By David Woods

4th Jul, 2020 | 12:47pm

MOT Tactics: Mowbray side has weakness for Whites to exploit – Blackburn v Leeds 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 game against Blackburn on Saturday afternoon.

First, a confession: We have a soft spot for Tony Mowbray. We’re not sure why but it probably has to do with:

  • Stewart Downing as a deep-lying playmaker
  • The most advanced fullbacks in world football
  • Lewis Holby as a false nine

The thing is—Mowbray’s Rovers are actually quite fun… Yeah, sure their underlying figures are pretty meh.

For a team with attacking ambition, 44.4 xG is not a sterling return (although this is three games out of date: Leeds have 68.0 xG by comparison and 44.4 is enough to put Rovers in the bottom half of the table).

Weirdly, for their attacking “flair”, they aren’t too bad defensively per the numbers. There are certainly worse teams out there when it comes to xGA.

But numbers are numbers and Tony Mowbray’s side are fun. He’s built an interesting side around an interesting tactic and we’re excited to see how they play on Saturday (with the proviso that they lose).

Despite lining up in a 4-2-3-1 for most of the early part of the season, Mowbray now has Blackburn in a 4-4-2 diamond/4-3-3 hybrid which is very flexible:

This is how Rovers lined up against Barnsley on Tuesday. This is towards the 4-3-3 end of the hybrid spectrum. Here’s a picture to show you how it breaks down irl:

The midfield three is interesting. Here you have Bradley Johnson (remember him?) as a defensive pivot flanked by Stewart Downing (remember him?) with Joe Rothwell (remember him? no? oh well) playing more advanced.

However, defensively, rather than Rothwell dropping in between the two deeper players, he fills in on the left with Johnson staying the more central:

Downing is playing in the double pivot but in possession will often be the deepest player, dropping to pick up the ball and quarterbacking a little. Downing as a deep-lying playmaker? Who knew?

The front three situation is also interesting. Lewis Holtby plays in the middle of the three but, as anyone who knows Holtby will agree, he’s not a target-man.

Instead, the wide players are used as the focal point of any aerial attacks and Mowbray isn’t scared to use players like Sam Gallagher or Ben Brereton—“classic number 9s”—as the wide forwards but keeping them narrow.

This is how the formation becomes a 4-4-2 diamond:

With two threes that essentially form triangles, Rovers structure is characterised by a necessary narrowness (we talked about this with respect to Luton’s 4-4-2 diamond and, inevitably, they turned up and played a 5-3-2 at Elland Road to avoid this).

As a result, Mowbray puts an emphasis on his full-backs getting forward to exploit the space that his formation produces:

Here’s a snapshot of their recent performance against Wigan to show just how high the full-backs push up on both sides:

As you can see, the midfield and forward threes are kept relatively narrow and both Ryan Nyambe and Elliott Bennett push into the space opened up on either side of them.

When you realise that the deepest-lying midfielder in this instance is Stewart Downing, it shouldn’t be that much of a leap to recognise that this will end up being a weakness.

With Leeds in their situational 3-3-1-3 (given we have potential injuries to Cooper and Dallas, I don’t think we’ll see a 3-3-1-3 starting line up), you can see how Helder Costa, Jack Harrison and Patrick Bamford will be well-placed to exploit this weakness:

To counter this, Blackburn might actually revert to the 4-2-3-1 that they utilised earlier in the season:

Obviously, this formation gives you double coverage in the wide areas and allows you to drop easily into a 4-5-1 formation with the midfield three dropping back:

Against this, expect to see Leeds adopt a 4-1-4-1. Decompressed, the two teams would largely match up player for player in the midfield areas then cover strikers with two centre backs:

The real question is: just how attacking will Rovers be?

It should come as no surprise that, since the restart, Leeds have been frustrated by the teams who sit deep and counter and beaten the teams who came to play against them.

Tony Mowbray will likely try to adopt the more defensive attitude. But his team are built around expansive attack. It will be interesting to see if/how they adapt to a more defensive posture.

Rovers *should* sit deep, absorb pressure and then look to decompress quickly through the pace of Adam Armstrong backed up by Lewis Holtby, Joe Rothwell and Stewart Downing.

Leeds United fans, then, should expect another patient game for Leeds looking to dominate possession and break down a tight defence.

It’s easy to despair of this sort of reality as Leeds fans but just another reminder: Leeds, although they don’t take their chances with the frequency we would like, are probably the most dominant team per their respective league in the world.

They restrict their opponents to very few, very low percentage chances and, even in games like the Luton game, create enough quality chances to score – even against a packed defence.

On Saturday, we would hope that Blackburn struggle against playing a more defensive style of play. If they do sit deep, it’ll be able Leeds trying to decompress them by cycling the ball back or trying to punish them on the break if they do give corners away.

In other Leeds United news, ‘Can’t wait’, ‘On the bench?’ – Some Leeds fans excited as loanee striker says he’s heading back