In this season’s title charge in the Championship and chances for direct promotion to the Premier League by Leeds United, two players that have risen to prominence from Bielsa’s team are Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling, the left-back and right-back of Leeds United respectively. Full-backs are a very important role in the English game due to their attacking and defending contributions and importance as they play major roles in creating and stopping chances. One man who has understood and moulded his team’s style around this is Marcelo Bielsa, who has managed in La Liga and Serie A. Ayling has played 2778 minutes this season, which is the 11th highest for the team as he missed a lot due to injury, while Dallas has played 3808 minutes this season, the highest at the club.
In this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report, I will look at what Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas add to Bielsa’s tactics and how they have contributed to the team’s successes. This analysis will also look at their individual playing styles and strengths.
Leeds’ defensive tactics
Leeds is a very high pressing side, and have been so for all their season under Marcelo Bielsa. They have the lowest PPDA in the league at 5.86, which is much lower than the league average of 9.22. This means that Leeds generally get the ball back after their opponents have made 5.86 passes only. This type of pressing intensity is very unlike others in the Championship and has been brought from external influences by Bielsa. Another stat that reinforces Leeds’ high defensive work-rate is their recoveries. Leeds have 80.36 recoveries, as compared to the league average of 71.46.
Leeds’ pressing works to create either one of two scenarios- winning the ball back or forcing their opponents to go long and leave the ball recovery to chance. This high pressing system goes hand-in-hand with the man-marking system that Bielsa puts in place. This system takes place more centrally, by marking the midfielders in the middle of the pitch and forcing them to the flanks. But here, I will keep a focus on the defence from the flanks.
The players on the flank try to remain as close as possible to the man closest to them. This means that Luke Ayling sticks with the opposition’s left-winger while Stuart Dallas presses the opposition right-winger. When their man gets the ball, the full-backs are on hand to press intensely and aggressively to get the ball back immediately. The picture below explains the entire pressing system better:
Here, the players in the advanced positions are being man-marked by the centre-backs, while Ayling takes the winger on the edge of the box. He is also wary of any through balls or any passes made to others near him. Dallas and the central midfielders show the incessant press from Leeds as there are three people around the Bolton midfielder, with two more ready to press if needed.
Now for the aforementioned second alternative: Getting the opposition to clear the ball. The two centre-backs: Ben White and Liam Cooper generally do not go up forward unless in cases of set pieces. This means that they are always behind. So when the press forces a player to go long, the centre-backs who are strong in the air are always there to clear as they are generally put in 2v1 positions.
There is only one problem that arises in Leeds’ defending style: Defending against creative players. The picture above showed a 1v1 man-marking system, which would easily be beaten by creative players. This puts the situation for marking in disarray as another defender who is marking the opponent must leave his marker to neutralize the attacker’s threat.
Bielsa’s ideal full-backs
Bielsa’s ideal full-backs plays a more attacking role, like full-backs in the modern game. In the 4-1-4-1, the attackers stay wide, but as they progress up the field, they go in narrower and leave space wide. This is the space that the full-backs enter when Leeds play. So, the full-backs must be strong at crossing as they are generally in charge of crossing into the box. The full-backs must also be good at passing down the flank when building up play against narrower teams. This passes should be good at breaking through defensive, midfield and attacking lines to create goalscoring situations. While defending, the full-backs should be strong defensively and be aggressive at pressing and going in to get the ball as soon as possible and as high up the pitch as possible, unlike the majority of the teams that sit back and defend after losing the ball.
Both full-backs, Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling are competent at these skills, and we shall see below their exact roles and capabilities that make them good fits in Bielsa’s side for now and for future competitions.
Luke Ayling is the right-back for Leeds United who has played the most minutes this season. He seamlessly fits into Bielsa’s side as he is good at passing down the line, is good at retaining the ball and keeping possession, is strong at long passes and has a good weak foot. While defending, he is a risk-taker and is good at pressing high up the pitch.
Ayling’s heat map is shown below. His attacking and defensive contributions are evident as the entire right side of the pitch is dark. Ayling can also play as a right centre-back, as shown the more central parts of the heat-map on the defensive side.
Ayling’s ball progression is one of the best in the Championship. As Bielsa’s side prefers to progress the ball up the pitch while building up, Leeds need players who are good at penetrating space when passing and are great at making forward passes. Luke Ayling is one of the players that fit the bill. This season, he has made 13.48 forward passes per game, which is the highest for a full-back in the Championship. He also has the second-most passes attempted per game for full-backs, making 55 passes a game and is very close to first-placed Sessegnon.
The chart below shows Ayling’s large volume of ball progressions made this season.
A pattern emerges when looking at it. First, he passes down the flank to the wide midfielder, generally Helder Costa. Then, he makes short passes with the wide midfielder and central midfielder in triangles. This is shown by the high amount of leftward passes as he approaches the halfway line. Then, he does either one of two things: Switches the ball to the other flank or continues with the ball into the final third and crosses the ball into the box. Switching the ball helps with disorienting the press of the opponent and can create 1v1 or 2v1 situations in favour of Leeds. Examples of both types of passes can be seen below:
The pass above shows the advantages of these passes that break through the midfield and defensive lines as the wide midfielder who gets the ball has a lot of space to work with the ball. This also causes a transition in the press from him to the winger and allows Ayling to find more space without the ball.
This pass goes down the line to the central midfielder, Klich. As he is being pressed by the Hull striker, he sees an easy passing option and makes it. This breaks past the attacking lines and progresses the ball up the field, which helps Bielsa’s tactics of building up from the back as quickly as possible.
Ayling is also very aggressive while defending. Leeds are very aggressive in defending as mentioned, so he fits the defending system very well. They press as soon as they lose the ball and press the man closest to them. So, an anticipative approach is required while defending in this system. The picture below against Hull City shows Ayling pressing the opponent’s goalkeeper.
This is a testament to his aggression as he is committed to winning the ball back high up the pitch and create goalscoring opportunities for his team, which is the embodiment of Bielsa’s style. Here, he is trying to block any short pass to the centre-backs and any long passes to the midfielders, which could lead to goalscoring opportunities. He makes 10.33 ball recoveries per game, which is in the top 10 in the Championship. He also makes 5.31 counter-pressing recoveries, which is also one of the best in the league. The map below shows the sheer volume of recoveries made throughout the pitch and indicates his high work-rate in getting the ball back from all over the pitch.
The singular sliding tackle made shows that while he is aggressive in pressing, Ayling is cautious in diving in for tackles, and prefers to press the opponent and get the ball or to intercept a pass or long ball.
Ayling’s defensive movement and defensive positioning are also important in Leeds having conceded the joint-least amount of goals in the Championship so far. Ayling tends to remain close to his marker and has smart defensive reading when intercepting an incoming pass by anticipating the direction. Below shows an example of it.
Here, the Hull City full-back passes it to the midfielder, who attempts to find the winger and create a goalscoring opportunity. Two parts of Ayling’s defensive quality is shown here. Firstly, Ayling is fast enough to keep sticking to his man and remain close to him. The second is that Ayling is able to read the incoming pass well from the opponent and then blocks the ball to prevent a goalscoring opportunity.
If Leeds United make it to the Premier League, Luke Ayling will be instrumental in Bielsa’s successes as he is pivotal to the attacking and defending system that is employed.
Stuart Dallas this season has been the jack of all trades and a master at all. He has played at left-back, right-back, right midfielder, right-winger and central midfielder. But, he has played the most games and has been very good at playing at left-back this season and complements Ayling at full-back.
Dallas is very confident on the ball and is good at receiving passes or at making forward passes. He is also two-footed, which works very well for distribution of the ball. Dallas is great at progressing the ball with minimal touches which allows for quicker build-up play. Now, we will have a look at his skills at ball progression and his defensive abilities.
Defensively, Dallas works like Ayling to get the ball back under Bielsa’s tactics with similar principles. When defending 1v1s, Dallas is very aggressive and challenges for the ball when an attacker approaches him instead of falling back and waiting for a shot. This fits in very well with the ideologies of Bielsa’s wanting to win the ball back as quickly as possible and creating goal-scoring opportunities.
Dallas anticipates a pace from the midfielder to the winger and runs towards him to cover the pass. His electric pace means that Dallas can cover that distance quicker than most to press the winger or to intercept the pass. This falls in well with Bielsa’s tactics to stay as close to the opponent as possible to press quickly.
Here is an example of Dallas pressing in a 1v1 situation. Notice how he forces the opponent to face his own goal instead of putting him in a shooting situation. This is because it is more difficult for the Fulham attacker to beat him in a 1v1 situation by dribbling when he is facing the other way. The other Leeds player joins to defend, forcing the attacker to either pass back long or to clear the ball out of the field. This season, Dallas averages 7.25 recoveries in a game, with the distribution of his recoveries shown below:
His recoveries are dotted all over the field and indicate his versatility around the pitch this season so far. He has more sliding tackles than Ayling has and shows how he dives into tackles with relatively lesser problems. The amount of interceptions on all sides of the field reinforces his ability to read the game well and stop attacks.
While attacking, a lot of the traits of a midfielder like comfort on the ball and ball progression is important in his role as an attacking full-back. Bielsa requires a full-back to go up all three lines back and forth when with the ball. This means that Dallas needs to make line-breaking passes and be able to switch the ball out of areas of pressure. This is something Dallas excels at, as he makes 7.51 passes into the final third per 90, which is on the higher percentiles for full-backs and midfielders this season.
Stuart Dallas is good at making short passes with the wide midfielder and central midfielder in the 4-1-4-1, often forming passing triangles and getting the ball forward by passing around the midfielders of the opponents. An example of this is the triangle that he forms with Klich and Harrison against Fulham.
Dallas carries over some of his skills from a midfielder, namely the ability to make quick passes and play around midfielders. This triangle is important for Bielsa to push up the ball if long passes cannot work. Dallas excels in this and shows in his ball progression map, which will be below.
In terms of long balls, Dallas is adept at finding space for the midfielders, whether passing down the flank or crossing the ball into the box.
Dallas passes down the flank to Helder Costa, who has a lot of space in front of him. Making these passes being very close to the flank is an important skill that he has mastered, and as shown in this situation, is very good at. This can potentially create attacking situations for Leeds in the Premier League as well as almost every team plays with a high defensive line. The map below shows all of Dallas’ ball progressions this season and how he has played this season in terms of playmaking.
Stuart Dallas has been dubbed ‘Cooktown Cafu’ affectionately by fans, and the comparison stands true. Dallas has been pivotal in turning around Leeds’ fortune last season and should be a key contributor should Leeds go to the Premier League.
In this analysis, we looked deeply into Leeds’ defensive system, the full-backs Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas, their strengths and how they slot into Bielsa’s tactics this season. Leeds United currently sit on top of the table, with one of the best attacks and defence this season, and Ayling and Dallas have been key contributors to the system. We should see more of their brilliance in the Premier League next season given their talents.