By David Woods

21st Jun, 2020 | 8:34am

'Sucker punch' – Predicted line-ups & where game will be won for Leeds v Cardiff: MOT Tactics

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 thoughts ahead of the Leeds United trip to the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday lunchtime.

Before we begin, a proviso: it’s hard to know what any team is going to look like tactically having been away for so long. This is an attempt to guess what will happen based on what happened before the break for Coronavirus. Bear with us though!

Since Neil Harris came in at Cardiff, they’ve been a fairly solid outfit. Ben Mayhew has them over-performing their current league position (9th) by seven places, although per expected goals (xG) they’re only running slightly rich on goals scored (nearly four more than predicted) with their expected goals against (xGA) pretty much bang on.

They usually line up in a 4-2-3-1. This is how they lined up against Barnsley in their most recent fixture:

In terms of possession, they’re a very direct team (as you might expect with Neil Harris as their manager).

They don’t do much patient build-up, rarely play it out from the back from a goal kick and look to hit channels in behind opposition fullbacks with their largely traditional wingers (Junior Hoilett, Albert Adoma, Nathaniel Mendez-Lang).

When they played against Leeds in the infamous 3-3 draw at Elland Road, Cardiff actually looked more like they played in a 4-4-2:

In fact, at times they looked more like a 4-5-1 because Joe Ralls would pull in centrally, leaving a lot of space on the left which Lee Tomlin would find himself drifting into:

This shows up well on the average position map (Tomlin is #17):

This is interesting. We checked out Cardiff’s most recent match with Barnsley to see if this is a regular occurrence and, sure enough:

As you can see, Cardiff like to squeeze their midfield to the right opening up a wide channel for Joe Bennett to run into. Junior Hoilett (highlighted) is nominally playing as the wide left player but he has pulled inside.

Smithies can then play the ball to Bennett in space who can then run into a more advanced position and look to get the cross in or lay the ball through for his wide attacker.

If this happens on Sunday, expect to see Luke Ayling doing a lot of inverted work following the wide player into a central area. Cardiff might avoid doing this so much, though, simply because Leeds like to overload on the right-hand side.

Defensively, because they play direct football, Cardiff play a fairly high line. Going long with their pressing, they need a level of counterpress so as to win second balls. Out of possession, though, they don’t press high and sit in a mid-block inviting the opposition to come to them.

This will be the order of the day when Leeds visit Cardiff on Sunday. Cardiff will look to absorb pressure out of possession and then look to be direct in attack.

Leeds will likely adopt their usual 4-1-4-1:

This should allow them largely to match up with Cardiff with Kalvin Phillips tracking Lee Tomlin, their creative lynchpin and everyone else facing off against a counterpart.

For much of the game, expect Cardiff to sit deeper and compact with Leeds having to break down a defensive 4-5-1 which will then decompress quickly in the event of any turnovers:

As usual, Harrison will look to stretch his opponent (Sanderson in this case) with Dallas in support. Everyone else will drift right in build-up but if Cardiff do sit very deep then we could see Leeds shifting the ball right and left in a bid to find gaps in the defence.

Don’t expect quite the high scoreline we got last time. This will be a game of cat and mouse: Cardiff looking to sucker punch Leeds again like they did last time while Leeds will look to break down their opponents in possession.

The interesting thing to look out for is how close Leeds look to their tactical selves from before the lockdown. Will we see a more basic form of football or will Bielsa be happy to pull out all the tactical stops going into this game?

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