Leeds United and Newcastle United are two polar ends of a spectrum. The former demonstrates one of the most distinguishable systems in the Premier League, whereas the latter demonstrates one of the least. Their matchup was primarily a case of game management, as the scoreline was 2-2 with 15 minutes to go.
Leeds were notably dominant on the ball as well as around the pitch. Their end-to-end barrage of attacks ultimately broke Newcastle down. Conversely, Newcastle’s gameplan was to use their left-hand side and operate on winning aerial duels. These tactics were manifested through their set-pieces, and ‘against the run of play’ counter-attacks.
In this match report, we provide a tactical analysis of a game that was primarily defined by Leeds’ style of play. Our analysis includes Leeds’ overloads, as well as Newcastle’s solidity at the back. Leeds’ ultra-attacking approach revealed weaknesses in Newcastle’s concentration that could be further diagnosed as a lack of identity for the Magpies.
With Allan Saint-Maximin still out injured, Newcastle set up in their traditional 4-4-2 with Ryan Fraser and Jeff Hendrick on the flanks. Sean Longstaff and Isaac Hayden were positioned in a deep double-pivot in order to counteract Leeds’ fluid side-to-side ball progression.
Due to this, Newcastle’s backline was notably narrow. Federico Fernandez played in a sweeper role as their last man in defence. Moreover, goalscorer Ciaran Clark’s relative average position was visibly further forward.
On the other hand, Leeds lined up in Marcelo Bielsa’s signature 4-1-4-1 formation. In possession, their 4-1-4-1 routinely transformed into a 3-3-1-3. Bielsa claims that all tactics in football can be broadly categorised into 10 setups, and these systems are furthermore derivative and ductile. Systems with three centre-backs can be derived as mirror images of systems with two centre-backs.
This player-role approach can be observed through the versatile positions of Ezgjan Alioski and Stuart Dallas. Their routine underlaps and overlaps underline the complexity of Bielsa’s demands. Additionally, Luke Ayling’s dynamic approach to the centre-back position in Robin Koch’s stead has been a major talking point offensively and defensively.
Leeds had an impressive expected goals (xG) value of 2.82, as compared to Newcastle’s 1.44. As the final 15 minutes were crucial to the outcome of the game, it is noteworthy to study Newcastle’s xG against (xGA) after 75 minutes.
Fascinatingly, they have conceded 10 goals after 75 minutes this season. Their xGA for the same is 4.28. This tantalising difference indicates a significant underperformance in Newcastle’s defending after 75 minutes. In other words, statistically, Newcastle’s concentration levels tend to significantly drop in the latter stages of matches this season.
A classic indicator of the Leeds system working effectively is when they have the majority of possession, shots on target and a low PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action). On the day, they had 73% possession, 10 out of 25 shots on target, and a PPDA of 4.21.
As a consequence, Newcastle had to resort to longer passes in their build-up. This is mapped in the following image.
The above pass map highlights the most common pass combinations of the Newcastle players. The majority of these are longer, vertical passes, which indicate that the Magpies were aiming to probe during transitions.
It is noteworthy that the average passing positions of Newcastle players are almost identical to their inherent off-the-ball average positions. This arguably communicates that Newcastle’s chances cannot be comprehensively explained through their distribution. Out of their 281 total passes attempted, Newcastle had four of their nine shots on target. Their 44% shot accuracy indicates that they utilised set-pieces and carries quite effectively.
Interestingly, compared to their average distribution structure, Leeds notably recorded a higher volume of long-balls (49) and crosses (21). Bielsa may have speculatively instructed this before the game to apply a relatively direct approach.
Among several top performers, Jack Harrison was arguably the man of the match. He recorded one goal, one assist, two shots, six shot-creating actions and one goal-creating action.
In addition, Patrick Bamford not only engaged his teammates in the build-up, but his output in the final third was also quite effective. He recorded three shots on target, and had a non-penalty xG of 0.7.
Conversely, Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser stood out for Newcastle. They recorded four and five shot-creating actions respectively, and one goal-creating action apiece. Furthermore, Wilson had a non-penalty xG of 0.4.
Newcastle’s targeting of the left-hand side
As mentioned above, Newcastle managed to record a healthy volume of shots as well as shots on target, considering their severely limited time on the ball. Their notably narrow positions in the midfield exploited Leeds’ expansive style of football on the break at times. Consider the following passage of play. In a quick transition, Jamal Lewis’ initiative higher up the pitch triggered an intelligent interplay with Fraser. Fraser’s decoy-run created space for Lewis to drive into the centre of the pitch. As their interplay wasn’t dealt with sooner (considering Leeds’ PPDA), Newcastle progressed the ball 15 yards further in the same possession chain.
Furthermore, the overly narrow positions of Ayling and Liam Cooper are noteworthy, and Ayling’s judgement of the cross was costly. Despite being the taller man, he allowed Wilson to win the first header, permitting Hendrick to score an easy goal.
Newcastle also targetted Ayling with their long-balls. Despite being one of Leeds’ most reliable players on the ball and on the press, Ayling is visibly weaker in the air.
The above image encapsulates this. Newcastle’s long corner found a fairly uncontested Clark to head the ball into the back of the net. Ayling was, once again, at the centre of the scene for his team. His body positioning and incorrect timing of his jump permitted the opposition’s player a free chance at goal.
Thus, whilst Ayling’s versatility has largely been an asset to Leeds’ squad this season, Newcastle effectively played up to one of his weaknesses.
Leeds’ lateral and vertical overloads
Leeds’ approach to the game is quite demanding. In almost exclusively passing the ball from the back, they employ structural rhombuses that create overloads on both sides of the pitch. This is visualised in the following blueprint.
Leeds employ rotations to create overloads on one side of the pitch. When the right-back gets forward, the left-back makes an underlap to cover central spaces. Additionally, they often employ a quick cross-field long-pass towards the other side to test the opposition’s defences further.
Against Newcastle, Ayling was the epicentre for both of these tactical sequences. Despite being the centre-back, he grabbed the initiative with his optimistic ball progression.
The above position illustrates Ayling’s significance in possession. Newcastle’s narrow 4-4-2 prompts him to drive forward with the ball up to the halfway line. His initiative gives numerical superiority to Leeds on the right. Consequently, his one-two with Dallas permits him to send Raphinha into acres of space in the final third.
While Leeds’ right-hand side was the nucleus of many such possessions in half-spaces, their left-hand side was a more direct target. Harrison in particular was a highly effective target man. The following position captures a combination of both tactics.
A sequence of passes on the right renders a higher concentration of Newcastle players on the right. Rodrigo’s swift switching of sides permits Harrison to cover ground, as Newcastle’s right-back is too narrow. Harrison’s inch-perfect cross, in conjunction with Rodrigo’s overload in the box, permitted Leeds’ enganche to finish a remarkable goal.
Newcastle’s fatigue was especially apparent in the last 15 minutes, as they made simple defensive errors. They were caught, quite literally, ball watching in the following position.
In the above frame, the Magpies’ defensive setup was extremely narrow. Additionally, Dallas’ probing run was completely unmarked. The defenders were almost comedically static against a team that were quite the opposite, and Leeds’ overloads into the box consisted of four to five players in constant rotation.
The last two goals for Leeds came from corners taken by Newcastle. This implies a reluctance in essential facets such as tracking back and maintaining defensive concentration for the Magpies. Steve Bruce will be furious about that, and must communicate that this is unacceptable for a Newcastle team that does have the quality to play so much better.
Leeds’ ultra-attacking approach to the match overwhelmed Newcastle. Their ambitious and flamboyant style is as distinctive as Liverpool and Manchester City. While they haven’t always had the results to show for it, they have the potential of building on their higher volume of long passes and crosses to string a few wins together.
Conversely, while Newcastle are effective in creating valuable chances on the break, their defence leaves a lot to be desired. Instilling a certain philosophy into the team may motivate players to stay focused throughout the 90 minutes.