All posts by Joel Shooter

Sports journalist focusing on football tactics, their usage in matches and how they have developed over time. @joelshooterfoot

Leeds United finally show their cutting edge!

A crunch game at the top of the Championship is a good time to start being able to finish off your chances. Well, ideally it’s something that you’d be doing all season. Although with Leeds, it can never be that straightforward.

In the end, however, a match against third place Fulham – key challengers for automatic promotion – towards the end of the season is a pretty good game to start finding that clinical edge.

Patrick Bamford after having a graphic displayed by Sky Sports pre-match highlighting his woes in front of goal compared to Aleksander Mitrovic, cooly slid in Leeds’s opener from the edge of the area in the 10th minute. 

True to form, Marcelo Bielsa decided that despite scoring, Bamford’s all-round game was not good enough and hooked him at half time. Him along with Helder Costa, who provided the assist. 

It felt like a true ‘Bielsa’ moment – valuing the system and team above all else. Subsequently, it worked a treat as Costa’s replacement Ezgjan Alioski grabbed a second on the break.  Just before fellow half time substitute Pablo Hernandez provided a gorgeous pass to set Jack Harrison free for a third. 

The Whites were clinical, incisive and displayed calmness when openings presented themselves. So, after a season of struggling to put away chances, why did Leeds suddenly click in front of goal? 

Leeds have had the most shots per game in the league with 16.3. They’ve also had the most on target with 5.2 per game and the most off target with 7 per game. They’ve even hit the woodwork more times than any other side in the Championship – having struck it 15 times this season. 

Swarming teams, dominating possession (Leeds’s average of 59.7% is the highest in the league) and creating chance after chance yet missing them has become typical for the Whites. 

Yet against Fulham on Saturday, they scored three goals despite having far less shots than their average of 16.2 – only managing 10 attempts. Of these 10 shots, however, half were on target – a far better ratio than their average.

Of these five shots on target, three were scored. It far outstrips their usual shot conversation rate of around 13% for the season. 

The answer to this puzzle is indicated by the possession stats from this game.  

In sharp contrast to most of their matches this season, Leeds only had 43% possession. This meant that they were playing on the break more often than usual, something which can often lead to a higher quality of chance being created.

In most games, the opposition tend to accept that Leeds will dominate the ball and fall back in numbers to defend. Leeds’s excellent possession play and speed with the ball still yields chances in good areas but more often than not the circumstances they are shooting are rather difficult.

Defenders are likely to be snapping at their heels and there will often be bodies to shoot through. Leeds’s players will often only have a split second to get their shot off before a defender comes clattering towards them. 

Against Fulham, Bamford was under no pressure as he stepped up to slot the ball accurately out of Marek Rodak’s reach. For their second, a counter attack left Fulham defenders flailing and off balance.  This provided Alioski time to steady himself before finishing easily into the bottom corner. 

Despite Harrison being under pressure from a defender behind him for Leeds’s third, a higher line than what the Whites usually face gave Hernandez space to pass into for Harrison to have a free run at goal. 

Some of Leeds’s most frustrating defeats have come alongside some of their highest possession statistics. They managed 69% against Cardiff last week, 70% in their 2-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest and a remarkable 77% in their 1-0 loss against Wigan. Losses against teams adept at packing the defence and being able to strike directly and on the counter. 

Ultimately, Fulham – who have the second highest average possession in the Championship with 58.4% – and their tendency to want the ball gave Leeds the opportunities they desired. Opportunities with more space in behind and more time for Leeds’s players to be able to pick their spots.

Premier League – who will escape the drop?

With the resumption of the Premier League season on the horizon, it’s looking increasingly more likely that clubs in the lower reaches of the table will have to face up to the danger of relegation. 

Despite the caveat of having no fans, a full season of Premier League fixtures are set to be played leaving little argument against relegation for three teams. So with the danger of the drop still present, which teams are in the most trouble? 

Norwich, of course, are currently the most threatened side. They sit bottom of the table with 21 points, six points adrift of 17th. It’s a large gap, but one that is still just about bridgeable. Despite facing Chelsea and Manchester City towards the end of the campaign, the Canaries’ run-in overall makes more positive reading. 

They face Southampton, Brighton, Watford and West Ham during their first six games back. Positive results in these matches could well turn the relegation battle on its head, and a recent victory against Leicester shortly before the lockdown will give Norwich hope of conjuring some form. 

In 19th, four points above Norwich, sit fellow promoted side Aston Villa. Since reaching the League Cup final, the Villains have lost all four of their Premier League matches – most recently 4-0 against Leicester.

Villa have a game in hand against Sheffield United, which is scheduled to be the first fixture back for the Premier League. A win would see Villa move up to 16th, but this will be a tough task against an excellent Sheffield United side who dispatched the Villains 2-0 earlier in the season. 

The run-in for Villa doesn’t gave any easier after that either, with matches against Chelsea, Wolves, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal to follow. Their season then finishes with what could well end up being a final day relegation decider against West Ham. 

Bournemouth lie in 18th with 27 points, joint with Watford and West Ham above them. The Cherries arguably face the toughest run of fixtures, with Wolves, Manchester United, Tottenham, Leicester and Manchester City all on the horizon. 

In fact, Bournemouth will not be facing any teams below them in the table. The lowest placed sides they face are Southampton and Newcastle – seven and eight points respectively ahead of the Cherries and both look to be clear of any real relegation trouble. 

The Cherries not only face difficult opposition, but have no opportunity to directly gain any ground on their relegation rivals. 

Watford and West Ham – the two other teams on 27 points – face each other in a relegation crunch match scheduled for mid July. The Hammers also have another key match scheduled a few days earlier against Norwich, as well as their final day showdown with Aston Villa.

Results in games against their relegation rivals could well see the Hammers safe. Add to this the fact that David Moyes seems to have struck upon a cohesive and powerful combination up front with Sebastian Haller, Michael Antonio and Jarrod Bowen (they were very unfortunate not to get a result against Arsenal before the lockdown), and things are looking relatively positive for West Ham.

Watford, meanwhile, face some tricky fixtures against Leicester, Chelsea and Manchester City before Arsenal on the final day of the season. Their run in, however, doesn’t quite match the desolate landscape of Bournemouth’s with opportunities to gain points against their relegation rivals still available to the Hornets. 

Brighton sit in 15th with 29 points and despite a two point cushion above the relegation zone, they are by no means out of the woods. Like Bournemouth, they lack matches against sides in the relegation battle. The only team below them Albion face is Norwich who are already eight points adrift of Brighton, so it’s possible the match could be of little direct consequence. 

With six draws and only four defeats since the start of 2020, Brighton are proving tough to beat but are also massively struggling to carve out wins. They are winless since the 28th December 2019 and will need to be picking up all three points when they can to avoid slipping further into the relegation battle. 

One thing that should also be considered is the lack of fans, and how this might affect results. It was previously a topic open to debate but the fact that home advantage seems to have gone out the window in the Bundesliga seems to indicate it does have a large influence. 

Frankfurt boss Adi Hutter even commented the other week saying:

“teams with a high level of technical quality in particular are less dependent on support”, while also noting how a lack of fans can adversely affects sides lower in the division. 

At a glance, Aston Villa look to benefit the most from having a crowd behind them with a swing of 0.78 points per game (PPG) more at home than away. This would make sense given the raucous reputation of Villa Park and the Holt End. Villa’s home PPG swing is the third highest in the division behind Manchester United (0.79) and Everton (0.99). 

While Villa’s is the most stark, all the teams in the midst of the relegation fight have a swing of at least 0.5 PPG more at home barring West Ham with 0.27. This also makes sense given their questionable choice of new stadium. 

This would indicate that West Ham are less reliant on home support, so are less likely to be as affected by the lack of fans. Given this along with their bolstered frontline, the Hammers stand a good chance of staying up. 

Things don’t look so good for the Villains though, with a lack of fans looking like it could possibly be more of an issue for them. This coupled with their tough run of games could spell trouble for Villa.

Bournemouth also face a tricky run of fixtures but more importantly, do not face any teams around them so have little chance to make up ground on their rivals. They could also be set to slip further into the relegation quagmire. 

Watford will hope to draw upon Nigel Pearson’s experience from his great escape with Leicester in 2015, as well as looking to talented players such as Abdoulaye Doucoure and Ismaila Sarr. Gerard Deulofeu, however, is still likely to be out for the remaining fixtures. 

Brighton and Norwich are both tricky to predict. Brighton have had a long and slow slide down the table, and it’s difficult to see where it might stop or how far down it will take them. 

Norwich look like they might be dead and buried, but a good run of results in the games they have against their rivals could seriously shake things up for the Canaries.

What is certain is that there is still much to play for at the bottom of the Premier League. 

Chelsea vs Bayern Munich – the 2012 Champions League final retold

Ryan Bertrand on the left wing and Ross Turnbull on the bench. Not quite what you expect from a Champions League winning side, but then again this Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich was a poetically absurd masterpiece. 

Chelsea had had a mixed season. Despite victory in the FA Cup against Liverpool, their league campaign had seen them finish in a disappointing sixth place.

Andre Villas Boas, dubbed as a Jose Mourinho protege having been the special one’s assistant at Porto, had struggled since his appointment in pre-season. He eventually faced the sack in March, with Roberto Di Matteo coming in to replace him.

Di Matteo in fact actually managed to take Chelsea down a place in the league, but his success in the Champions League finally fulfilled Roman Abramovich’s desires. 

 They did so, however, in the strangest fashion – during a write off season with a disappointing league finish after their dominance in the 2000s. After the brilliant Premier League record breaking side that had been built during this time, helmed by Mourinho at his peak. 

After a scintillating few years at the top of English football, the early 2010s had seen a stalled start to the decade with a few remnants of their previous side. The 2011/12 season however culminated in Chelsea finally winning the Champions League.

To compound the ridiculousness of the situation further, they did so against a brilliant Bayern Munich side in their own stadium. 

They were spearheaded by Mario Gomez, with Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery on fire as inverted wingers and Thomas Muller at his brilliant best in attack. They were supported in midfield by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, with Phillip Lahm at full back and Manuel Neuer in goal at his sweeping best. 

It was a Bayern side on the rise in parallel with German football on the whole. Spain had dominated the past four years internationally and at club level, with Barcelona claiming two out of the previous three Champions League titles. But Germany had been the brilliant young side at recent international tournaments and despite Spain winning Euro 2012 that year, the stage was set for Die Mannschaft to claim the World Cup in two years time. 

The transition in the Champions League would have to wait another year courtesy of Chelsea, although symbolically both sides would vanquish the two Spanish giants – Real Madrid and Barcelona – in the semi finals in dramatic fashion. Bayern on penalties against Real and Chelsea after an epic defensive performance over two legs against Barcelona. 

Despite their incredible semi final performances against Barca, Chelsea were still rank underdogs that night in Germany. They were likely inspired by their remarkable upset in the semis, the Blues played the role perfectly and were able to frustrate Bayern for almost the entire 90 minutes. 

Di Matteo’s intentions for his side to frustrate were clear as soon as the teams were announced. His decision to play the aforementioned Bertrand – a young left back who was yet to make a Champions League appearance – on the left wing was a clear attempt to sure up that flank against Robben. 

It was a move that echoed Mourinho’s decision to play Christian Chivu on the left wing in Inter Milan’s semi final second leg against Barcelona in 2010. 

The German champions were dominant, managing 28 shots during normal time – although only six of these were on target. It’s remarkable when watching back over the match to see how many shots were hit somewhat in hope and often scuffed or sliced. Chelsea’s resilience did seem to get to Bayern, as well as the pressure of playing in their own stadium. 

The Germans dominance did eventually tell in the the 83rd minute as Schweinsteiger collected the ball on the edge of the Chelsea’s area. His beautifully weighted cross curved towards the giant frame of Gomez at the far post, whose presence drew in David Luiz and Ashley Cole. Who they didn’t spot was Muller creeping in and as the ball floated over Gomez’s head, Muller was there to head the ball into the ground and past Cech into the roof of the net. 

The Bayern team piled on top of Muller in joy and relief that they had finally broken down Chelsea’s stubborn resistance. They had surely sealed the Champions League. 

That was until Chelsea won their first corner of the match five minutes later in the 88th minute, courtesy of skilful and dogged work from the recently introduced Fernando Torres. 

Juan Mata stepped up to take it, and drilled his in-swinging corner in flat towards the near post. Frank Lampard lost his marker Gomez, and barrelling past him with a helpless Jerome Boateng trailing in his wake came Didier Drogba. Lahm couldn’t climb high enough, and Drogba bulleted his header over the head of a stunned Neuer, who couldn’t get his hand to the ball quick enough to turn it over. 

Extra time had been forced and while there were 30 more minutes of pressure for Chelsea to withstand, from that point the creeping sense of inevitability had set in. An inevitably that seemed to infect Robben as Drogba clumsily brought down Ribery in his own area during the first half of extra time to concede a penalty.

Robben stepped up to face Petr Cech who, despite his all round brilliance as a goalkeeper, had little reputation for stopping penalties. The ball was drilled low and hard but not quite in the corner. Cech guessed correctly to his left and was down just in time to send the ball spinning away from the goal line. 

Chelsea clung on and despite a few scares, hauled themselves over the line to take the game to a penalty shootout. 

Bayern had dominated the match, been within minutes of winning it and missed an extra time penalty. It had been a agonising day for them and they were about to experience the pain of losing on penalties. 

Lahm scored first and Mata saw his effort saved by Neuer. 1-0 to Bayern, and it looked like finally, the Bavarian side would be able to get their hands on the trophy. 

Subsequently though, Ivica Olic missed missed Bayern’s fourth penalty and Schweinsteiger their fifth, paving the way for Drogba to once again be the hero. He stepped up and coolly sent Neuer the wrong way, giving Chelsea their first ever Champions League. 

It was a comical way for them to win it. This side that generally disappointed following the great Chelsea team of just a few years previous. They were able to do it against all odds, conquering Barcelona in the semi finals and a superior Bayern Munich side on their own turf. 

Most remarkable of all, however, they did it with a Di Matteo masterstroke of Ryan Bertrand on the left wing. 

Gunning for the Top Four

Arsenal are a conundrum at the moment. It feels like there definitely is something up with them, but also like everything might just be going alright as Unai Emery attempts to move on from the Arsene Wenger era.

Opinion is generally split on whether the Spaniard is doing a good job or not, although last night’s 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United seems like it may have sent Arsenal fans over the edge. In fairness to Emery though, annoying the Arsenal fans doesn’t take much if you’re their manager.

The loss at Bramall Lane saw the Gunners spurn the opportunity to go third – and if they had won then perspectives today would probably be greatly different. 

But they did not, and their defeat was against a Sheffield United side who are not to be underestimated. The Blades are organised, well drilled and constantly surprising the Premier League with innovative tactics. It’s probably safe to assume that we’re all now up to date on the functions of overlapping centre backs.

Watching the game, it really didn’t feel like Arsenal were ever going to score. To use that old cliche, they could have kept playing till the next morning and still not have found a way through. 

Even recapping over the short burst of highlights Sky Sports graces us with on YouTube, there is very little for Arsenal to shout about from the game. Whoever was editing that video would have had a hard job scraping together three minutes of action. 

But it’s not like the Gunners lack any abundance of attacking talent. They have Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe as a ‘first choice’ front three. Then they also have the young talents of Bukayo Saka and Joe Willock. 

Behind them in midfield, they have the aggressive pairing of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, as well as Dani Ceballos adding a bit more technical quality. 

With this considered, you feel that Emery should be doing better. It seems he is struggling to find a system to incorporate and fully utilise the talents of his squad. Sheffield United were superb on Monday night but with the quality Arsenal have, they really should have created more. 

If only they had a little bit more class in the final third. A proven creative, an assists machine. Someone who, preferably, had proven themselves on the world stage. 

The above is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to Meszut Ozil – the forgotten man at the Emirates. It’s only three years since he recorded 19 assists in one season, and it seems Arsenal are in need of his creativity now. 

But he generally remains on the bench or out of the squad, with Emery tight lipped about what exactly is going on. It’s a mystery that has, unbelievably, seemed to unite Arsenal fans behind Ozil. 

There are certainly failings on Emery’s part, but there are some things that just haven’t gone his way.

The Gunners have generally failed to recruit well in defence of late, and what they have to show for the fruits of their labour is a centre back pairing of Sokratis and David Luiz. This partnership has become something of a calamity duo, with Luiz’s failings in one on one situations becoming ever more apparent. 

And then there are the early season injuries to Hector Bellerin and new signing Kieran Tierney going against Emery. Arsenal look, on paper, relatively strong at full back with these two fit. Bellerin’s return is imminent while Tierney has apparently recovered. Emery’s unwillingness to throw him straight in, though, is yet another thing that is angering fans. 

So while some things are certainly not helpful for Emery, there are ways in which he could be doing better. Some fluidity and creativity is needed up front, and the ex-PSG manager desperately needs to find the best system for his talented front line. Most likely, it will involve some difficult decisions on who to leave out. 

So in the sense that Emery has gotten some good attackers and is blooding young prospects (which, thanks to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, we now know is the best thing in the world), he is doing pretty well.

But there is a lack of coherency and guile, as well as floundering attempts to find the best system for his side. And not to forget the shortcomings at centre back. So there’s some good, but also some bad.

With a fully fit and firing squad, Arsenal should really be aiming for the top four. The Gunners will not want another season confined to the Europa League. 

What’s Up With City?

Manchester City hit another bump in the road on Sunday as they slipped to a second defeat of the season against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two late Adama Traore goals gave Wolves all three points at the Etihad.

In the skewed reality of this latest iteration of the Premier League, where Liverpool and City are essentially both gunning for record breaking points tallies, every dropped point by the two runaway leaders is infinitely more drastic. 

It means that Liverpool’s eight point lead early in the season feels like a cavernous gap – the Merseyside tectonic plate shifting away from the East Manchester one. So what exactly is going wrong for City?

Their latest defeat against Wolves was an example of something that has been heralded as a weakness throughout Pep Guardiola’s managerial career: counter-attacks. 

It’s common to see just City’s centre-backs not joining the attack, leaving them exposed to teams adept at transitioning quickly up the pitch on the counter.

And Wolves are a side that specialise in hitting the opposition in such a way, as shown by their excellent record against the ‘big six’ since their promotion back to the Premier League. 

Nuno Espirito Santo had his Wanderers side play a wonderful counter-attacking game on Sunday. Part of this was, of course, through excellent defending. They were able to funnel City wide and force them to go wide and cross the ball – playing straight into the hands (foreheads) of Willy Boly, Connor Coady and 13th minute substitute Ryan Bennett. 

Their defensive organisation was supreme, and further drew in City to leave them more vulnerable at the back for when Wanderers did strike. And when they did, they did so with excellently. 

Raul Jimenez terrified Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho with his dribbling ability, and should probably have given Wolves the lead in the first half. But City clung on, and it was Santo’s tactical shift that helped bring about Wolves’ two late strikes. 

In January of last season, Wanderers fell 3-0 against City at the Etihad Stadium after Boly’s first half red card. At half time, Traore was brought on to offer a direct counter-attacking threat with his pace in behind.

Although it didn’t work out then – Wolves were down to 10 men and completely pinned in by City – Santo used this tactic again on Sunday in far more positive circumstances. 

In the 68th minute, Matt Doherty was brought on for Patrick Cutrone. The Irishman took up his usual slot at right wing-back, with Traore moving up front alongside Jimenez. 

The Mexican frontman again terrified Otamendi and Fernandinho with his dribbling on the counter, and this time had Traore haring up the pitch with him to finish.

Counter-attacking isn’t the only way to exploit City. Set pieces are a well known weakness, and generally getting at their centre-backs can cause real trouble. Especially with Otamendi the most experienced available player in that position, with his sudden decisions to forget how to be a footballer. 

Norwich were able to target City’s weaknesses in devastating fashion with their victory at Carrow Road earlier this season. 

The Canaries opened the scoring with a set piece goal, before continuing to cause City problems with their boldness in playing out from the back. 

It was the style that saw Norwich promoted last season as champions, and they showed that if you can break the Citizen’s initial press and go at their centre-backs, City are vulnerable – as proved with Norwich’s second.

Otamendi got himself in a pickle, while at full-back Kyle Walker sat far too deep to play Teemu Pukki onside. For the third goal, Otamendi was caught in possession as he made one of his sudden decisions to forget how to be a footballer. 

Of course, there are some mitigating circumstances. The centre of City’s defence is a key issue, which is somewhat understandable considering the injuries to Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, as well as the departure of the ageing Vincent Kompany. 

There is also some transition in midfield, with Rodri still adapting to his role at the base of midfield in front of the defence. Kevin de Bruyne is also a huge loss in the middle of the park. 

But these weaknesses also seem to be systematic, and it looks like Premier League sides are starting to target them more and more. 

Guardiola has adapted before upon his arrivals in Germany and England. Now, it is looking like he must continue to evolve his City side to tend to their weaknesses, before Liverpool build up an even healthier lead at the top of the table.