MOT Tactics: Whites can smell the Premier League now – Leeds v Barnsley 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 on Barnsley’s visit to Elland Road on Thursday as Leeds United stand on the brink of the Premier League.
Barnsley are yet another team who play a back three, who have had a manager change and whose position in the table is perhaps unrepresentative because of this.
This season, Barnsley have been unlucky to underperform both xG (to the tune of nearly 10 goals) and xGA (to the tune of around 7), as @experimental361 shows in his xPts table:
Since Gerhard Struber came into the club in November, they’ve been solidly midtable and so it’s the early-season form under Daniel Stendel that’s keeping them in the relegation zone:
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As you can see from the form table since November, Barnsley are comparable to Swansea who caused us no little discomfort last weekend.
Interestingly enough, Barnsley are likely to play a similar set-up to the one adopted by Steve Cooper down in South Wales. They play a 3-4-3 with a lot of similar characteristics to what we saw at the Liberty Stadium:
There’s a lot of flexibility in this system, though. You’ll see the centre-backs and wing-backs “horseshoe-ing” a lot with one of the centrebacks pushing up and the opposite wing-back dropping in to keep the three:
You’ll also see a fair amount of lateral flexibility with Alex Mowatt being brought into wide positions to make the most of his ball-striking potential:
There is also a tendency for them to be more expansive down the left-hand side as this average position mapping shows:
Compare the relative positions of the left and right wing-backs, where Kilian Ludewig is expected to do a lot more defensive work than his counterpart Marcel Ritzmaier.
This is also shown by the passing networks for Barnsley through this season where you can see that the majority of their build-up goes through the left-hand side:
Barnsley are so flexible in possession that the Twenty3 engine doesn’t even pick them up as being in a 3-4-3 at this point, indicating that the left-sided centre back has effectively become a full back in possession phases.
In defensive phases, Barnsley are quite proactive – they’re more likely to form a back four than the obvious back five. They do this by dropping the ball-far wing back into the defensive line and shifting the defence across:
Out of possession and in the press, they play similar to the way Swansea did against us in the forward areas with their three standing up and inviting the opposition to play through into the midfield areas.
However, they do try to funnel the opposition into wide areas where they can spring pressing traps on them using a “pack” of four players: the wide forward, the wing-back, the ball-near central midfielder, and the ball-near centre back:
Having seen Swansea play this way against Leeds and cause them problems, it’ll be interesting to see if Gerhard Struber tries to clog Leeds up similarly. Leeds build-up largely moves down the flanks so the more players you can get compacting those spaces, the better chance you’ll have to slow them down.
One thing to note at this point is that Swansea used Conor Gallagher very well in this system whereas Barnsley’s own number 10, Elliot Simoes, is out for this fixture.
Against Swansea’s 3-4-3, Marcelo Bielsa stuck with the 4-1-4-1 despite the fact he usually goes with a back three against two strikers. Of course, technically Swansea played with a front three give or take Gallagher but it did mean Leeds and Swansea were matched three-vs-three in defence:
As you can see, though, Helder Costa sat very deep in the right-wing role, no doubt helping Luke Ayling to drop in at right-back and help the defence out. Notice how deep Kalvin Phillips played too.
With Phillips out for the rest of the season, it’ll be interesting to see how Bielsa puts Leeds out against Barnsley. With Ben White deputising, Leeds will essentially be playing a back three anyway:
As against Swansea, expect Costa to play a more defensive role to allow Ayling to drop, not least because Barnsley do like to build up down their left-hand side.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the 3-3-1-3 because Leeds have a dearth of centre-backs as it is. Ayling could play as the third centre-back with Dallas playing as the right wing-back:
However, I’m not sure Bielsa will trust Ben White enough to play in this system.
As we’ve said elsewhere on this channel, the issue with Ben White in the six slot is that he doesn’t furnish the build-up play as well as Phillips does. No doubt we will look solid defensively in this set up, but we likely won’t be as creative as we might want.
We have seen this in the games where White has played in DCM. The hope is to get an early goal and then just sit nice and comfy.
This won’t be an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. Barnsley are a good “mid-table” side who are fighting the threat of relegation. A win would pull them out of the bottom three.
But at this point, Leeds United can afford to sit patiently and pick teams off on the break. Barnsley will have to come out if they want to survive in the Championship and, for Leeds, a draw wouldn’t be the worst result.
In other Leeds United news, ‘Wow’ – BBC 5 Live pundit delivers Leeds top-two verdict if Brentford & WBA win rest of games