Premier League 2022/23: What Big Sam needs to improve to save Leeds from the drop following valiant defeat to the champions – tactical analysis
We haven’t seen Sam Allardyce in management since the 2020/21 season when he was relegated with West Bromwich Albion. He faces similar circumstances this time around, with big Sam taking the reins at Leeds United as the Yorkshire club look to turn their poor form around and avoid being relegated to the EFL Championship.
The seasoned veteran made an extraordinary claim in his returning press conference too, which has sparked a range of responses from pundits and fans everywhere. The former England manager stated there is nobody ahead of him – “not Pep, not Klopp, not Arteta”. While the mystery remains about the reason and meaning behind such a bold statement, there is a theory that Allardyce’s intent was to take the spotlight off of his players in a bid to relieve pressure – a potentially clever idea if that’s the case.
Allardyce’s first game with the Elland Road club was something of a baptism of fire – away at the Etihad against title favourites Man City, and tactically, the game unfolded as you may expect – City dominating possession vs deep & stubborn defending from Leeds. Yes, Leeds were lucky to only be two goals behind before their consolation goal, but there were elements of their game implemented by Big Sam that we may see in their remaining three games.
This tactical analysis will look at Leeds’ defensive tactics in this fixture, while there will also be an analysis of the areas they may look to improve upon and utilise. We will also be looking at whether or not there is any merit in Allardyce’s claim, or the potential to be – we will also briefly look at an elite coach who shares similar tactical ideologies to Big Sam to try and see if Allardyce can match that level.
Leeds have deployed a 4-2-3-1 more often than not this season and Allardyce kept that theme going in his first game in charge. They did, however, use a 3-4-3 in their previous Premier League match, a 4-1 defeat away at Bournemouth. One of the surprises sprung by Big Sam was the decision to drop Illan Meslier, bringing Joel Robles in to start.
Luke Ayling kept his place in the team but reverted to his more familiar role at right back, with Junior Firpo playing at left back. In the heart of defence, Rasmus Kristensen was partnered with Max Wöber. There were no changes to the central area of midfield, with Jack Harrison keeping his starting role, but playing as a left winger rather than the more defensive left wing-back as he did in the 3-4-3 system. Adam Forshaw, along with Wilfried Gnonto, completed the midfield unit, with Patrick Bamford leading the line.
Big Sam’s first game: Defensive set-up & struggles
It is no secret that Leeds have struggled defensively this season. Their attacking contributions are not a major worry – they’ve outscored most of the teams in the bottom half of the league, including Chelsea, but their defensive record is the worst in the division, conceding 69 goals in 35 games. Allardyce joined the club with just four games remaining, giving him very little time to try and put his stamp on this Leeds squad, so it may be a case of back to basics where they ditch their high-energy approach off the ball and concentrate on being more defensively sound.
This segment of analysis looks at how Leeds set up against City – where we can see Big Sam’s influence already and where they let themselves down.
Here is a typical view of how Leeds shaped up when Manchester City had the ball – a low block and the image also serves as a reminder that while we will likely see a defensive focus from Allardyce in the remaining fixtures, it would be a surprise if they are as defensive as they were at the Etihad Stadium.
In terms of possession, Leeds games are usually fairly balanced, but this time around they only controlled 19% of the play. And to give more context to City’s possessional dominance, they played 873 passes in this game, over four times the amount of Leeds passes (201). Incredibly, from those 201 passes, just 59% were accurate, so you can imagine how difficult it was for Leeds to build any momentum on the ball.
The shape Leeds would set up in has its pros and cons, but the foundations are strong. In the image above, they haven’t dropped too deep (although this is difficult to sustain over 90 minutes against City). They have an element of width as a whole unit without being too stretched, and they left very little room between the three units, limiting City’s chance of playing through them.
The cons? It’s more of a hypothetical if we’re going off the image above, but if a City player or two were to move into a central space, especially if it was between the two deeper Leeds midfielders, then they may have found some success in playing through Leeds. In a nutshell, attention to small positional details remains an area for concern.
There were moments that served as confirmation that Big Sam was indeed in the building. In the image above, Kevin de Bruyne has the ball under control after a teammate cushioned the ball down from a long Leeds goal kick. The Belgian has the ball under good control but is facing his own goal with several Leeds players close by, including three players ahead of him.
Prior to Allardyce’s arrival, the likelihood in this scenario is that we would have seen Leeds execute a counterpress onto City – the midfield would have swarmed KDB whereas the attacking unit would have applied pressure to City’s backline as de Bruyne passed the ball back into that area. Whether Leeds would have found success with that method or not could be debated, but one wrong foot and City would have carved them open and launched a dangerous attack…
Instead of a counterpress, we saw Leeds regroup, with all players completely ignoring the opportunity to try and knick the ball. Against a Manchester City team who are so dangerous on the ball, this is a sensible move, but it also conserves energy in the Leeds ranks by not pressing the opposition at every given opportunity. This season, Leeds are up there in the rankings for distance covered – this may sound good at face value but when you look at how effective they have (or have not) been over the season, then you begin to understand why their defensive record is so poor.
Essentially, there is a case to be made that Leeds have been doing too much running this season – Allardyce looks to be fixing that.
We mentioned earlier that attention to detail in terms of positioning when defending is an area of concern for Leeds, and failure to recognise even the smallest of details can be costly, just as they found out in the image above. City begin the attacking phase with Leeds’ shape in some disarray, which allowed youngster Rico Lewis to exploit space in a dangerous central area. His quick pass into Erling Haaland gave the attack an injection of urgency, and Leeds tried to respond by packing their box with black shirts.
A good idea in theory, but they failed to recognise danger arriving at the edge of the box, and Riyad Mahrez was able to pick out İlkay Gündoğan 20-25 yards out, with the German placing the ball into the back of the Leeds net from distance. This goal could have been avoided simply by recognising danger, and they had two key chances at it.
Priorities for Allardyce
As we touched upon in the previous analysis segment, Allardyce hasn’t got the time for a tactical overhaul at Leeds. Besides, that isn’t really his style anyway – he is a master at coming into a club that is going through a tough time and getting the basics right. Unsurprisingly, improving his side’s defensive performance will be number one on the agenda, but helping Leeds be more effective in their possession in the opposition half will also be important. In this segment, we highlight a couple of key issues currently facing Leeds, with the odd suggestion of where they could improve their game.
Above is another example of poor positioning in midfield despite operating a low block – a combination that will send Leeds into the Championship if they don’t rectify it. Again, it was Rico Lewis who recognised the space left by Leeds in a central area and collected the ball before driving through the middle of the pitch – it took Leeds far too long to react to this as if they didn’t even realise that they let Lewis wander in central midfield to receive the ball for free. Credit where credit is due, it was fine work from Lewis to move into the space and drive forward with the ball and he capped it off with a neat pass to play Haaland through on goal.
The takeaway note here is that Leeds have a clear and reoccurring issue with the positioning in midfield areas within a low block and teams will exploit this if it isn’t fixed.
They may want to start with their two deeper central midfielders playing closer together. This way, if an opponent gets the ball in a central area similar to where Lewis did, then at least they have a stronger defensive presence between the ball and the back four.
While we did mention that Leeds may look into adopting a system that brings focus away from a high-energy approach out of possession, they will still be required to do such work on occasion, otherwise, they face defending for the majority of the game regardless of the opponent.
We saw flashes of this against Man City, particularly in the opening stages of the second half, but there was some hesitation and lack of urgency in doing so. The image above shows this as Leeds have a presence in the City half, but they aren’t forcing Guardiola’s men into making a move, they are simply just there. And this is where Leeds’ identity could use some clarity – from the coaching staff to the players. Do they approach these situations with the execution of a sudden press? – if so, triggering the press in wide areas would be wise as we have already identified a need for a stronger central presence.
The lines in the image above represent who each player would press if they opted to trigger the press, which, based on their positioning, they should be doing. Being this high up would only really be beneficial if the rest of the team is high up as well, but this wasn’t the case, and rarely would it be for the remaining fixtures. So, if they aren’t interested in a high press, if they are affording their opponents the space, then Leeds should close the gap between the players you see in the image above, and the ones you don’t. Whether this means those you see dropping deeper, or those you don’t see pushing slightly higher, may depend on the opponent and the circumstances of the game.
In terms of attack, Leeds have a player that suits Allardyce’s preferred tactics. Patrick Bamford, at nearly 6’1”, is an ideal candidate for the target man role that Big Sam loves. Getting the ball into Bamford quickly could help them get higher up the pitch and build some attacking momentum, but they need to simplify his role. His heatmap above suggests that he is operating in more areas than he needs to. As a target man, he shouldn’t be straying too far forward from central positions, getting into areas where he can either cushion the ball down for a teammate or hold the ball up before bringing teammates into play.
Allardyce vs the best
It’s time to put Allardyce’s claims to the sword. In his own words, he is up there with the best managers that the Premier League has to offer, but that isn’t big Sam saying he’s going to try and copy them. Allardyce has made it clear before that he prefers a direct approach in attack, with a stubborn and resolute defensive set-up. In fact, he has before stated that he firmly believes that a team is more likely to concede goals if they spend time passing the ball from side to side compared to a team who wants to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
There have been some outstanding defensive-focused teams in recent years, but maybe the most famous is Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid – they have built a reputation for “parking the bus” when necessary and are extremely effective in doing so. In line with this notion, and the similarities between Allardyce and Simeone tactically, we will use Atletico’s 2020/21 title-winning campaign as a reference point where applicable.
Before we compare Leeds to anybody, we’ll take a closer look at the work big Sam has to do in terms of fixing Leeds’ woeful defence. As mentioned, they have conceded more goals in the Premier League so far this season than anybody else, and that is reflected in the xG ranking. In terms of expected goals against, Leeds have an xG of 45.57 against them (from open play) – higher than any other team, so they aren’t shipping goals out of bad luck. As the map above shows us, plenty of the 69 goals they’ve conceded have been from inside the box, meaning they allow far too many teams to cut through them and penetrate into the penalty area. If Big Sam can make sufficient improvements in this area then maybe he is up there with the best!
A brief look now at the defensive territory of Leeds United this season, and Atlético Madrid in their title-winning season back in 2020/21. This isn’t a random inclusion by the way – Big Sam claimed to be up there with the best and we aren’t here to dispute him but to present the very best of defensive-based football, which Atlético under Simeone epitomise. Of course, the map of Leeds’ territory includes the games prior to Allardyce’s arrival, the point here is to paint a picture of what the very best looks like when it comes to a defensively-focused team and whether or not Allardyce can reach that level with Leeds in the short time that he has.
If we take a closer look at the details in the maps above, we start to see some patterns but also some key differences. Firstly, their engagement zones: Leeds have been engaging with opposition possession slightly higher up the pitch, meaning they press slightly higher, but also pay attention to the corners of the highlighted squares of both teams. Atlético’s engagement is lower in wide areas and becomes increased in central areas, whereas Leeds only share that trait on the left flank.
Leeds’ defensive line is also lower than Atlético, and while it is only a small margin, small margins can be make-or-break in football. Obviously, we have to consider the difference in squad quality between the two sides as well their managers and their respective tactical setups.
One final noteworthy factor is that Leeds appear to be making far more interceptions than Atlético of 20/21, but those interceptions are more frequent in central areas just outside the box, meaning they are inviting too much pressure in these dangerous areas.
Is Sam Allardyce really up there with the best? Possibly. For many, this season will determine the answer to that question, whereas others will already have their minds made up. What is undeniable is that Allardyce knows what his football identity is, how to translate that into his tactics, and how to get the best out of players who suit that system.
Some have said that Leeds appointing Big Sam is a move of desperation, but if he can apply his experience to fix some of Leeds’ biggest problems and save them from the drop, it will be viewed as a brilliant appointment.