MOT Tactics: 'Game will be tough' – Leeds United v Stoke City 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 Leeds United’s game against Stoke City on Thursday.
After their result on the weekend, Stoke City find themselves 18th in the Championship table, a mere two points above the relegation zone.
The league table doesn’t tell the full tale, however. Take @experimental361’s xPts table which looks at the table from the perspective of expected goals (it’s a few games out of date):
As you can see, Stoke have been unlucky in defence, conceding nearly 14 goals more than they were expected to per the quality of their chances faced. If these goals hadn’t gone in, then they would have been fourth (!) in the table, a full 20 points higher than they are now.
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Of course, you might think xG is a rubbish metric. How about a look at the league table since Michael O’Neill came in?
Not only does this table show Brentford have outperformed Leeds in that time period, O’Neill’s Stoke are solidly mid-table even taking into account their under-performances of goals against.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Stoke are a recent Premier League side and their side is stacked with players who have PL experience. What issues have occurred at Stoke are not necessarily personnel based even if there are performance problems beneath the surface.
But we’re loath to give O’Neill too much praise for this reason: rather than doing anything particularly interesting with Stoke, he’s largely made them a solid side again, sorting them out structurally and relying on the quality of the players available to him to get results.
Since coming in, O’Neill has largely used some sort of 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 /4-2-3-1 hybrid which sees the midfield three rotating between an inverted or… verted(?) pyramid:
As you can see, the midfield three can either feature a double or single pivot.
Against Barnsley, O’Neill went with the 4-3-3 looking formation with Jordan Cousins sitting and Sam Clucas and Nick Powell ahead of him playing a sort of double eights arrangement similar to the one Leeds themselves do.
They stuck in this formation for the full game as this Wyscout graphic shows:
However, for much of the game, they sat in a 4-5-1 mid-block, waiting for Barnsley to come on to them and then initiating pressing triggers to win the ball back in midfield and try to hit the spaces behind the Barnsley wing-backs:
With Sam Vokes up front, Stoke would also try to find him with long balls so that he could also feed the ball into those wide channels.
O’Neill seems to be happy enough sticking with his game plan although against Middlesbrough, we did see him change things up late on in the game, going from 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1 (presumably to get his players forward) and then into a 4-3-2 after Nick Powell was sent off late on:
Suffice it to say, O’Neill will not be trying to tactical masterclass this one: it’ll be a case of getting his players into a solid structure where they can utilise their talents most effectively. If his game plan doesn’t work, it’ll be a case of dropping deeper and hoping.
When it comes to Thursday’s game, the question is: which approach will O’Neill take? The slightly more defensively-minded 4-2-3-1 or the 4-1-4-1 that he used at the weekend?
The obvious solution to this conundrum is to use the 4-2-3-1 as it matches up to Leeds’ own 4-1-4-1:
Given that this allows Stoke to match up with Leeds in the midfield area, it could simplify the counterpress if Stoke chose to use a man-orientated system, matching up Clucas and Cousins to Leeds’ two eights and using Powell to press Phillips to disrupt him in the build-up.
That said, Stoke didn’t use that system against Barnsley, preferring a more space-orientated system with Clucas and Powell patrolling the space beside Cousins:
Here’s what it looks like in practice:
The formation on Thursday will indicate what approach O’Neill is taking, then. If he does go for a double pivot, it will suggest he is prioritising a more low-block approach, hoping to drop into a defensive structure more easily.
If not, he will be looking to get his team inviting the Leeds players to bring the ball into the midfield area, spring pressing traps and then look to decompress quickly into the space left between the Leeds’ defence in an attacking transition:
In principle, this is a good approach against Leeds. We’ve already seen Cardiff and Luton exploit gaps in the Leeds defence after a turnover in possession (albeit from lower-lying blocks).
The question is, how well will Leed break through the Stoke press in the midfield areas?
One solution to this problem, if Leeds United do struggle, would be bypassing the midfield area altogether, targetting the channels and using Bamford for his hold up qualities.
This was what happened in the Preston game at Elland Road where Preston’s aggressive counterpress caused Leeds problems.
There is another aspect to this game that shouldn’t go unmentioned. @MarkTaylor of @InfogolApp points out how much of Stoke’s production comes through their older players:
This could very much be a case of riding a storm in the first half and then hoping Stoke tire as the game goes on, leading them to become sloppier in their press/defensive situation.
As we head into the final five games of the season, it’s worth remembering, of the teams we are yet to face, Leeds United under Bielsa have lost to Stoke (albeit under Nathan Jones), Swansea, Derby (albeit under Frank Lampard) and Charlton. The other team is Barnsley.
This is not to be a doom-monger but to remind you that this is a tough run of fixtures against sides who will look to frustrate Leeds’ style of play.
Thursday’s game will be tough. Stoke have a squad that has options and experience. It will come down to how well we break their counterpress. The good news is, though, that, if we do, there should be plenty of space in behind for us to exploit.
In other Leeds United news, ‘Steal in’ – Sky pundit predicts upset in race for top-two, names only side ‘definites’ to go up