As Reading and John Swift discovered Leeds United won't stop swinging, so Middlesbrough have to protect themselves
Saturday’s nullification of a Reading player Marcelo Bielsa rates highly proved once again that attack is the best form of defence for Leeds United.
Royals creative midfielder John Swift is joint third in the Championship for assists this season, along with another player Leeds know all about, Jed Wallace.
He’s the division’s joint top leader when it comes to creating chances, with 74 to his name this season, at a rate of 2.6 per game.
When the Whites travelled to the Madejski Stadium back in November, Swift was a threat, creating a trio of chances for Mark Bowen’s side.
At Elland Road at the weekend it could not have been a more different story.
Bielsa is a fan of Reading’s 24-year-old midfield maestro.
“Swift is a player who I value a lot because he is a player who appears suddenly in attack and transitions from defence as well,” said the Leeds head coach after the 1-0 win on Saturday.
“Especially when he passes from the defence to the attack.”
Swift was unable to put Reading on the front foot because, with Leeds dominating possession and giving him so much defensive work to do, he didn’t see enough of the ball.
In his 75 minutes, before Charlie Adam came on to replace him, Swift had only one touch – a blocked shot, his only effort of the game – inside the Leeds area and played one solitary pass into the area.
For only the fourth time this season he failed to create a single chance and attempted only 22 passes, his lowest tally in a single appearance [of 75 minutes of more] this season.
He was, Bielsa opined after the game, so preoccupied with defending Leeds’ man-on-a-mission Mateusz Klich that he couldn’t make a telling offensive impact.
The numbers proved that was the case as Klich, who came out on top in five challenges against Swift, had a stormer and Leeds enjoyed 66 per cent of the possession.
They peppered the Reading goal with 18 shots, half of which came from the boots of Klich and match-winner Pablo Hernandez.
The Pole and the Spaniard never stopped running and their willingness to dash forward and make runs to either get on the ball or create space for team-mates was evidenced by the goal itself, when Hernandez started the move around halfway, Klich darted onto a loose ball into the corner and played it central to Helder Costa, whose backheel found Hernandez and he produced the necessary magic to finish it off.
That magic, the quickness of thought and feet that unlocked the Reading defence, hasn’t been as regular a feature of Leeds’ play this season as Hernandez might like but, when he and Klich are in the form and the mood, opposition sides are under the cosh to such an extent they can scarcely afford to think about attacking and taking a breath is prioritised over taking risks by going forward.
The relentless nature of Leeds United’s attacking play is one of their greatest strengths and the cause of one of their greatest obstacles, the reason teams sit deep, defend in numbers and pack the penalty area.
And you can put money on Middlesbrough doing the very same on Wednesday night, putting up a red wall and asking Leeds to conjure up a way through it.
There is no shame in that, not when you’re fighting for your Championship lives and every single point matters tremendously, not when it’s an undisputed fact that you have neither the resources nor the tools that Leeds and Bielsa have to hand.
Teams have had success against Leeds this season by defending resolutely, hoping that ‘Hernandez & Co’ won’t find the magical moment and taking one of the few chances that come their way.
Few have tried to play their way out of the trouble Leeds put them in or attack in any great numbers.
Regardless of how adventurous they decide to be, what Boro cannot do is be passive out of possession, in the same way Bristol City were in the first half against Leeds, allowing the
Whites to progress play up the pitch to the edge of the area and eventually paying the price.
Jonathan Woodgate’s side should have learned that lesson earlier this season, having stood and watched Leeds take a short corner and given Klich the freedom of LS11 to set himself and bend a wicked shot into the net.
Leeds won’t stop swinging, so you’ve got to protect yourself at all times.