Swansea City hosted Leeds United for the 43rd fixture of the EFL Championship. Both teams are high in the league table, seeking promotion to the EPL. Steve Cooper, a young manager, had to face the innovative Marcelo Bielsa, who had coaching experience from several elite-level leagues like La Liga and Ligue 1. This tactical analysis will go through the tactics that the two teams used. Moreover, the analysis will show the detail that made the difference in that battle.
Swansea City played against Leeds United with a 3-4-1-2 formation. After the team conceded the only goal in the game, Swansea City changed into a 4-3-3 formation for the last minutes, without success. Freddie Woodman was the goalkeeper. Kyle Naughton, Ben Cabango and Marc Guehi were the three centre backs. Matt Grimes and Jay Fulton were in front of them, as the two centre midfielders. Jake Bidwell was the left wing-back, while Connor Roberts was the right wing-back. Connor Gallagher was the attacking midfielder behind the two strikers, Andre Ayew and Rhian Brewster.
Leeds United started the game with a 3-5-1-1 formation, until partway through the first half of the match. Illan Meslier was the goalkeeper. Ben White, Liam Cooper and Luke Ayling were the three central defenders. Kalvin Phillips was the defensive midfielder. In front of him as centre midfielders were Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich. The left and right wing-backs were Helder Costa and Jack Harrison, respectively. Tyler Roberts was the attacking midfielder, and Patrick Bamford was the striker. Marcelo Bielsa changed the formation in the middle of the first half to a 4-1-4-1. Dallas and Ayling turned into a left and right full-back, respectively. Roberts came a bit deeper into the field, next to Klich.
Swansea City’s approach in the game
Swansea City faced difficulties when they were trying to build up the game from the back. That was because their opponent was developing a high pressing line in the final third of the field. For that reason, Swansea City had a more direct style of play: the players were trying to move the ball through the thirds with quick and long passes. In that way, they were trying to take advantage of any possible free space that the opponent could have because of the high pressure. From this, we can see that the difficulties that Swansea City faced in the build-up came from the goalkeeper’s passes: Woodman had in total 34 passes, with just 4 into the first third of the field.
Swansea City was using one of the three centre backs as linking players to break the high pressure of Leeds United. Swansea City’s opponent was pressing in the middle third of the field, and especially in the flanks, trying to transfer the ball into the “weak” side of the field through the centre backs. That was working for Swansea City, as their opponent was overloading the flanks and was trying to regain control of the ball with many players. That meant Swansea City could move the ball with to the “weak” side of the field and get out of the pressure.
Swansea City, when they did not have possession of the ball, was starting its defensive line some metres beyond the centre of the field. The formation was changing into a 5-2-3: the two wing-backs were coming deeper on the field, next to the three centre backs. Gallagher was staying behind the two strikers. The three of them were forming a triangle, and were supporting each other by taking a compact position. In that formation, Swansea City was trying to block the build-up that Leeds United was trying to do. That meant Swansea City could restrict the vertical game in the axis of the pitch.
Stepping deeper into the field, Swansea City was trying to become more compact and cover the areas with effectiveness. For that reason, the wing-backs were the key players in doing so: it was mentioned earlier that the wing-backs were stepping deeper and were forming a defensive line of five players. In that part of the game, the wing-backs had to support the defensive line by stepping out and going into the wide areas. In that way, Swansea City created a kind of flexibility in its formation: when the ball was at the right flank, the left wing-back was getting out and was defending more aggressively, alongside the left centre midfielder and the left striker. That was a way for Swansea City not to be outnumbered by the opponent.
When Swansea City’s opponent did manage to get closer into the final third and the box, the players were supporting each other and were trying to fill the free spaces. The centre midfielders were the players that were doing so. There were times that the centre backs had to follow a player’s movement out of the box and try to intercept the ball. For that reason, the centre midfielders were going deeper into their position, and were trying to fill the gap that their teammates were creating. In that way, Swansea City became more compact, and especially in the final third of the field, as the team had more solutions to protect its goal.
When Swansea City was regaining control of the ball, they were trying to take advantage of the moment. The players were trying to transfer the ball quickly forward through the thirds. In that way, Swansea City’s players were trying to catch the defensive line of their opponent out. The way that Swansea City was organising themselves made Leeds United try more long balls than usual. Those long balls were usually targeted towards the wide flanks of the field. Swansea City’s players were trying to support that area with the central midfielders and the wing-backs. Therefore, when the team was regaining control of the ball, the players were trying to pass forward and have a quick offensive transition.
Leeds United’s approach in the game
Leeds United faced some issues while the players were trying to play the ball out of the back. That was because of the high pressure that the opponent put on them. Swansea City played in such a way that they were forcing Leeds United to play the ball in the wide areas, and not in the central axis of the field. For that reason, Leeds United tried to take advantage of the wide areas, and transfer the ball there with long balls. That was happening because of Swansea City’s formation: Leeds United could find free space in the wide areas, as the two wing-backs were taking up a deeper position, and the space for the two centre midfielders was too much to cover for both.
Leeds United played with that formation for about 25 minutes. The rest of the match, they played with a 4-1-4-1 formation. Ayling and Dallas, the third centre back and centre midfielder, respectively, turned into right and left full-backs. In that way, Leeds United could provide more efficient offensive support into the wide areas of the field, because, until then, the wing-backs had to receive the ball under instant pressure. Moreover, the opponent managed to support the area quickly, and most of the times they were in a disadvantageous position. So, with that tactical change, Leeds United could again target the wide areas, but there would be an extra player.
Klich was one of the players that helped Leeds United to unlock the opponent’s pressure in the middle third. Klich was coming deeper on the field, and was trying to become an extra defensive midfielder next to Phillips. In that way, he was creating an imbalance in the defensive line of Swansea City, as the opponent’s players had to deal with that scenario. With that movement, Klich was creating space, and at the same time, he was stretching Swansea City’s defensive line. That combination gave the opportunity to the wingers to move inside the field and receive the ball. By doing so, Leeds United managed to break the lines of the opponent, and transfer the ball into the vertical axis of the pitch.
Leeds United didn’t have as many opportunities to find free spaces. For that reason, whenever the players found Swansea City’s defensive line disorganised, they took the chance and transferred the ball quickly through the thirds, either by passing or dribbling. The goalkeeper and the centre backs were the players that were reading the game, and had to make the decision to play quickly or to be more patient. Swansea City did not give much space to Leeds United to play quick and take advantage of free spaces. But, in this level of football, we can see that just a moment is enough for one team to make the difference. Leeds United, and especially Ayling, moved the ball quickly through the thirds, as Swansea City lost the ball high up the pitch and did not have a compact shape. Ayling passed the ball to Klich, who was moving in between the lines and the half-spaces of Swansea City. A team like Leeds United, with an effective offensive transition, can take advantage of unorganised moments like these.
Leeds United, when losing control of the ball, was trying to regain it where they lost it. The players that were close to that area were putting pressure on the carrier of the ball. In that way, Leeds United could achieve the restart of the positional game high up the pitch. Moreover, this could happen with the opponent disorganised, as the players were preparing for a potential offensive transition and a counterattack, but the effective pressure of Leeds United’s players made them lose the ball and try to be compact again.
Ayew and Gallagher were coming deeper and more inside the field to support the possession game of Swansea City. Ayling, the right full-back of Leeds United, was the one that was trying to come into that area and support his teammates. These kinds of movements by Swansea City players could create a 4 v 3 situation. Therefore, Ayling’s move was crucial because he was supporting the midfielders efficiently. The problem that Leeds United had to solve was Ayling’s gap in the right side of the defence. For that reason, Costa was coming deeper on the field and was trying to back Ayling with his movements. That was an important tactical decision, as Swansea City was trying to take advantage of that gap.
The higher that Swansea City was coming, the more compact Leeds United was becoming. The players of Leeds United were trying to retain a compact shape and support each other in every area of the field. For that reason, at least eight out of the eleven players of the squad were supporting each other in and around the box. The players were trying to retain a compact shape and protect the goal. Considering the photo below, it is exceedingly difficult for a team to put the ball through so many human bodies. That was a way for Leeds United to restrict the danger around their goal.
Leeds United achieved a great victory against an opponent that has the same goal: promotion to the EPL. Overall, this was a balanced and tough game. Neither team wanted to lose, but at this level, small mistakes are what make the difference. The team that took advantage of those small mistakes managed to get the three precious points.