The first game of the Championship after the break for both sides sees two teams – Cardiff City and Leeds United, with a lot to play for as they enter this game. The stakes are high for Leeds United, who look to win the Championship and qualify directly to the Premier League. They are only one point ahead of second-place West Brom, meaning that each win counts. Cardiff on the other hand, are vying for promotion through the play-offs, as they are only two points off 6th place Preston North End. This puts the game as one of the most important games of the season for both teams.

After a long and sudden break, it will be interesting to see how either side copes to the break-in terms of handling injuries and playing intensity. So, in this tactical analysis, we will look at how Marcelo Bielsa and Neil Harris may set up and perform an analysis of the tactics they will employ.

The form does not seem to be relevant in this situation, as teams will have new players that are back from injury, and all indications of decline and players picking up form have been destroyed by the impromptu break as we have seen in other leagues like the Bundesliga.

Expected Lineups

Expected lineup.

Leeds might start with Kiko Casilla in goal, who has been spectacular in defence. Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi start at centre-backs, Luke Ayling, the star right back flanks the defence with Stuart Dallas on the other side. At defensive midfield, Ben White is the lone holding midfielder. Pablo Hernandez and Klich are the two central midfielders while Jack Harrison and Helder Costa play as the wide midfielders. The lone striker would be Patrick Bamford.

On the other hand, the home side should start with Alex Smithies in goal, with Dion Sanderson and Joe Bennett playing as full-backs. Sean Morrison and Curtis Nelson finish off the defence as centre-backs. Joe Ralls and Marlon Pack play as the double pivot as two holding midfielders while Lee Tomlin plays as the central attacking midfielder. Josh Murphy and Gavin Whyte play as the two wingers and Robert Glatzel plays as the lone striker.

The previous game

The last time the two outfits faced each other, the game ended in a 3-3 draw at Elland Road. Leeds took the early lead and made it 3-0 by the hour mark, but Cardiff scored three to make it 3-3 in the 88th minute. The home side had one goal from Helder Costa and a brace from Patrick Bamford, but goals from Lee Tomlin, Sean Morrison and Robert Glatzel countered the threat. Hopefully, we can see a similar game that is unexpected and contend for the game of the season.

How will Leeds play

The reason Leeds is so high in the Championship is because of their ability to press high up the pitch relentlessly. This works well against teams that absorb pressure as they play very wide. This means that the 2 full-backs move very wide and the defensive midfielder drops back to make it a 3-4-3 in defending situations. The situation described can be seen below in their game against Millwall. Generally, Kalvin Philips or Klich drops back to the centre to defend against balls played into the centre.

Leeds three at the back.

In the example below, it shows Klich picking the ball up on the halfway line with the two full-backs on either touchline. If Cardiff pushes out wide it gives more space for Leeds two creative midfielders. Klich is the key for it working as it requires good distribution from him. 

Leeds employ a high block, as they defend with a high press. They have the best PPDA in the league at 6.31 and are the best at the intensity of challenges, which clocks in at 9.1. Leeds’ press intends the players to press enough to force the opponents to play the ball, which allows Leeds to win the ball back as soon as possible. Their core ideas are man-marking at the midfield, high intensity, and the return pass to trigger the press.

Leeds United generally start build-up from the back. The positioning of the two central midfielders puts them in a lot of space and allows them to receive the ball and distribute the ball wide. They prefer to dominate possession, with an average of 62.7% possession of the ball in the game, and also have one of the longest possession of duration in the league. 

Marcelo Bielsa’s system allows for players to exploit narrow and compact teams when attacking. This is because the wingers and full-backs tend to overload the wing and play a lot of crosses into the box.

How will Cardiff play

While defending, Cardiff does not remain in a static formation. They generally tend to change shape when out of possession. In most cases, they shift from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2, where the wide players would move out very wide and the central attacking midfielder would move up to complete the formation. Cardiff is a more defensive side compared to Leeds and prefers to play out from the defence as well, but prefer to lose the ball and soak up pressure from the opponents. This is indicated by Cardiff’s average possession of 42.5% and the second-lowest average time on the ball in the Championship.

During transition play, Joe Ralls drops deep and collects the ball, and moves up and distributes it along. The two wide players, in this case, Murphy and Whyte move deeper as well to create passing options. As they move the ball further up the pitch, the striker, Glatzel, moves deeper than his normal position to collect the ball and create space by playing one-twos. This part of the play is where the players lose the ball and get caught out in the counter-attack.

An important method Cardiff use to create space is by making timed runs into the box and breaking through the opposition’s defensive lines. This is indicated below:

Cardiff players making runs.

When the wingers drift centrally, as shown above with Whyte, the ball gets passed on to the defensive midfielder. The attacking midfielder that is not covered makes a timed run towards the box and puts the defender in a dilemma: To cover the defensive midfielder and mark off any pass, or to cover the run of the attacking midfielder. Cardiff uses this type of manoeuvre regularly to create space and shooting opportunities.

While defending, Cardiff prefers a man-marking approach to getting the ball. In the example below, it is very evident how the players man-mark the nearest man against Fulham.

Cardiff employing a man-marking system.

This helps against teams that like to pass the ball around patiently and look for openings, like Leeds. The only weakness to the system is the presence of highly creative players like Klich or the full-backs as they can make splitting passes. The tightness of marking present here increases as the opponents approach Cardiff’s final third as shown below:

Cardiff tightening the defence.

The disadvantage of this system against teams like Leeds that overload the flank is that the flanks are open and thus can be exploited by Leeds, who can play passes into the box with ease or cut inside and shoot.

Player to watch out: Stuart Dallas

Coined as the ‘Cooktown Cafu’, Stuart Dallas has turned up the heat this season with his versatility. Originally arriving at Leeds as a winger, he has shown his versatility having played as both full-backs and as a central midfielder and has been arguably the best player for Leeds this season, playing consistently at a high level and has been pivotal for their charge to the Premier League. The break should not have affected his playstyle and abilities, as his pace and technique on the ball should keep him as the player to watch against Cardiff and for the rest of the season.

His partnership at full-back with Luke Ayling has been a key reason to Leeds United’s success. His ability to play crosses into the box and get the target man or central midfielders on the ball to score is unmatched at this level and has been key to Leeds’ promotion charge.

Conclusion & prediction

Leeds 2 Cardiff 0

The intensity of play will be subdued as it has been long since the players have played. Still, I think Marcelo Bielsa’s side has the quality to beat Cardiff on paper and have the dominant tactical and technical ability. The game should still be a cracker back from action as Leeds fans look to see their club in the Premier League after a long time.