Our next league outing on Saturday sees us take a trip up north to take on Leeds United at Elland Road. In the reverse fixture back in October, Villa put in one of our worst performances of the season in going down 0-3 to a Patrick Bamford hat-trick, the peacocks inflicting the first league defeat of the campaign on us and ending our perfect start.
Full disclosure, the title of this piece is a bit cheeky - it would be fair to say that Leeds have certainly surpassed my expectations of what they would achieve this season, along with those of many others who were equally and if not more critical than myself. They're not a myth (sorry, Gabby). They have a very watchable style of play by way that games they feature in are guaranteed to produce goals, having only produced one 0-0 draw all season. They've only kept 8 clean sheets, relatively middle of the road compared to other teams in the league, but what is very impressive is that they have scored in 20/25 of the games they have played so far this season. Given that they boast a record of 11 wins, 2 draws and 12 losses, their style of play is clear to anyone who's watched them for 90 minutes this season: score more than the opposition at any cost.
Sometimes this mentality pays off, and when it does, Bielsa is hailed to be a tactical genius. On the flip side, being beaten 12 times suggests two things to me: firstly, Leeds' style of play is somewhat naive despite being entertaining, and secondly, having only failed to score in 4 of their losses, it's clear that Leeds are going to ship large numbers of goals if they're still being beaten despite scoring in 8 defeats. So, with this in mind, how do we go about writing the wrongs of October? I've picked out a few areas that I think will be key if we're to take 3 points in what could be a tough fixture.
TAKE CHANCES WHEN THEY COME
So this one is fairly obvious, but a point that I think should be made nonetheless. If you watch the highlights from the reverse fixture (attached here for your convenience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PBWhmLUau4), you'll notice that the best chances in the game fell to Villa in the first half. Had we taken a couple of those and gone in 2-0 up at half time, for example, you then begin to feel like it's becoming an uphill battle for Leeds to take something from the game. I think it's crucial that we score first and are clinical on the day - we've only picked up 1 point all season from losing positions, and I can think of several games where had we taken our chances we'd have walked away with 3 points rather than none, West Ham (A) and Brighton (H) to name but 2.
Leeds are going to create chances. Only City, Liverpool and United average more shots per 90 (14.2) than the whites, so unless Emi produces another heroic performance, we're going to have to be defensively solid in order to keep them at bay - more on this later. To counteract this, Leeds have conceded the 3rd highest number of goals this season (43, compared to Villa's 26) and only Newcastle and West Brom face more shots per game in the entire league (14.3 per 90). From those numbers, it's clear that Villa are going to get chances as well. We need to take them when they come, otherwise we could be in for a long afternoon.
I'll point your attention back to the highlights of the reverse fixture. Watch Leeds' first goal and the shape we're in as the ball is moved out wide to Alioski. It's eclectic to put it kindly. Then watch the third goal - shape is better but the ball is allowed to move into the box way too easily, a good finish after all, but there is so much more we can do to stop it.
I believe there's two ways to effectively shut Leeds' attack down, and this is the first: we have to defend the 18 yard box as tightly as we can. That means operating a narrow back 4 and, if we opt to play a 4-2-3-1, the 2 holding midfielders remaining defensively disciplined to stop the ball being so easy to play into Bamford's feet in/around the penalty area. The full backs will have to tuck in within the width of the penalty area and allow Leeds' wide men space, creating some defensive workload for our wingers as they'll have to provide cover when this happens. We can't afford wide men to switch off defensively and, to me at least, this should influence team selection.
Speaking of Bamford, whenever the touches the ball, one of the two centre backs needs to remain tight to him after his first touch. 2 of his 3 goals last time out came from defenders stepping off him and allowing space for the shot. Given that Leeds have scored 9 goals from outside the area this season, joint most in the league, this tightness will be key in order to maximise the chances of blocks wherever Leeds decide to shoot from.
SPEED IN TRANSITION
Arguably the most important factor in beating Leeds in my mind, we have to be way quicker turning attack into defence and vice versa when we lose or regain the ball. Villa average the most shots on the counter per 90 minutes (0.8) in the league, so its clear that the counter attack is an important facet of our game. Despite averaging fewer shots from counter attacks per game (0.6), however, Leeds have scored 6 goals directly from counter attacks this season to Villa's 4. What can be taken from this, as such, is that Leeds are perhaps more effective at using the counter than ourselves. For this reason, I believe it's key that get back into a rigid shape as quickly as possible as a back 4 and holding 2. The key to achieving this is with the press of the front 4 who, immediately after we lose the ball, must press quickly and effectively to allow the remaining players to take up our defensive shape.
From the goals we conceded last time out, being caught out of shape was fatal in the first and final goal, particularly as the first came from our own set piece. We have to work harder to reset defensively against a team like Leeds that are potentially the most dangerous side on the counter attack in the league.
On the flip side, once we're back into shape, I think we then need to be quicker to cause Leeds problems when we get the ball back. Starting from deep, it'll be useful to have a ball carrier like Grealish in the side that can drive us up the pitch at pace and pick a pass or score himself given that Leeds tend to commit forward in large numbers, particularly if Alioski and Ayling both play at full back as they tend to push very high in possession. Once we get the chance, we need to be ruthless and take it, so it's a big day for someone like Ollie Watkins who may have the opportunity to be the deciding factor in what could pan out to be the battle of the centre forwards.
This is sure to divide opinions. The team I would select at the weekend is as follows:
Martinez, Targett, Mings, Konsa, Elmohamady, Mcginn, Nakamba, Sanson, Grealish, Watkins, Traore. (4-2-3-1)
I'll explain. Cash is obviously injured so Elmo is guaranteed to start, it's too soon to throw Kesler in. Hopefully Grealish will be fit as Smith said he was touch and go for the Leicester game but they decided not to risk him, so I'm backing him to come back in and start. I think we need Nakamba's energy and defensive mindset in midfield and given that Luiz has been slightly off it the past few games, he comes in for me in order to break up Leeds' free flowing play and cover the back 4 holding alongside McGinn. There's clearly some kind of issue with Barkley's fitness which is clear for us all to see, I think it's time to see Sanson given his first start of the campaign to emphasise the importance of pressing, something which he is particularly ahead of Barkley in. Sanson has played as a 10 in his time in France, so it makes sense for me to deploy him there.
Traore is a tricky call. If Cash plays, I 100% think Traore does too given that Cash is much better defensively than Elmo. I could however understand Smith starting with Trezeguet to provide the required defensive cover for Elmo given that he works considerably harder off the ball than Traore, but I think Bert probably just edges it having scored last time out and offering that bit more going forward than Trez.
It promises to be a tough fixture this weekend but a winnable one nonetheless. I'm going with Villa to win 3-1 and take revenge for earlier in the campaign. UTV!
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All stats correct according to WhoScored.com