Stoke City hosted Leeds United last Saturday in a match overshadowed by Leeds‘ Argentinean boss, Marcelo Bielsa. The man Pep Guardiola dubbed “the best coach in the world” held a press conference in which he admitted that Leeds had indeed spied on Derby County after one of their scouts was caught doing so. He then proceeded to give an eye-opening presentation on Leeds‘ scouting and analysis process, and it was revealed that he had actually spied on every single team in the Championship this season.
So with such an intriguing backdrop to this fixture, Leeds were under the microscope as everyone waited to see if their incredible level of preparation would yield another three points. Unfortunately for them it did not, as Nathan Jones’ Stoke City picked up their first win since before Christmas, while this was Leeds’ third defeat in four matches. Leeds controlled the majority of possession (71.3%) but struggled to create space to exploit inside the final third. Stoke took two of their best chances and although Leeds scored late through Ezgjan Alioski, it was too late for a comeback and they succumbed to a 2-1 loss.
Stoke City (3-5-2) Butland; Williams, Shawcross, Indi; Bauer, Allen, Adam, Etebo, Clucas; Afobe, Campbell
Leeds United (4-1-4-1) Peacock-Farrell; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski; Forshaw; Clarke, Hernandez, Klich, Harrison; Roofe
Stoke’s surprising set-up
Charlie Adam was included in the starting line-up for the first time this season. More surprisingly Nathan Jones decided to use Moritz Bauer and Sam Clucas as wing-backs as he set his side up in a 3-5-2 formation. The move to a 3-5-2 was a very practical one in hindsight, as it restricted the amount of space Leeds were afforded in central and wide areas.
The hosts also played extremely conservatively by only pressing Leeds deep in midfield and defensive areas. They basically defended with their whole side when Leeds were in possession and this gave the visitors plenty of time and space during the build-up. Unfortunately, even with the constant movement of their forwards, space was hard to come by in higher areas. Thus the connection between Leeds’ backline and advanced midfielders was affected. Let me explain why.
From a positional point of view, Kemar Roofe played as the sole striker, with the two number eights Hernandez and Klich supporting just behind him. Unfortunately for Leeds, this meant that they were outnumbered two to one in central zones as Stoke played with three central defenders and three central midfielders too, creating a 3v6 numerical disadvantage.
Roofe was the only player who could pin Stoke’s central defenders back. Even though one of the number eights would assist, the other woud be positioned elsewhere depending on the situation of the ball. This left only one player in midfield against three Stoke players. As the lone pivot, Forshaw was positioned too deep to operate and support in advanced midfield areas. If he had, it would’ve left Leeds unbalanced and unprepared for counter-attacks.
Because of the lack of space in central areas, Leeds looked to their full-backs as auxiliary playmakers. Not only did they provide width, but they had the most space to play in. Unfortunately, the only attacking outlets were Leeds’ wingers who didn’t have much space either. Firstly, Bauer and Clucas did an excellent job in closing down the direct passing lanes from full-back to winger. This meant that all short vertical and diagonal passing options were marked, which resulted in play going sideways most of the time.
Leeds countered this by having one of their advanced midfielders drop deep to support play out wide. Stoke players were thus drawn towards the ball and out of position, before play was rapidly switched to exploit 2v1 opportunities on the far side. Again, Leeds failed to find space for this.
Stoke were very compact both horizontally and vertically, while their shifting was very well coordinated. They had up to two extra players in midfield when Leeds were in possession and this allowed their midfielders to close down or cover on the wings without conceding space in midfield.
On top of that, having advanced players dropping in front of the opposition midfield, with their back to goal, is probably exactly what Stoke wanted. It hindered Leeds’ ability to play vertically using quick combination play. For that to have happened, the advanced players would have to have been positioned inside the midfield block to stretch lines using their movement, and to receive passes too.
The first half proved goalless, and so did the second until Ezgjan Alioski scored from a corner-kick routine. Leeds were restricted to shots from distance which was disappointing. The graphics below showing Leeds’ attacking actions illustrate the struggles Leeds had in penetrating Stoke’s compact defence.
A change in formation to create more attacking numerical presence might’ve seen them exploited on the counter, but it was surprising that Leeds couldn’t find a solution to Stoke’s compact and sturdy defence. The graphics below illustrate Stoke’s impressive defensive actions.
Sam Clucas’ opener was taken well after a failed clearance by Klich just after half time. This was a bad blow for Leeds as it changed the dynamic of the match. Stoke no longer needed to push forwards as much, and became even more determined to shut down any and all space within their half.
Joe Allen’s goal in the 88th minute was the result of Leeds’ desperation to find their own. After Leeds lost possession and committed too many players to the attack, Stoke managed to counter and establish possession inside Leeds’ final third. Etebo managed to play the ball to Sam Clucas who took advantage of an isolated situation against Clarke. Clucas crossed for Allen who arrived late to score Stoke’s second.
The 2-1 result in favour of Stoke City proved to be a surprising result considering the ‘spy-gate’ incident that overshadowed this fixture. One would have expected Bielsa to have had the upper hand on Stoke considering the copious amounts of scouting and analysis he and his staff have performed against Championship opponents.
Either way, Bielsa himself said after the match that the incident had no effect on the result of this game. Asked if not being able to spy on Stoke influenced the result, Bielsa said:
“No, we can’t say we ignored the features of the opponent. We just didn’t take advantage of the possibilities we had. We had all the resources we needed to win this game, but we did not play well enough.”
Leeds now face Rotherham United away on the 26th, while Stoke face Preston North End at home on the same day.
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