As Wigan’s Joe Williams 52nd minute corner floated into the far corner of Kiko Casilla’s net – via a Pablo Hernandez deflection – an all too familiar pattern was emerging for Leeds.
By Anthony Crewdson
Leeds United’s dominance of the opposition, in every facet – successful passes made, shots, shots on target, corners, chances created, touches, successful crosses and take-ons – was about to come to nought, quite literally. Their dominance ultimately counting for nothing. Another seemingly inevitable victory slipping through their hands.
A classic “goal against the run of play” sucked the life out of Bielsa’s side. The sell-out crowd was left speechless save for the pocket of Wigan fans who’d seen it all before. Leeds having capitulated against the same opposition, in similar fashion but against 10 men, last season. That defeat over the Easter period had left United’s season in tatters and automatic promotion a distant dream. Is history about to repeat itself?
The home defeat against Wigan followed on from a barnstorming 3-2 mid-week win at home to Millwall. The Whites coming back from 2-0 down. This victory had galvanised fans and players alike after a patchy period in which Leeds had recorded just two wins in nine games during December and January.
But this latest defeat against a Wigan side who had previously registered just one away win all season left the players and their long-suffering supporters seemingly at breaking point. Self-doubt creeping in, a fractious fan-base arguing among themselves on social media and Bielsa not immune to the criticism being meted out.
Questions were being asked; Why hadn’t Bielsa considered including Jean-Kévin Augustin in the squad, their recent signing from RB Leipzig, to assist Patrick Bamford? Why had Bielsa chosen not to introduce another new signing in Ian Carlo Poveda? A tricky midfielder/winger recently signed from Manchester City. Why has Bielsa continued to stick with Kiko Casilla in the nets? The error-prone Spanish goalkeeper with previous.
Leeds now face a tricky sequence of games against clubs in the chasing pack; Forest, Brentford and Bristol City and they need to get their season back on track, and quickly. But if there is one area which concerns Leeds’ long-suffering fans it concerns their inability to convert chances into goals. It’s not as though the possession stats are insignificant.
Chances are being carved out, but Leeds’ have missed 53 “big chances” according to data provided by Chris Taylor of LUFCDATA. This is more than any other side in the Championship and Leeds United’s no 9, Patrick Bamford, most culpable. The forward having missed 19 guilt edged chances already this season, more than any other player in the Championship.
Bamford’s xG stands at 19.62 (i.e. expected goals given opportunities presented), and yet he has only 12 goals to his name. These goals have come from 107 shots. Of the 28 Championship players to have scored more than 8 goals this season, Bamford has the highest negative xG differential. The heat is most certainly on Bamford despite possessing an excellent all-round game otherwise.
Bielsa is certainly an advocate and his insistence on playing Bamford as a sole forward was a key factor in Arsenal cutting short Eddie Nketiah’s season long loan from Arsenal. But Bielsa is reluctant to play a front two given that his midfield functions so well. Creating chances is not the issue, the problems lies with their inability to cash in.
Leeds, in general, have the 4th lowest conversion rate for shots on-target, 29.3%, in the league and yet it would be unfair to consider such a statistic without recognising the need for the goal-scoring burden to be shared. It is quite ironic when you consider that Own Goals are United’s second highest scorer with 6. Alioski, Harrison, Hernandez, Dallas and Klich are equally culpable, fine players though they are.
Each player has registered at least 45 shots on goal this season and yet between them they have scored only 20 goals. Bamford is the only Leeds player to register more than 5 league goals for the season. A statistic which needs to change and Leeds fans will be hoping that Augustin can fire straight away.
Furthermore, Leeds have issues defending and attacking corners; they not only struggle defensively but pose relatively little threat from an attacking point of view. The team certainly lacks height and opposing managers are fully aware that defending and attacking set-pieces remains something of an Achilles heel for United.
The Whites have the lowest conversion rate from corners in the Championship, 1.73%, and have managed to find the net only 4 times from 231 corners taken. Whilst at the other end of the pitch Leeds have the 2nd highest percentage of goals conceded from corners faced in the league, 6.7%, with 9 goals conceded from 128 corners.
Casilla’s form is a big cause for concern. Since Leeds let a 3-0 lead slip at home to Cardiff in December, Casilla has a save percentage of only 44.4% compared to 82.5% prior to the Cardiff game. He was previously making 4.7 saves per goal conceded and this figure has dropped dramatically to 0.76 shots per goal conceded.
The statistics are damming, and the Spanish keeper’s decision making has been called into question on several occasions. Bielsa’s hand might be forced, however, with Casilla facing an FA charge for allegedly making a racist remark against Charlton Athletic forward Jonathan Leko during a game at The Valley in September. United’s no 2 keeper, Illan Meslier is on standby.
Ultimately, it is evident what needs to happen if Leeds are to gather some momentum. A higher percentage of chances need to be converted, corners defended more resolutely, and the team need to pose more of a threat in an attacking sense. In addition, Casilla needs to perform more consistently, eradicating unnecessary mistakes and calming an increasingly jittery defence.
Leeds United have gained plenty of neutral supporters, most noticeably after showcasing their talents against Arsenal in the FA Cup 3rd Round. The game was televised live and Bielsa’s side swarmed all over the Gunners, carving out chance after chance. But in typical fashion, goalscoring opportunities came and went and the Londoners eventually won by a single goal. 1-0 to the Arsenal. But for all that Leeds are easy on the eye, the fans would gladly forsake aesthetics for results.