is yet to be shown a single card by a referee in 10-plus appearances, an indicator of the level of composure in his early season play.

But even without him, the Whites picked up clean sheets at Stoke and home to Birmingham, Gaetano Berardi filling in alongside Ben White, who is close to exhausting Yorkshire’s entire supply of superlatives, so outstanding has he been since his arrival on loan from Brighton.

He reads the game well, intercepting the ball more times than any other Championship player, passes it well, dribbles it well and when he has to tackle, he wins the vast majority – 30 of 32, thus far.

If he’s a Rolls Royce of a player, he’s a Phantom.

As a pairing, he and Cooper tick just about every box, their partnership a big part of Leeds’ status as the Championship’s defensive top dogs.

And sitting just in front of the central defenders is a Yorkshire terrier – Kalvin Phillips has won the most tackles in the division.

But as Bielsa is keen to point out, Leeds defend as a team and that begins from the front.

Patrick Bamford was lauded on Saturday for the way he lead the high press against Queens Park Rangers, stifling the R’s attempts to play from their own half, forcing them to go direct and lose the ball.

Leeds, often, live by the adage that the opponent cannot score if they don’t have the ball, so they dominate possession and spend long, long periods on the attack, camped in the opposition half of the pitch.

But when they don’t have the ball, they’re quick to try and win it back, relentless in their pursuit of it.

According to Wyscout, Leeds are the best in the division when it comes to ‘challenge intensity’ - the number of attempts to disrupt, stifle or halt the opponent per minute of their possession.

United are also the best in the Championship at restricting the number of passes an opponent can make before they have to fend off a challenge.

Mark Warburton tried to play down the encouragement it gave the Elland Road crowd every time his R’s were forced to go backwards, but it isn’t just a crowd-pleasing tactic, it’s helping to keep the ball out of the net.

They all commit to it, from wingers like Jack Harrison and Pablo Hernandez to attacking midfielders Tyler Roberts and Mateusz Klich and play-me-wherever types like Stuart Dallas.

In United's latest outing, Dallas was everywhere, following the talented Eberechi Eze around like a ball and chain, stopping him from getting QPR going.

But even if the press doesn’t work high up the pitch and the opposition manage to advance the ball towards Leeds’ goal, life is still incredibly difficult for attackers.

White shirts swarm all over the man in possession, Bielsa has conditioned them to transition seamlessly, as a unit, from attack to defence – fitness, highlighted and praised by Lee Bowyer earlier this season, plays a huge part in that.

That is where the intensive training, the long pre-season days at Thorp Arch, the dieting and rigid, regular weigh-ins bear real fruit.

United have allowed fewer shots against (7.55 per 90 minutes) and fewer crosses per game (12) than the rest of their rivals and have conceded only 10 big chances, the lowest total in the Championship.

They get back quickly, find their shape and, largely, keep their discipline – only Luton have picked up fewer cards and Leeds are 11th for total fouls.

And when all else fails, Kiko Casilla is there.

The Spaniard, who was a spectator against QPR, has looked sharp when called upon, deserving of his eight clean sheets.

All told, Leeds’ defence has built a platform that not only victories could be built upon, but something much grander.