The two drastically different games
Fierce rivals Leeds United and Manchester United have faced each other two times this season. And the results of both games have been polar opposites. The first game ended in one of the highest-scoring games this season with a 6-2 win for the Red Devils in their first encounter on 20th December 2020.
The return match, played yesterday on 25th April 2021, ended in a 0-0 draw, to everyone’s shock. So what changed? Was it the tactics? Was it poor conversion? Let’s find out for ourselves.
Leeds United fielded a 4-1-4-1 in both games with minor changes in personnel, but the set-up on paper was identical both times. United too went with a 4-2-3-1 formation as last time out, with the only difference being Dean Henderson in goal for David de Gea and Mason Greenwood in for Anthony Martial in their most recent match against Leeds.
On the field
This is where things differed. And the best example of it comes by comparing Image A and Image B. The first image shows the average player positions of both team’s starting XI in the game that finished 6-2.
The second image comes from the game which finished 0-0. You can see Leeds were more spread out in the second match as compared to the first one, where they were narrow, especially in defence. A part of this could be explained by the fact that Stuart Dallas played in the first game and he isn’t a right-back by trade.
Luke Ayling, who started as a centre-back in the first encounter, was in his natural position on the right-hand side of the defence this time around. Hence, he was more naturally accustomed to covering the flanks and playing in that area.
Leeds playing cautiously
Marcelo Bielsa’s kamikaze style of football which sees them attack a lot at the expense of leaving themselves open at the back was nowhere to be seen in the return fixture. He deployed it the first time against Manchester United, and Leeds completely faltered.
Let us see how. Image A and Image B show us right off the bat that Leeds were way deeper in their own half in the second game and were not committing many men forward. This signified a much more cautious approach to the game as compared to the first.
It becomes clearer in Image C and Image D. The first image is a screenshot from the first game, which highlights Leeds’ high-line and a lack of men protecting them from counter-attacks.
The latter image shows how less interested Leeds were to attack. Image D is the latter stage of a counter-attack. As you can see, the full-backs are not a part of it, and neither are the midfielders. Only the striker and left-midfielder, Helder Costa (shooting the ball) are committed to the cause.
Low attacking numbers
Of course, with Leeds defending more, chances were that there won’t be as many goals in this match. And overall, the attacking intent was lacking as well, which led to underwhelming attacking statistics. To add to that, there was an outside chance for United to catch up with City in the Premier League table, which could have made them take a cautious approach this time around.
Image E showcases the drop in the numbers from the first match. The xG (expected goals) is significantly fewer in the return fixture, and so are the number of shots taken by both sides, to a very large extent as well. The chances of scoring are also much better divided between the two sides in the second match as compared to the first.
It could also be down to the approach taken by United. Leeds, in the 6-2 loss, had a shockingly high possession (59%), while only seeing 44% of the ball in the return fixture. The Red Devils clearly wanted to absorb Leeds’ pressure and hit them on the counter in the first game.
It could also be down to the fact that United scored 2 goals within 2 minutes and Leeds knew they had to score next so they kept more of the ball. Nevertheless, it was evident that United had a changed approach in the second game. This time, they wanted to set the tone of the game. This game had more structure and was less haphazard than the first one.
Failure to convert the chances
It wasn’t that both teams did not have the chances to score. Image F shows the number of shots each team took and where. United clearly had more chances and should have dispatched at least one of the many shots they had inside the box. But it was not to be.
The game was also spent more in Leeds half of the pitch, and in the centre of the field, as compared to the first one, as seen in Image G.
Keeping the main man quiet
The whole tone of the first fixture was set by Scott McTominay, who scored two goals within two minutes. The game descended into a frenzy then because Leeds knew they had 88 minutes to score, while United were now content with the lead and wanted to hit them on the counter.
Those 2 minutes completely decided the first game. So it was important for Leeds to be better organized this time around. Image H shows the space given to McTominay so early on in the game. The Scotsman started as a defensive midfielder but was constantly making more runs forward.
Image I shows how McTominay (black circle) was making another run inside the box just the very next minute. The ball was played into him along the black arrows in the image and he went on to score.
This time out, Leeds were more careful. Their deep-seated defence and an eagerness from midfield to close out spaces and mark runners largely kept McTominay quiet.
Image K shows how quiet McTominay was kept and the heatmaps in the image make it clear that his action inside Leeds’ box was negligible in the second game. McTominay made no key passes, had no goals and assists, as well as 1/3rd of his shots tally from the first game.
As Marcelo Bielsa himself put it after the game (h/t Leeds Live), Leeds looked like a team who had learnt from their mistakes. There seems to be a realization that their gung-ho approach cannot serve them a lot, especially the Premier League.
And it is the reason why, after the start of 2021, Leeds have become way more solid at the back, especially against the big-6 teams, whom they continue to get good results against.
“The group of players have constructed a solid group. Throughout this time they have made errors and have learned how to correct them. And in the same way, they have learned to avoid errors that are avoidable. I have the feeling that there has been a growth in the maturity in the experience to manage these games.”
This draw was deserved and Leeds can hold their head up high that they managed to come out with such a good result against a team that, just a week ago, thought of itself as one of the best clubs in the world, worthy of qualification to Europe every year through the Super League.
Leeds reminded them that 11v11, any Premier League team can take on each other, with the final result of the game never being a foregone conclusion.