By David Woods

12th Jul, 2020 | 9:39am

MOT Tactics: Leeds on the brink – Swansea v Leeds United preview

This article is part of a regular series from Leeds United stats supremos All Stats Aren’t We – the team also host a brilliant podcast that goes in-depth into the tactics of Marcelo Bielsa and a deeper look at the underlying stats


Some tactical thoughts ahead of the Leeds United trip to Swansea on Sunday.

It’s been some time now since Swansea City came to Elland Road and took all three points off us to go top of the league.

Since then, Swansea have dropped into the mid-table although they are still well within touching difference of the play-off places, especially given Cardiff’s recent loss to Fulham keeping them pegged back.

Looking at the underlying numbers, Swansea are still running a bit rich from their early season form. @eflstats has them around six places higher than they should be per xPts:

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As @JackArmy_ said on our podcast preview, this early season boost was probably caused by the after-effects of Graham Potter’s system and a little helping of luck along the way.

Once this run of form dried up, Swansea slumped a little. Even though they beat us, we pointed out in our preview to that game that the Swans were a little too rigid in possession.

Matt Grimes and Jay Fulton were sitting too deep in the double pivot and the full backs not getting forward enough. The result was a very treacly transition that didn’t make the most of the forward options they had at the time.

Since then, two things have happened: the first is that they brought in some exciting young players on loan in Rhian Brewster and Conor Gallagher. This added some spark to their forward line in the form of creativity on the part of Brewster and pressing energy from Gallagher.

The other thing is a change in formation.

If you look at this graphic from Twenty3 (@Twenty3sport), you can see Swansea’s average position plot for the majority of the season:

As you can see, the formation they mostly found themselves in was that 4-2-3-1 with a very deep double pivot. Notice the knock-on effect this structure has on their forward line with the two wide players, the striker and the attacking midfielder all on the same line.

In the last couple of games, however, Steve Cooper has experimented with a 3-5-2 formation which has produced two wins for them against Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham City respectively.

This shows up well on the average position plot from those two games:

On paper, with the obvious aspect of the back three instead of a back four, the defensive structure looks similar. The double pivot is still fairly deep and, on the left, Jake Bidwell is a little less advanced.

However, the added centre-back allows Connor Roberts, the more attack-minded of the Swansea fullbacks, to get further forward without having to worry about cover. As you can see, the space behind the fullbacks is much reduced as well.

But the impact on the forward line is much more noticeable with the forward pair able to play in a much more advanced position with the defensive protection that the back three offers.

The result is, at least as far as the stats are concerned, a noticeable uptick in production in forward areas: (all data from Wyscout).

Despite the small sample size, across the last two games, Swansea have put up a higher average of final third passes attempted than the season average, and have attempted more dribbles than the season average.

They have also produced more xG in open play than their season average despite having fewer shots in these games suggesting that they are now creating better chances.

This is all well and good, but it’s important to contextualise the last two games: both Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham have failed to win since the restart.

It was also announced today that Wednesday will be going into administration. This financial insecurity and impending court case can’t have helped the club in preparation.

The big question for Steve Cooper to confront before Sunday, then, is: do I stick with the 3-5-2 or go back to the 4-2-3-1?

Will the new formation work in a different dynamic than the first two games or would it be better to revert to type against a Leeds side coming off the back of a 5-0 victory against Stoke?

On the one hand, Swansea will be unsure of the way their possession-heavy style of play (52% possession on average this season) will react in a scenario in which they will likely have much less possession.

As a plus, Luton have shown that Leeds United can be beaten using a 5-3-2 low block with accelerated decompression and counter-attacks. But then, they have Harry Cornick who is tailor-made for this sort of situation.

On the other hand, Swansea may feel much more comfortable lining up in a 4-2-3-1 so that they can fall into a 4-5-1 defensively which is much more familiar to them this season.

On top of this, the function of the 3-5-2 for Steve Cooper has been to free up his team’s attacking transition.

If they expect to be doing long stretches of deep defending, they may not want to load up their back line and utilise the fifth defender as an attacking player further forward who can break at speed.

In the 3-5-2/5-3-2 lower block, there is a real narrowness to the forward players:

Cooper will have seen Leeds drag Stoke backwards and forwards horizontally when they fell back into a low block. Cooper’s goal came from this type of situation with Pablo Hernandez moving laterally to cause problems. This might put him off using the 3-5-2.

If he does go with the 3-5-2, we could see the appearance of the 3-3-1-3 as we did on Thursday:

In this configuration, the two wide centre backs will man-mark the opposition forwards with Ben White sweeping in behind.

Then you’ll have Costa tracking Bidwell, Harrison and Hernandez (with Alioski being a possible replacement for either) doubling up on Roberts, Phillips keeping Gallagher quiet and Dallas sitting in that strange half-space wing-back role.

Klich would then sit on Matt Grimes, their passing fulcrum and Dallas would be tasked with keeping an eye on Fulton (although neither of the two central midfielders is that progressive).

In possession, this would switch up a little:

Expect Cooper and White to split and Ayling to function as a full back with Phillips guarding the left full-back area and Dallas the right. Costa and the wide left player (Hernandez or Harrison, as the case may be) will then look to get into the space behind the wing-backs.

With Dallas on the right as well as Ayling, there is licence for more complex build-up play on that side, so expect a lot of progression through that area.

It’s easy to see Swansea coming off the back of a couple of wins in a new formation and get nervous.

Of course, this won’t be an easy game (as none of the final four fixtures will) but there are positives:

  • this is still an unfamiliar formation for Swansea if they go with the 3-5-2
  • if they don’t they have been struggling creatively in the 4-2-3-1
  • their last result saw each of their goals coming from balls into the box that weren’t dealt with by Birmingham

This is a very winnable game for Leeds United. And it could put us on the cusp of automatics.

In other Leeds United news, Phil Hay posts positive 3-word Leeds striker transfer update for player dubbed next Wayne Rooney