Head coach Marcelo Bielsa is famed for his style of pressing and passing football and the figures from United’s first six games show how his transformation of Leeds is well underway. Phil Hay reports.
Expected goals is a fairly new addition to the ream of statistical data devoured by football clubs after every game.
The algorithm, which rates the quality of chances created over the course of 90 minutes, is a measure of sustainability and a means of telling if a club’s results on paper match the standard of their performances.
Overall analysis goes deeper again and Marcelo Bielsa’s view of the first month of the season was never going to based on a Championship table showing Leeds United at the head of the field. The division after six games might make him the first Leeds boss in eight years, and only the second since the Football League was rebranded in 2004, to win the manager-of-the-month award but the numbers supporting United’s results are a better indicator of the impact his coaching has had.
After Friday’s goalless draw with Middlesbrough, a result which left Leeds unbeaten with 14 points and a goal difference of plus 10, Bielsa called the club’s start “satisfactory”. His players have come to learn quickly that he is hard to please – Pontus Jansson spoke last week of a one-and-a-half hour meeting on the back of a 2-2 draw at Swansea City in which the Argentinian “almost killed us” – but August played out as Bielsa intended: high on quality, low on errors and displaying all the traits associated with his fabled philosophy.
Over six matches Leeds have out-passed every club in the Championship, with a thousand more already than Middlesbrough. Their completion rate of 79 per cent is top of the pile and their dedication to short passing has been absolute: more accurate than all 23 rival teams and making up 83 per cent of the exchanges of possession between Bielsa’s players. Bielsa promised to produce a squad of “protagonists”, and squad who “take the game by the scruff of the neck and have time with possession on the ball rather than fighting to win it back”, and he has been as good as his word so far. At at average of 56 per cent, Leeds have dominated possession more thoroughly than anyone else in their division.
Bielsa’s preferred tactics were wholly dependent on statistics like that. The open, ambitious football he visualised was at the mercy of his players’ ability to pass religiously and trust in that passing to cut the opposition apart. Twelve of United’s 14 league goals have come from open play, including all nine of those scored away from home. They have registered more goals from open play than 20 other Championship clubs have scored in total. An expected goals calculation of 1.2 per match vindicates Bielsa comment that Leeds have “things to improve” and they hit a wall against Middlesbrough, discovering that Tony Pulis’ defence were as disciplined as their record suggested. But the same idea was there: twice as many passes as Boro over the course of the fixture and an attitude contrasting with those of a team whose goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, sent all but one of his 28 clearances long. In what was a predictable clash of cultures, Pulis found a way of negating Leeds and keeping them at arm’s length.
There were moments, as Pulis said afterwards, when more precision or better decision-making – particularly from a tiring Mo Besic – would have caused Leeds trouble when pockets of space appeared but there is a balance to Bielsa’s strategy which contradicts his ‘El Loco’ nickname and the presumption of a carefree attitude. Bielsa’s side have been audacious without being reckless, piecing together attacks intelligently and avoiding the sort of wide-open displays that could cast Bielsa as Kevin Keegan. Only Pulis has a tighter defence than his and while Leeds tick so many boxes in an attacking sense – most assists in the league, fourth in the production of key passes – they are limiting opposition chances as well as any team bar Brentford and keeping the expected goals against tally to exactly one a game. To date, in the Championship, Bielsa’s side have conceded just twice from open play.
On a basic level there is little separating United’s league position from that held by Thomas Christiansen’s squad after six matches of last season. Both tables showed four wins, two draws, 14 points and a goal difference of 10. What resonates with Bielsa is the fact that his style – one he transmits openly and allows the watching world to dissect – has kicked in so impressively and in so little time. His in-depth analysis of United’s matches last season allowed him to make more than a standing start in June but even he must be quietly pleased with the way his team have developed: not merely recording wins and gathering points but doing so in the way he demanded.
It adds a strand to the debate over whether Leeds can sustain Bielsa’s tactics for 10 months; of whether August has teed up a fine year ahead or whether this time of year will be the flash in the pan it became under Christiansen. It is, as Bielsa said himself, a small window to draw conclusions in but the areas of performance where Leeds score highly, the aspects of their play that have yielded results and the way in which it all tallies with Bielsa’s long-held philosophy prove that the 63-year-old is not winging it. This is the football Bielsa sought, delivered by players he specifically chose to use. Some in the Championship are questioning if this heady start will last. Perhaps they should be asking how much better it could get.