Results tend to speak for themselves but Marcelo Bielsa prefers to find the devil in the detail and two aspects of Leeds United’s performances are bothering him more than the scorelines behind them.
Three defeats on the bounce – albeit the third a loss in the FA Cup incurred by a heavily-changed line-up – is a wobble by the standards of Bielsa’s reign at Elland Road but United’s head coach felt aggrieved with two of those scorelines. His present concern relates to specific shortcomings in his team: defensive weakness at set-pieces and the reliability of Leeds’ finishing at the other end.
Bielsa is picking fault with a squad sitting two points clear at the top of the Championship with 26 games of the season gone but he is rarely prone to highlighting problems for effect. What he sees in Leeds is a situation where a lack of “efficiency” – his term for the conversion of chances – in attack loads pressure onto a backline left to compensate for it.
That conclusion is borne out in the club’s results. During their sequence of seven straight victories, the club’s best run in a league season for 11 years, only one of those games was settled by a margin of two goals or more. Leeds were creative and dominant, controlling possession as Bielsa expected them to, but even a 2-0 win over 10-man Bristol City required an 86th-minute header from Pablo Hernandez to make it safe. Against Hull City on December 30, Bielsa’s players produced 22 efforts to Hull’s nine and lost 2-0.
The commitment of United’s attacking play is not in question. They produce more shots per game than any side in the Championship – almost 16 a match – and more shots on target than every club except Norwich City. Despite that, Norwich, West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United have scored more goals and Leeds’ positive intent has not translated into an overwhelming haul.
From a head coach like Bielsa, whose team have led the division for the past month, his frustration about it sounds like a glass-half-empty mindset but it is one of the reasons why the 63-year-old has been warning for weeks that United should be cautious about their promising position in the table.
“Usually I do an exercise to try and verify what would have been the final result if we were as efficient as our opponent,” Bielsa said. “How many chances does the opponent need to actually score a goal? I use this to measure our offensive play. It’s a valid exercise.
“In spite of the fact we are top of the league, we have the same level of efficiency as the teams who occupy the last five ranks. We have the efficiency of the teams at the bottom of the table but in spite of that, we are top.
“The teams just behind us, the next six or seven, they score a goal with every two or three chances they have. We need five or six chances to score. That means we have to be very offensive. It’s an obligation for us if we want to win games. When the feature of a team is very offensive, it’s harder to defend. That’s why my final conclusion is that if we don’t defend well it’s hard for us to win games.”
The league table suggests that Leeds, in general, are defensively sound. Until recently, they undoubtedly were. Their first 22 matches came at a cost of 18 concessions but four games around Christmas saw Bielsa’s side ship another 10, including four away at Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day. There were mitigating factors at Forest, Kalvin Phillips’ red card the worst of them, but Bielsa spotted an old issue creeping in. Forest struck twice from corners in the second half and, on Sunday in an FA Cup third-round defeat to Queens Park Rangers, a set-piece brought the winning goal from QPR’s Jake Bidwell.
Bielsa talked earlier in the season about Leeds’ frailty in those situations and admitted over the weekend that improving their management of set-pieces was back on the agenda.
He has not been helped by injuries to Liam Cooper or Gaetano Berardi, the two players who began the term as first-choice centre-backs. His options in that position were so scarce at Loftus Road that by the second half, Leif Davis – a relatively petite full-back – and midfielder Adam Forshaw were being used in the middle of Leeds’ defence.
Bielsa has consistently ruled out the recruitment of another centre-back, preferring instead to wait on the return of Cooper and Berardi. Cooper played for Leeds’ Under-23s at Hull last night, his first appearance since knee surgery, and might be in a position to put his hand up for Friday’s clash with Derby County. Berardi could return from a torn hamstring against Norwich next month. Bielsa is counting on their aerial ability, allied with that of Pontus Jansson, to stem the flow of concessions from set-pieces. Ten of the 28 goals let in by Leeds this season have come from free-kicks or corners, on top of three penalties. Consolation for Bielsa can be found in the fact that Norwich, in second place, have conceded 12.
“It’s not a new problem,” he said. “Every week we dedicate a high percentage of time to set-pieces. We have a look at what’s not well done and we try to correct it. We reproduce during training sessions the situations we couldn’t control during the games. Sometimes it’s hard to find a solution because these are things you correct with experience and by repeating a lot. If you look at Kalvin Phillips’ aerial game, you’ll see that he has improved from the start of the season. This is based on the fact that he made mistakes and in the past six months he’s spent a lot of time correcting the problems.
“Of course we try to find the solution to this problem with different players but our best headers are Cooper, Jansson and Berardi. At one point we stabilised the problem but as they are not in the team, this problem is coming back again.”