This week, Leeds United are about to encounter Fulham in Elland Road. While Leeds United are longing for promotion, Fulham are also working hard in their aim to reach the top two. This will be an intriguing match to watch since both sides desire to make their way into the Premier League, competing with teams like Liverpool and Chelsea.
This tactical analysis will look at what tactics Leeds United and Fulham might use in the upcoming match. This analysis is a tactical preview that starts with the defensive tactics of Fulham.
Fulham will press high
Regardless of the opponent, Fulham will try to press high. Their PPDA (pressing intensity) is 302.09, ranking them fourth in the league. Their basic structure is based on the 4-3-3 formation, but this will vary when they engage and press the opponents. When they try to press in a 4-2-3-1 formation, they will use a 4-3-3 shape to match up with the opponent.
When they do so, they try to lure the opponent to go inside, making the pitch as small as possible as well as making the play predictable. Then they set the trap to try to win the ball back, or force the opponent to play backwards or long. Fulham did so when they played against Preston North End. Now let me show you the example.
In this scenario, Preston were using a 4-2 build-up shape, while Fulham were restricting in a 4-1 or a 3-3 shape. You can see that Fulham adopted a man-marking approach, except the striker who was controlling two central defenders, curving his run forced to one side and eliminate passes between centre-backs. Then the two pivots of Preston were tracked by the two midfielders of Fulham.
The two wingers’ body shapes were towards the inside, showing the inside dribbling route for the centre-back to dribble in, while also eliminating forward passes options. And the winger on the ball side also kept an eye on his matchup. Here, Fulham restricted the central defender with some choices that were favourable to them: he could dribble inside, falling into the trap Fulham players set; he could pass back or to the full-back, who would later be pressed and passed back too; or he hit it long.
Thus, when encountering a 4-2 building-up shape, Fulham have a clear plan in setting the trap and getting themselves into a favourable position. Furthermore, when the opponent uses only one pivot in the back, they can also change their shape to 4-2-3-1 to match up with the opponent’s shape. They did this when they encountered Leeds United last December, with the final scoreline ending 2-1, winning the match in Craven Cottage.
In this match, they used a 4-2-3-1 pressing shape to force Leeds United to play wide. Since Leeds United utilised rotation when playing out in the flank area, Fulham man-marked the wingers and midfielders under Leeds’ 4-1-4-1 formation. Fulham’s man-marking method succeeded in this match and Leeds United found themselves hard to play one-two or they rotated to escape pressure like they used to. Now, let me show you one example from this match.
The first image shows the defensive shape of Fulham when they encountered a 4-1-4-1 building-up shape. They adopted a 4-2-3-1 to play against it with clear marking responsibilities of the front players. The lone striker controlled two central defenders and forced to the side, isolating one side for the ball carrier to operate in. Two wingers were matching up against the full-backs and the attacking midfielder tracked Leeds’ pivot.
After introducing the shape and responsibility, we now delve into how Fulham pressed in this scenario. The objective for Fulham was to force the ball to the side, using the striker’s curving run. As the ball rolled into the full-back’s feet, Fulham’s winger pressed, positioning to shadow the passing route to the middle. This forced Leeds’ winger to drop deep to act as a passing option and full-back to take a risky pass while the pivot was contained by the attacking midfielder. As the pass was released to Leeds’ winger, the full-back would usually seek for a forward run and one-two combination. However, Fulham’s winger would mark Leeds’ full-back tightly, neutralising his run and got the ball back due to the errant pass of Leeds’ winger.
While Leeds United can play one or two pivots when playing out from the back, Fulham have already had solutions for this. In their last match, Fulham’s pressing was quite effective when dealing with one pivot. They likely carry on with this approach in their next match and we could also expect to see if they still perform well when Leeds drop one more pivot to the back.
How Leeds United can respond in attacking
Fulham’s high press was effective during their last match in December. However, for Leeds United, they still have solutions in this scenario. Since Fulham’s players press high and mark their matchups tightly, there will be plenty of space behind the defensive line in Fulham’s final third. What’s more, the trade-off of ball-side man-marking will be the loss of the protection of the zone, and also the possibility of losing the help from the covering and balancing players. Under this trade-off, a long pass into the final third will be likely to help progress the play, with plenty of unmarked space for a 1 v 1 specialist to operate in.
Leeds United do have players whose passing range is long with accurate passes. Ben White and Luke Ayling are effective in terms of long diagonal passes. They could both hit the ball long and accurate into space and also teammates’ strong feet under pressure. Meanwhile, 1 v 1 specialist Jack Harrison can stay up front, hugging and running down the touchline. He stays wide to make the pitch as big as possible, ready to receive the long diagonal pass from the back, and uses his first touch to get the ball into a useful position. Then he can take on the defender 1 v 1 to create chances. Below is an example of this tactic.
This is a scenario when Leeds played against Middlesbrough. While the right-winger was contained by the opponent, left-winger Harrison managed to created space for himself to receive the long diagonal pass. Then Ayling had the vision to switch the play. He lofted the ball long into the space in the left flank behind the defensive line, escaping the line when playing over the defence. It broke two lines and created a 1 v 1 situation for Harrison to explore on the flank.
However, when Fulham managed to shift quickly to contain the flank, other approaches to creating chances were needed. In fact, during their first match in December, when Leeds United could get the ball into the flank in final third, they would use their dynamism to disorganise Fulham’s defence by pulling the defenders out of position. While defenders tracked their matchup, gaps would be created for penetration and killer passes. Next is an example.
In this setup, Leeds was attacking the right flank. Two central midfielders joined in the first line of the attacking, making diagonal runs into the box in order. They attempted to lure the defenders out of position, creating gaps in the dangerous area. They succeeded in doing so, just like the big gap shown in the image. The first midfielder to make the diagonal run created space for the second midfielder to run into. Then the second midfielder latched onto the penetrative pass, finishing in the box with an attempt on goal.
Apart from pulling defenders out of position, Leeds could also utilise what they are good at to deal with the ball-side tight marking. That is their rotation. If their first rotation couldn’t bring them any opening, then they would do it twice patiently. From the defensive point of view, one rotation can be neutralised by tight marking, whereas two or more rotations will really force them to make decisions. When defenders need to make decisions, time and space could be created and explored by the offensive side. While Fulham’s tight-marking can restrict the opponent’s rotation once, twice is hard to contain. Hence, Leeds United could try to use this tactic to create an opening.
Fulham attacking pattern
There is no doubt that Leeds United are good at using the flanks to attack. They could use rotations and combinations to create gaps, taking advantage of their qualitative superiority. Fulham are just the same. They could use the flanks for the final passes and create a threat. While Leeds United have the most crosses per 90 in the EFL Championship, which are 21.40, Fulham ranks the second in terms of crosses (17.11). As Fulham have the target player Aleksandar Mitrović, crossers like Ivan Cavaleiro, Tom Cairney, and Joe Bryan can consistently use crosses as the final passes to feed the ball into the penalty area.
Before those fine crossers execute the cross, Fulham try to play to the ball to the flank with a numeral equality scenario. Then they try to create a 1 v 1 situation on the flank, taking advantage of the qualitative superiority of the ball carrier and hit the cross. Let me give you an example.
In this scenario, there was a 3 v 3 on the left flank. Cairney was going to penetrate the ball into the space for Cavaleiro to latch onto. Later Cavaleiro received the ball in the space, combating 1 v 1 with the opponent’s full-back. He accelerated and managed to get himself into an opening before the full-back. Then he beat the full-back in s 1 v 1 and hit a cross to find Mitrović, who later shot on goal.
Thus, from Fulham’s perspective, it may be a good idea to get the ball to the flank areas, since they have 1 v 1 specialists on the flank like Cavaleiro and Aboubakar Kamara. They can create some threats on the flank. Also, Leeds United mark their opponents and track them tightly. Leeds’ players will track tight even if the matchup leaves the zone. Hence, it might be wise to use the flank for 1 v 1 to create chances.
Another pattern that is worth noticing is their direct approach. Mitrović serves as a target man in the opponent’s half. His aerial duels ability is quite fine and he can serve as a fulcrum to outmuscle the defender. Later he shields the ball and waits for his teammates to join the attack, laying off the ball to his teammates. This is quite an effective approach also because the goalkeeper Marek Rodák and the central defenders like Alfie Mawson have the strength to kick long into the final third with good accuracy. And this tactic worked in the first match Fulham played against Leeds United.
In the above image, Fulham were pressed by Leeds’ front-line. There were no passing options available in the back. Therefore, Mawson decided to play it long to pick Mitrović in the final third.
Mitrović was combating with Ben White in this scenario. Even though White was taller than Mitrović, Mitrović turned his back to outmuscle White. His strength pushed White out of the area where the ball was about to fall on. Then Mitrović was the first on the ball and he managed to turn and progress the play.
Thus, when Leeds presses high with high intensity, Fulham could escape the press and skip the line by hitting long to find their target player. We could also expect to see this scenario in the game.
Furthermore, Leeds United will commit too many players on the ball side when they attack. That means on the weak side during the transition to defending, there would be a lot of space. Thus, in the transition phase to attacking, Fulham could take advantage of the free opening on the weak side. They should try to switch the play as soon as they recover the ball and hit the ball to the weak side. Next is an example of exploring the weak side in the counter of Nottingham Forest.
In this scenario, Forest recovered the ball on the right flank, where Leeds committed a lot of players. Then on the weak side, there was plenty of space to progress the play while the weak side winger didn’t recover to the goal side. Then Forest successfully switched the play and used the weak side to progress the play.
We have talked about Fulham’s offensive and defensive tactics and Leeds United’s offensive tactics. Leeds’ defensive tactics might still be the same, as they would press high up the pitch and try to win the ball as soon as possible. They may also try to set the trap to force Fulham to pick the goalkeeper, then pressed to force the goalkeeper Rodák to use his left foot. Rodák is right-footed and can’t hit very long using his left foot. This is a weakness that Leeds United can use. We’ll find out what both teams try to neutralise the others’ threat on Saturday.