FANTASTIC PIECE BY PHIL HAY
Explaining Leeds’ weakness at corners and the risk Bielsa feels is worth taking
By Phil Hay 6h ago 11
One visit to Stamford Bridge was enough to understand why set pieces are a trick up Chelsea’s sleeve. The combination of quick movement, aerial dominance and a proficient corner-taker in Mason Mount conspires to strip away any margin of error for defences tasked with controlling them.
Leeds United were always likely to be vulnerable to dead balls against Chelsea, because many Premier League teams are. The Londoners’ regimented organisation in those situations is clear to anyone who studies them closely and Kurt Zouma’s goal in Leeds’ 3-1 defeat on Saturday was one of four good chances thrown up for the home side by corners into the box.
“We failed to neutralise them in this aspect,” Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa said. “In the end, it was an important factor.”
Chelsea were superior in other areas of the game too — winning the midfield battle with the help of a clever performance from N’Golo Kante — but defensive set pieces have been a weakness for Bielsa at points throughout his time at Elland Road. The perception that dead balls find Leeds at their most brittle is backed up by the numbers and also by the confusion Chelsea succeeded in causing over the weekend.
Almost 42 per cent of the 105 regular-season league goals conceded by Leeds on Bielsa’s watch have come from set pieces (although it should be recognised that 13 were penalties and largely unrelated to the way his team defend as a unit). Notably, 17 per cent of all of those goals were a direct result of corners, a total of 18 and a quarter of all the club’s 35 concessions in the Championship last season. Though Chelsea also had the class to outwit them in open play, not many sides can dominate Bielsa’s men in that fashion. An easier advantage can be gained through set-piece moves which exploit his method of marking at the back.
As a whole, Leeds are not unduly defensively fragile under Bielsa (even though their goals-against tally in the Premier League stands at 20, with only fellow promoted sides Fulham and West Bromwich Albion conceding more). In his two-and-a-half years, they have conceded just over a goal per game but that stability is in no small part down to their control of possession and territory and a very high press when a match is in full flow. Bielsa’s mindset when it comes to defending well is that the opposition cannot score against you if they are in their own half. Quality attacking keeps Leeds tight at the back. He never prioritises height in his line-up and, as was seen when he moved Pontus Jansson out at the end of his first season in charge, he will readily take a ball-playing centre-half over an aerial aggressor. Leeds defend best by nurturing the ball, not the other way around.
Smarterscout is a site which gives detailed analytics on players all over the world, producing a score between zero and 99, a bit like the player ratings in the FIFA video games but powered by real data and advanced analytics. This table provides an overview of how Bielsa’s squad perform in the air, compared to footballers who play the same position as them.
As the analysis shows, Liam Cooper scores very highly as a centre-back but throughout the dressing room as a whole, Leeds are not built to win aerial duels. Their attributes are strongest in other areas and with a midfielder like Mateusz Klich, there is much more to be had from his bright interplay than his ability to negate set pieces.
The absence of overwhelming height — something Leeds built good form on when Jansson was partnered with fellow 6ft 4in centre-back Kyle Bartley in the 2016-17 season — is an obvious point of reference in any discussion about their management of set pieces (as the graphic confirms, Leeds are not an exceptionally strong side in the air) but there is considerably more to examine than that. Is the issue tactical? Are a high percentage of the errors individual? Or does a combination of factors expose Leeds to the marauding power of a Zouma or an Olivier Giroud?
The first point to look at is the set-up Leeds use to defend corners (corners are the best example to analyse because Bielsa’s players do not ship regular goals from indirect free kicks or throw-ins, and penalties are less relevant again). It is well known that Bielsa goes man-for-man defensively, both in open play and from dead balls, but since the very start of his reign he has enforced some other principles at corners.
One of his wingers or attacking midfielders will always position himself on the byline, as close as possible to the corner taker and ready to jump against the delivery. Raphinha had that job for most of the Chelsea match. This causes a distraction and a potential obstruction, although Leeds have only repelled one cross in that way all season, in October’s win at Aston Villa. It also puts Bielsa’s team in a position to counter-attack if the chance presents itself. As soon as the ball goes in, the man on the byline steps up quickly, ready to react to a turnover of possession.
Bielsa, in keeping with his tactics as a whole, also tries to ensure that Leeds always have an extra man in their penalty area. This is usually Patrick Bamford, who occupies the ground by the near post and is almost zonal in the way that he looks to attack the dropping ball. He can be a good line of resistance and has weighed in with 11 clearances in the Premier League so far, more than Kalvin Phillips. If Bamford is off the field, his replacement centre-forward steps in. Back in Bielsa’s first year as head coach, the task fell to Kemar Roofe.
When it comes to loading the box, a regular group of six faces are employed: Bamford, Phillips, Cooper, Luke Ayling, Robin Koch (or Diego Llorente, as it was for most of the clash at Stamford Bridge after the German’s early departure through injury) and whichever of Gjanni Alioski and Stuart Dallas is playing left-back.
On rare occasions, Bielsa will have someone such as Jack Harrison on the goalline by the near post but he prefers to use a shield of bodies on the edge of the penalty area; for example, Harrison, Dallas and Klich in a relatively flat three. Everyone has orders on who to pick up. So, at Chelsea, Cooper took responsibility for marshalling Zouma and Koch started by tracking Giroud until Llorente replaced him after nine minutes.
This still, from the Everton game the weekend before last, shows exactly how Leeds tend to set up:
Although Bamford’s presence can make a positive difference, his free role covers a small part of the grass in front of goalkeeper Illan Meslier. Elsewhere, Leeds’ man-marking has to be perfect and any lapses in concentration or collisions will leave them exposed. At the corner shown above and in the next image, Richarlison can be seen peeling away from Alioski as James Rodriguez’s corner arrives, poised to head the ball into the net. The effort was ruled out for offside but it highlights how a yard here and there (in this instance, given up by Alioski) can place Leeds in danger and with no one on hand to help, as a zonal defence might.
Twice in the first 10 minutes at Stamford Bridge, Giroud lost Koch and then Llorente with darting runs to the near post, something the France international does particularly skilfully. Mount made the most of his movement with corners which were perfectly on the money. In the second half, Zouma headed home unmarked after Cooper went down amid a tangle of legs (Giroud should have done likewise soon after when Llorente lost him again, but sent another corner over the crossbar).
Zouma’s opportunity, aided by congestion six yards out, was similar to Virgil van Dijk’s goal for Liverpool on the first day of the season. Koch was blocked off on the penalty spot and Van Dijk stole away from him at close range (below). A fine second-half save by Meslier at Villa Park came after Ezri Konsa nipped in front of Ayling and met the ball on the volley. If Ayling could not stop Konsa, nobody else was in a position to pick up the slack. This is one of the risks Bielsa is prepared to take.
Opponents appear to have worked out that a scramble of bodies as a corner delivery drops is an effective way of unsettling Leeds.
Chelsea’s tactic of lining attacking players up behind one another, forcing Leeds to mass in the middle of their box, has been seen in previous matches too. The idea is that if attackers sprinting in all directions cause confusion and knock Leeds out of their shape, it will be difficult for them to recover.
There are occasions when Bielsa’s players try to take matters into their own hands, like in this example away to Crystal Palace a month ago. Palace’s opener, credited to Scott Dann despite the ball coming off Koch’s head last, arose from a corner floated deep towards the middle of the penalty area. The following pictures show Cooper (No 6 — the rearmost defender) realising that Koch is unlikely to beat Dann to the first header and leaving his own man (Cheikhou Kouyate) in a bid to meet the ball himself. Cooper puts some pressure on Dann but arrives too late to prevent the goal.
In these set-piece routines, Meslier — a very impressive Premier League debutant so far at age 20 after taking over as first-choice late in the promotion season — is largely benign. There are some goalkeepers in the top flight, such as Newcastle United’s Karl Darlow and Alphonse Areola of Fulham, who attack crosses regularly but Meslier is rarely drawn off his line and has recorded just two catches and four punches in his 11 appearances this season.
A greater responsibility lies with the players in front of him and the tightness of Leeds’ marking. Chelsea got the first touch to seven of their eight corners on Saturday and on the basis of that imbalance, conceding goals was inevitable.
It could be argued Leeds’ shortcomings at set pieces are very much in line with the strengths of Bielsa’s team. They are at their most confident and most alive in open play and Chelsea were the first Premier League side to fully figure out their high press and regular attempts to cut through on the flanks. Picking Leeds apart in that way is never easy but from dead balls, the chances of profiting are much higher.
Repelling them has never been Leeds’ forte under Bielsa and the chinks in the armour are there again as he and his side attack and defend in the only way they know how.