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 Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
This season, Crystal Palace have played the same number of games (7) and won the same number of points (10) as Leeds United. It is only goal difference—Leeds are even, Palace are on -3—that keeps Leeds ahead of their opponents on Saturday.
Per underlying numbers, the similarities continue. Not when it comes to attacking: here, Leeds have the edge putting up nearly 0.6 xG per 90 minutes (1.39 to 0.86) more than Palace which comes from just under twice as many shots:
Palace are creating slightly better shots on average (0.12 xG to Leeds’ 0.10) but the lack of volume puts them way behind Bielsa’s sides per attacking metrics.
When it comes to defensive metrics, the similarities are stark:
Leeds have 1.10 xG conceded per 90 mins to Palace’s 1.20 xG. They both have 1.00 goals per game. They concede near-identical shot volumes (14.8 per 90 to 14.3 per 90) and these shots have near-identical xG averages (0.07 to 0.08).
These underlying figures largely match up with what we see on the pitch. Palace are a side who sit back in a low block and then look to decompress quickly. They have the lowest possession percentage in the league and the deepest line of average defensive action.
However, as we know, this approach is one that has caused Bielsa’s Leeds a lot of problems in the past. This season, Wolves and Leicester have produced wins by playing a patient game and decompressing through creative midfielders and efficient striking.
Where Wolves have Raul Jimenez and Leicester have Jamie Vardy, Crystal Palace have Wilfried Zaha. Saturday’s game will be about keeping Zaha quiet and breaking down Palace’s defence.
Palace differ from Leicester and Wolves because they adopt a different defensive structure. Where Leicester and Wolves play a 3-4-3 (Leicester of course also playing a more controlling structure with a back four in some games), Palace play a 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid.
In defensive phases, they will almost always shape up 4-4-2:
They will largely mark a zone in a mid to low block but, when they are under attack in the wide areas, they will drop the ball-near winger and the ball-near central midfielder will often plug any other gaps in the backline:
Here’s a screengrab from the Fulham game which shows this:
As you can see, Scott Dann the centre back has been pulled across to the ball with left-back Tyrick Mitchell marking Fulham’s wing-back Ola Aina.
Jeff Schlupp, who is the left-winger, drops into the defensive line behind them and Luca Milivojevic drops in behind him. There is now a six-man backline.
This does make them very hard to break down, especially for teams looking to get it into wide areas to create. But it also makes them very open in the central areas:
This is certainly something Leeds should look to exploit if they can.
Here’s the clip from the Fulham game moment later:
As you can see, only Riedewald is in the central position as Milivojevic and Schlupp look to push out and Townsend pushes out wide right to cover that zone.
We’ve often seen Leeds labour against deep-lying defences, overly relying on crosses. If they can transition the ball quickly across the pitch, they might find space to exploit in front of the Palace defence.
Roy Hodgson has his squad very well drilled in this regard, though. Much like Leeds’ man-oriented system, it may look like there are obvious weaknesses, but it is quite another thing to find them.
Going forward, Palace can transition between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 quite comfortably:
Given Zaha has tended to fill a wing position during his career to date, he often works his way out onto the left, allowing Michy Batshuayi to take up a central striking role and leaving space for Andros Townsend to push into, forming a situational front three.
This means that Jeff Schlupp can often play quite central in possession to a) cover the midfield a little better b) give space for his full-back to overlap and c) to allow him to drive into space left by Zaha drifting wide:
If they don’t push into the 4-3-3, Palace like to keep their midfield four fairly narrow. There are similarities between the way Palace play and Atletico Madrid play in this regard:
This is largely because Palace are not looking to possess the ball. They have averaged around 35% possession this season so far. Rather, they are looking to make quick direct attacks, usually through Zaha and Townsend, and then absorb the pressure of any counter attack.
Keeping the midfield narrow allows them to do this. It creates space in the wide areas for the full backs to fill and prevents gaps opening up in the middle.
Against Palace’s 4-4-2, Leeds will likely adopt a 3-3-1-3 for the first time this season:
The 3-3-1-3 allows a man over at the back against a front two and puts a front three against a back four which should allow Leeds to exploit the channels between the four defenders.
In midfield, keep an eye out for Stuart Dallas playing the inverted wing-back role. This will allow him to keep an eye on Schlupp man for man and also give space for Luke Ayling to drive into from right centre back.
Playing inverted, though, will allow him to help out defensively too, sitting alongside whoever plays CDM (Klich here but could equally be Pascal Struijk).
On the other side, expect Gjanni Alioski to play a more classic wing-back role, tracking Andros Townsend and looking to get forward himself. Given Townsend will be looking to push forward, Alioski will have a lot of running to do on Saturday.
There is the possibility that Dallas could be kept on the left and Jamie Shackleton used as the inverted wing back on the right. I’m not sure Bielsa will want to experiment at this point though.
If Townsend does push forward, Leeds won’t have to change their structure too much. They’ll just look close to a 4-2-3-1:
Crystal Palace could be a nice tonic to the Leicester City defeat. Where Leicester did everything right and the 4-1 result probably slightly flattered them, this will offer Leeds a chance of showing that they can break down a deep-lying side in the Premier League.
That isn’t to say that it will be easy for them on Saturday, though. Palace are very well drilled and Zaha can cause problems for the best defences in the league on his day.