Leeds United analysis
Here is a brief statistical and tactical summary of Leeds' 4-2 defeat at Arsenal on Sunday. I wanted to delve a bit deeper into Leeds' performance and some of the difficulties we encountered at The Emirates. Below is a list of all the headline match stats and some tactical insights from the entertaining game in North London.
Mikel Arteta decided to completely switch up his front three that faced Leeds back in November and adopted an aggressive high press early on against Marcelo Bielsa's side. Arsenal shaped up with a 3-4-1-2 system without the ball and pressed high with Aubameyang and Saka. Leeds began in their familar 4-1-4-1 shape with Pascal Struijk moving out of the back four and replacing Kalvin Phillips in the key central-defensive midfield role. Bielsa also decided to play Luke Ayling at centre-back and drafted in Jamie Shackleton to slot in at right-back.
Martin Odegaard was tasked with nullifying the supply line to Pascal Struijk. It was a very different Arsenal that we saw fortunate to come away from Elland Road with a point after a goalless draw. That was a game which saw them predominantly sit in, absorb pressure and counter, before they deployed a low defensive block when they were reduced to ten men following Nicolas Pepe's dismissal.
Sunday's encounter saw Arsenal make a bright start to the game with their high tempo setting the tone for their early dominance by forcing high turnovers that left Leeds struggling to progress the ball up the pitch or make any inroads into Arsenal's midfield. The Gunners forced 9 ball recoveries in the Leeds' half, 3 times as many as Leeds in the opposition half before halt-time.
The first half saw Arsenal enjoy a 52% share of possession, register 8 shots, create 7 chances including 2 big chances over 0.3 xG. Leeds were reduced to just 178 successful passes compared with Arsenal's 211 and completed just 77% of them. Six of Arsenal's seven chances involved the ball being played in the penalty box.
Arsenal were excellent at dragging Leeds players out of position and exploiting spaces left behind. It was a plan which was repeated across the pitch with Arteta's side taking full advantage of Bielsa's man-marking strategy. The speed and fluidity of Arsenals's attacks made it difficult for Leeds to change their markers when players were dragged away from their defensive territories. Arsenal's aim was to isolate Leeds' centre-backs with either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Bukayo Saka.
Arsenal's first goal originated from a poor pass out from Illan Meslier which was collected by Hector Bellerin. Granit Xhaka worked the ball into Aubameyang whilst Emile Smith Rowe pulled Jamie Shackleton infield which created space in behind and presented a 1v1 with Aubameyang against Luke Ayling.
Arsenal's high press began with their front three of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, and held a four-man secondary press in behind to minimise the space for Leeds to operate in. Stuart Dallas was left isolated and overwhelmed in the middle with Mateusz Klich pulled everywhere to enforce a high press and dropping deeper to try and help Leeds build up from
the back. Klich was carrying a minor hip injury and Bielsa stated that his decision to play was "act of generosity on his part."
The movement of Granit Xhaka dictated a lot of how effective Arsenal were in midfield. Hector Bellerin was an effective ball carrier cutting inside and also became part of a midfield line of four who enforced turnovers made ball progression difficult for Leeds who resorted to playing it long and looking for second balls which proved largely ineffective before the break.
A repetitive theme of this Premier League campaign has been opposition centre-backs bypassing the first Leeds line and progressing the ball into midfield with relative ease, and we saw David Luiz and Gabriel cause Leeds problems by moving with the ball into midfield and driving into central areas.
Saka proved a difficult player to contain and he did well at running at Gjanni Alioski, dragging his marker out of position and also proved effective at getting in behind the full-back and exploiting the space left in behind.
Leeds forced their way back into the game because to a number of reasons. The first one being that Arsenal's intensity dropped off after going 4-0 up, we increased our tempo and movement on the ball, helped largely by the introduction and fluidity of Tyler Roberts, and Helder Costa. We also saw Jamie Shackleton and Niall Huggins play key roles in Leeds ball progression, with the aim of getting Raphinha and Bamford more involved and working the ball into the final third.
Roberts and Shackleton dropped into positions in behind Arsenal's first line to receive the ball in pockets of space and make inroads
by the typical triangular progressive movements we've become so accustomed to seeing under Marcelo Bielsa.
Niall Huggins was introduced with Leeds 4-0 down and initially slotted into a left central midfield role with Mateusz Klich replaced at half-time by Tyler Roberts. We also saw him drift towards the left flank to support attacking movements. Jamie Shackleton and Niall Huggins switched roles at the 60th minute, with the debutant slotting into a right full-back role and Shackleton moving up into midfield and becoming part of Leeds' first line of press with Bamford, Roberts and Raphinha.
Helder Costa lost possession three times in the opening four minutes of his introduction and lost the ball for Arsenal's fourth goal. Thankfully his contribution improved enormously following a tough start and we saw him do well by tracking back and protecting Shackleton and Huggins down the right channel, and drifted inside and driving into space when Leeds were moving forward.
Leeds' typical 3-3-1-3 system was much more visible for the last forty minutes, and we even saw Leeds in a 2-3-5 in brief periods as Bielsa's athletic side looked to flood numbers into the Arsenal penalty area.
Tyler Roberts' introduction was significant for Leeds in so many ways. Firstly, he assumed a free role which saw him lead the Leeds' press, track back into defensive midfield to turnover possession, drop deeper in between Arsenal's two pressing lines to aid ball
progression, and we also saw him linking up well out wide, which led to him dropping in behind Hector Bellerin after being played in by Raphinha to assist Helder Costa's goal.
Bielsa singled out Tyler Roberts for praise in his pre-match presser for the Wolves match: "In the game against Arsenal [Tyler] had a significant weight in the game. Our offensive game improved a lot in the second half and he had a lot to do with that improvement."
Roberts created as many chances (2) and completed more final third passes (10) than any Arsenal player managed over 90 minutes despite being introduced at half-time.
It was always going to be a tough challenge to end the club's long-running London jinx and come away from The Emirates with something, but the lack of Kalvin Phillips meant that Bielsa decided to shuffle his backline which make too many changes which made the task even more difficult. Leeds have lost four of their five Premier League matches without the Yorkshire Pirlo this campaign.
Marcelo Bielsa was as honest as always with his post-match assessment and deflected any blame away from his players towards himself: "We couldn't pressure their build-up and we could not avoid their pressure when we were trying to build from the back. You could see it clearly, the opposing manager prepared the game better than I did. We did not manage to bring the ball from our half to their half."
Leeds continue to struggle when facing an opponent who adopts an aggressive high press, and that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. We also saw the harsh reality of an injury-ravaged side adopting a man-marking system that was brutally exposed and stretched by a side filled with talented international players. The Premier League is a school of hard knocks for any newly-promoted side, and this was as steep a learning curve as any, but a largely inexpensive one looking at the overall picture.