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 game against Fulham on Saturday afternoon
It’s hard to think of a more important fixture in this post-Corona mini-series that we’re going through than this. If Fulham win, they have a good chance of mounting pressure on the top two. If they lose, they’ll fancy their chances are slim.
Both Fulham and Leeds lost their first fixture in the mini-series which also adds to the tension of this game: Leeds to Cardiff and Fulham to local rivals Brentford.
The West London derby was an attractive game of football where both teams played the sort of football they ideally want to play. Given Leeds and Brentford are not a million miles apart stylistically, it also offers us a good exemplar of how Fulham might set up on Saturday.
Fulham set up in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid:
In possession, Tom Cairney and Bobby Decordova-Reid play as 8s with Harrison Reid quarterbacking behind them but out of possession, Cairney drops into a double pivot with Reid.
In attacking phases, then, Fulham look like Leeds in their defensive structure (4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3-) whereas their defensive phase looks much closer to a compressed 4-2-3-1 or a 4-5-1:
There are also other similarities between Fulham and Leeds: for example, against Brentford, Fulham played with Neeskens Kabano on the left as an out-and-out winger but Anthony Knockaert played deeper as more of an inside forward/right wing-back hybrid.
Through much of the season, the criticism of Fulham has been that they engage in much too much slow build-up play. Against Fulham, though, they recorded about 20% fewer passes to their season average (down to around 440 from 540) and looked to be more direct than usual.
The build-up play was clearly improved by Harrison Reed who functioned as an important progressor, helping move the ball between the defence and midfield.
The general plan seemed to be to play down the left-hand side of the field to try and work a crossing chance to find Mitrovic. If the left side proved unfruitful, they would recycle the ball around to the right and try again.
Of course, with Mitrovic on the field, this approach proved relatively successful and one chance in particular saw the Serbian force a save out of David Raya in the Brentford game.
Interestingly, though, Fulham’s best chance came from a nice bit of interplay over on the left with Knockaert drifting across to create a numerical superiority.
The move started with Fulham driving through Cairney into the left-hand side of the Brentford half (Brentford’s right back area). Cairney found Kebano with a pass into space:
With Knockaert (highlighted) drifting inside, a triangle was formed between the three players. Kebano found Knockaert who laid it off to Cairney:
Given that Fulham now had an overload in that part of the field, Harrison Reed was now in space. Cairney found him and Josh Dasilva was forced to rush out to him, leaving Bobby Decordova-Reid open:
Despite Pontus Jansson’s best effort, Reed’s pass found Decordova-Reid, who took the ball in and had a clear view of goal. It wasn’t an easy chance but he’ll feel aggrieved that the crossbar denied him:
Leeds’ defensive plan on Saturday has to be to mitigate this threat from wide areas.
As we already know, Mitrovic is always a danger in the box. The best route for stymying him will be to cut out the middle-man and try to smother crosses in from out wide or at least make them as difficult as possible.
Expect both wingers to do a lot of defensive work picking up their respective full-backs to prevent unopposed crosses:
Interestingly, though, this could play into Leeds’ favour. In Phil Hay’s recent Athletic piece, he looked into the numbers behind Leeds and Fulham and highlighted the ponderousness of Fulham’s attacking:
If Leeds do compress to stifle Fulham’s crossing, this could give them the opportunity to try and catch Fulham on the break: an opportunity rarely afforded to them against most opponents:
In the opposite direction, Leeds will take comfort in the fact that they can put pressure on Fulham in advanced areas without worrying too much about being caught on the break themselves.
On paper, then, this is the sort of game that will suit Leeds much more than last weekend’s game against Cardiff.
They should see the full benefit of playing the way they do and, whilst that doesn’t guarantee anything, it will see them trying to win the game in the way they want to win.
In other Leeds United news, ‘It’s a massive game’ – Exclusive: Pundit predicts score (and goals) in Leeds v Fulham clash