Leeds United’s Strikers: Target Men, Defensive Forwards… or the Perfect Mix?
Statistical Analysis of Leeds United’s Centre Forwards against Chelsea.
It would be fair to say Marcelo Bielsa’s stewardship of Leeds United’s first season back in the Premier League for 16 years has produced an array of tactical intrigue, which has been a source of inspiration and frustration to opposition coaching departments in equal measure.
Let’s look at the role of the main Centre Forward in Leeds’s formation. Patrick Bamford has been chosen to lead the line more often than not this season as a sole central striker. Bamford has received plaudits for his excellent work rate off the ball, but he’s also got himself into scoring positions and has so far netted 13 Premier League goals. That’s just 4 goals less than the league's top scorer, Mohamed Salah.
So, is it fair to suggest that the Centre Forward role at Leeds is a complete mix of forward player attributes? To investigate, I conducted statistical analysis of the position during their Premier League match against Chelsea.
Football is, of course a sport where the unexpected happens on a regular basis. Add this to Bielsa’s hands on management and in-game tactical tinkering and suddenly analysing one potential key player can quickly turn into three. That’s exactly what happened in this match, with Bamford cruelly sidelined by injury in the first half and Rodrigo, Bamford’s replacement, finding himself replaced in the second half. This seemed a peculiar decision to all but those on the Leeds bench.
Statistical analysis of Leeds’s Centre Forwards versus Chelsea
fig. 1: in possession statistics
fig. 2 out of possession statistics
Bamford had a bright start, squaring the ball for Tyler Roberts to tap home in the 8th minute in a typical Leeds counter-attack. However, Bamford was in an offside position. Bamford’s physicality makes him a dangerous weapon for Leeds and they clearly miss his height when he is not on the pitch. Up until his substitution on 34 minutes, Leeds main attacking route came through the wide areas, with Harrison, Roberts and the full-backs playing higher balls into the box. These were well defended by Rüdiger who marked Bamford tightly and dominated the aerial challenges.
Bamford had more influence in the game outside the box. In fact, all 9 of his first touches came outside the opposition’s area. On the ball, he looked a lot more like a traditional Target Man, playing short, safe link up passes to the midfield and wide players, often facing away from goal. His offside assist being a rare foray into the opposition area. He also created the chance for Roberts, whose shot hit the crossbar early on.
Bamford was a consistent presser in the Leeds frontline. Out of his 10 clear pressing attempts, 4 of these were successful in either forcing the opposition backwards or turning over possession for his teammates. Bamford’s off the ball movement demonstrated how difficult it is to label him as one specific type of striker. He would constantly play off the shoulder of the last defender when Leeds had space to go forward. However he would also work back, sometimes between his own defence and midfield to retrieve the ball and fill the gaps when Chelsea advanced. In attacking transitions, he wouldn’t always burst forward to his original position again, like an Advanced Forward might, but he’d offer himself for passes to link up play before steadily advancing up the pitch. Bamford would be caught offside more than any other player in his position in this match, supporting the traits of an Advanced Forward.
When Rodrigo replaced Bamford in the 34th minute, he looked positionally similar to his teammate. He also had no problems in dropping as far back as between his defence and midfield to defend or receive a pass and then burst forward on the last defender’s shoulder in counter-attacking situations. Both players demonstrated the extreme work rate demanded by the Bielsa philosophy.
Rodrigo and Bamford are clearly very different players, and so Leeds’s main route to goal changed, with less emphasis on high balls into the box and a more measured approach of working the ball into the box with lower crosses. Rodrigo attempted twice as many passes, dribbles and first touches than Bamford, and played 13 more minutes than him before being replaced himself on 79 minutes. It’s also fair to say he was the most aggressive of the players who played Centre Forward, attempting 19 presses and 5 tackles, of which 10 and 2 were successful respectively. He also picked up a booking for a foul (counted as one of the unsuccessful tackles in fig. 2). Rodrigo was the most frequent passer and dribbler of Leeds’s Centre Forwards, and even though his passing total was much higher (15 attempts compared to Bamford’s 7) his accuracy was still the highest at 73.3%.
Astonishingly, Rodrigo was the only Leeds Centre Forward to register an attempt on goal in the game. It was a glorious opportunity for an opening goal, as a Raphina corner found him unmarked in the middle of the box, but his powerful header bounced up straight at Mendy for a comfortable save. Despite the difference in stature to Bamford, Rodrigo could have arguably been a more effective target man in the match, had he scored that chance. He also connected a cross with a perfectly cushioned header to set up a big chance for Raphina to score moments earlier. These were his 2 only first touches inside the box: 2 more than Bamford and supporting the traits of a deeper role like a Defensive Forward or even a False Nine.
With Rodrigo replaced by Klich in the 79th minute, Roberts was redeployed as the Centre Forward. He had been lively and threatening from wide positions previously, linking up well with Bamford for his attempt against the crossbar in the first half. Leeds looked to press Chelsea as a front three when out of formation, with Roberts drifting over to the right to press the full-back and Klich moving up from midfield to press from the centre.
Roberts only had 14 minutes in the Centre Forward role, and in this time only completed 2 first touches, both outside the box. He did effectively press Chelsea’s backline with a 100% success rate of forcing them backwards or surrendering possession. However, his total attempted presses were almost three times fewer than Rodrigo and twice fewer than Bamford.
If we look at the combined totals of the three players’ on and off the ball stats, we observe the statistics for touches and passing are more like those of a midfield player. In fact, 92.8% of all first touches by Leeds’s Centre Forwards were outside the box. Suggesting that Bamford and indeed all others playing in this position are not mere target men.
The fact that these players were offside 4 times in total suggests they were not regular threats playing on the last defender’s shoulder. However, it’s worth pointing out that Bamford was offside twice in 34 minutes which would average an offside every 17 minutes. It should also be noted that Leeds had far fewer opportunities to play in behind the defence, as Chelsea defended a deep line, presumably to counter this threat.
Out of the three different Centre Forwards, only Rodrigo completed a first touch in the opposition’s box; and this was only twice, suggesting Leeds may not regard the Centre Forward as their main goal threat.
It must be indicated that Bamford’s injury was the catalyst for the change of Leeds’s attacking style, and had he played more of the game, the analysis may have brought about different conclusions.
In conclusion, it’s difficult to classify Leeds’s strikers into one specific style. There are traits of all common types of the modern forward, but there are also traits of the False Nine, which is usually performed by a natural midfield player. It must also be noted that this was not an opportunity to analyse Patrick Bamford’s goal scoring threat as first hoped.
However, this analysis does give insight into what Leeds might be lacking if Bamford is unavailable. The fact that Rodrigo did not complete the match may suggest Bielsa is not sure that he fits his Centre Forward mould. Rodrigo worked hard and effectively led the line well from a more defensive perspective in pressing. However, with only 1 attempt at goal and 1 chance created in 47 minutes today; and just 1 Premier League goal to his name this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see another player brought into this position in the summer window. The interesting questions will be, 1. will Marcelo Bielsa continue as the club's manager?, and 2. if he does, who will he target to be his type of Centre Forward?
13th March 2021
Image source: Getty