Leeds United and Fulham had both lost their matches last week. While Leeds United are longing to be crowned as the champions, Fulham also want to find a way to get into the promotion position. Thus, this match was crucial for determining the final position on the table for both teams, and the final scoreline was 3-0 as Leeds United won the match.
This tactical analysis will examine the tactics of both sides. We will look at Fulham’s pressing and how Leeds United broke the press in this analysis. Then we will delve into Fulham’s attacking tactics.
Leeds United: Illan Meslier, Luke Ayling, Ben White, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas, Mateusz Klich, Tyler Roberts, Kalvin Phillips, Hélder Costa, Jack Harrison, Patrick Bamford
Fulham: Marek Rodák, Denis Odoi, Michael Hector, Tim Ream, Joe Bryan, Tom Cairney, Harrison Reed, Harry Arter, Anthony Knockaert, Bobby De Cordova-Reid, Aleksandar Mitrović
Fulham’s effective pressing
In this game, Fulham had more possession than Leeds United (57%-43%) and this was partly due to the effective pressing of Fulham. While Leeds United tend to play out from the back for most of the time, Fulham would try to stop Leeds from playing the first short pass from the goalkeeper to the central defenders. The striker Mitrović and one winger marked Leeds’ two centre-backs, and the attacking midfielder (Cairney) marked Leeds’ pivot. This prevented Leeds’ first short pass, forcing the goalkeeper to play long, which was beneficial for Fulham.
If Leeds played long, Fulham’s defensive line was not afraid to take on the aerial duels since they won more aerial duels than Leeds’ front players (58%). Below is an image of how Fulham were positioned when Leeds took a goal kick.
In the image, we could see that two central defenders were marked by Fulham’s striker and a winger. The pivot was also marked. Furthermore, the first pressing line of Fulham also had good positioning. They kept a good distance to the full-backs as well, whilst they marked the central defenders. Leeds’ goalkeeper had no choice but to hit long.
If Leeds succeeded in taking the first pass to the central defenders, Fulham’s pressing block would try to force them to play to the side and commit errors. The passing channel to the other side would be unavailable due to the good positioning of the weak-side winger, who could mark the weak-side central defender and full-back at the same time.
This fabulous positioning of the weak-side winger along with the curving run of Mitrović would make the play predictable to the side, where all passing options would be marked and Leeds’ full-back would have no choice but to hit long. This pressing approach was quite effective since it forced Leeds to play long and Fulham could later collect the ball in the back.
In the above example, the ball was played from the goalkeeper to White. Mitrović curved his run to eliminate the back pass to the goalkeeper. His body shape decoyed White to go outside. The weak-side winger Knockaert stayed a good distance from the weak-side centre-back and full-back, eliminating their chance of receiving. The pivot was also marked. Then White was forced to play to the full-back and it was an errant pass that went out of the sideline. Fulham succeeded in forcing Leeds to commit an error.
Fulham were quite effective in pressing, forcing Leeds United to play long or commit an error on the flank. Leeds couldn’t use the flank to progress the play like they used to. Thus they had to come up with other solutions. While Fulham was pressing high, there would be a lot of space to exploit behind their defensive line for pacey players like Harrison. What’s more, Fulham’s midfielders couldn’t recover to their positions in time when the midfield line was broken. Therefore, the gap between the defensive line and the midfield line would also be huge.
Consequently, in the second half, Leeds United tried to utilise these weaknesses of Fulham. They first tried to avoid using the flank area to progress the play and feed the ball into the half-space or central area to find one of the midfielders. The midfielder would serve as a link-player to hit the ball with one-touch into space behind Fulham’s defensive line. This approach was more efficient than hitting long directly: long ball in the air would spread time for defenders to get into position to access the ball first, while playing through a link-player will catch the defenders unguarded and successfully use the space behind them.
In order to execute this tactic effectively, players with the ability to play one-touch pass forwards in a tight area centrally are demanded. Hence why, in the second half, Pablo Hernández was substituted in to play as one of the midfielders. He has the ability to keep composed and plays the ball forwards with one-touch under pressure. He also assisted Harrison to score the third goal of Leeds.
Before Harrison’s goal, Leeds was playing out from the back. Ayling was on the ball while Hernández opened his body in advance to see Harrison in front. He then asked for the ball from Ayling. Ayling picked Hernández’s right foot while the opponent was pressing hard on Hernández.
Nevertheless, Hernández didn’t lose his composure and passed with one touch to find Harrison, who was attacking the space behind the defensive line.
The pass of Hernández was of great quality. Harrison then received the ball in the space, taking his first touch angled at the goal. Fulham’s left-back was eliminated by Harrison’s pace and the left centre-back was too slow to give pressure. Then Harrison shot at goal, scoring the third goal of Leeds United.
When Leeds United could successfully break into space behind the defensive line, the opponents could only chase back and they were likely to make mistakes in this situation. Especially for Fulham’s midfielders, they couldn’t recover in time to protect the space in front of the defensive line. Leeds could then use a cut-back to exploit this unmarked space and create shooting opportunities.
The above example shows Leeds already broke the high press of Fulham, using a link-player as mentioned above. They exploited the space behind the defensive line and progressed the ball into the final third. However, Fulham only had one midfielder recovering back while there were two midfielders attacking as the second line. Then, the ball carrier cut back to find the free player between the lines to create a shooting opportunity, as Fulham’s midfielders couldn’t get back in time.
Even though Fulham lost this match, they did better at the build-up and at creating more chances, though the quality of those chances were not as good as Leeds’. They would play out from the back patiently, with the intention of taking advantage of the plus one in the back, and then successfully progressed the play. They tried to create a situation where the single-pivot Reed in build-up could receive the ball facing the opponent’s goal and unmarked. Then the pivot could take advantage of the opening and progress the play into the flank area, creating a 1 v 1 situation there for 1 v 1 specialists like Bryan and Knockaert to finish.
When Fulham were playing out from the back, they invited the opponent to press. Their intention was to draw the marker of Reed to press either centre-backs, leaving Reed unmarked. Then, as the marker left Reed to press, this was the trigger for the striker Mitrović to drop to the midfield area to serve as a link-player.
Mitrović had the strength to hold up his matchup and he could recognise the timing to drop, with the ability to play one-touch set back accurately to his teammates’ strong foot. In this build-up tactics, he would drop back facing the own goal, one-touch setting back to Reed, the target player, who was unmarked in this situation. Then Reed could progress the play into the final third. Below is an example.
In the above image, Fulham’s defender Hector was on the ball. He took a few touches forwards to instigate the marker of Reed, Roberts, to leave Reed and press him. Roberts then bought it: he left Reed to press Hector, thus leaving Reed unmarked.
As Hector was leaving Reed to press the central defender, this was the trigger for the striker Mitrović to drop to the midfield to serve as a link-player. He timed his run, approaching the passing channel where Hector was able to pick. Then Mitrović one-touch set back to Reed, the target player. Reed was totally unmarked and he had the time and space to play the ball forwards.
After the build-up, we now delve into how Fulham created chances in this match. As Reed could face the opponent’s goal, he would normally pick 1 v 1 specialists on the flank, especially Knockaert. Knockaert this match had five shots with two on target, ranking the first in Fulham this match. He also had eight dribbles with a 50% success rate.
Knockaert was matching up with Dallas this match. He could use his pace to beat Dallas to cut inside, and then finished with the shot in 1 v 1 situations. These 1 v 1 situations would be created with the help of his teammate so that it could be more effective. Let’s see an example.
In the above scenario, Cairney was on the ball far from Knockaert. The right-back Odoi also didn’t push up. This was to keep the opponent far from Knockaert and so Knockaert would have more space to operate in 1 v 1. In fact, Odoi didn’t join in the attack many times due to this. Then Cairney picked Knockaert’s left foot, who had space and time to challenge Dallas who, in turn, succeeded with a shot.
Though Knockaert had many shots in the match, he didn’t turn his shots into a goal. This happened to the rest of Fulham too. Fulham had 13 shots with only five on target while Leeds United only had 9 shots but with 6 on target. If we look at the xG as well, Leeds had 1.08, slightly higher than 1.04 of Fulham. Thus we can surmise that the opportunities of Leeds might be of higher quality than those of Fulham’s. That means the finishing method Fulham was utilising might not be very effective.
This match could determine the final place on the table for these two teams. In this match, Leeds were more effective than Fulham, though they didn’t have most of the possession like they used to. However, for Leeds, if they will encounter teams like Liverpool and Chelsea in the Premier League, they still have a lot to improve.