A great deal of time in football is spent talking about tactics. Managers, pundits, and fans all chip in their two cents about how the squad should line up on the pitch, who should have what offensive and defensive responsibilities, and the style of play the team should employ.
With Leeds United the story is no different. In recent weeks fans have come to lament and criticize Neil Redfearn's decision to stick with the 4-4-2 diamond formation. Given the right players and style this formation can thrive. On the most basic level this system relies on playing between the lines and shuttling possession from side to side with urgency. It sacrifices width for combination play and is dependent on team defending and quick, decisive runs up top.
Under Redfearn these tactics worked to varying amounts, as Leeds was brilliant for times and then incredibly frustrating at others. Simply, the eleven men on the pitch struggled to string together a complete 90 minute performance and lacked the ability to "out-football" their opponents.
The style of play that tends to inherently define the 4-4-2 diamond formation is important, but the lineup decisions are even more crucial. It requires a unique set of players who work as a unit and understand their roles when they are with and without the ball. Below is what a typical 4-4-2 diamond lineup tended to look like under Leeds.
All of the players in this starting eleven are fine footballers in their own regard, but as Leeds' bottom table standing demonstrated, they were not getting the job done. Players like Alex Mowatt, Tomasso Bianchi, Adryan, Mirco Antenucci, and Souleymane Doukara all play an attractive brand of football, but the tiki-taka style they represent led to too many disappointing results.
With all of this considered, Redfearn opted for a change in formation when the Whites took on Bolton Wanderers this past weekend in Championship play. He settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation and this bold decision represented a number of things on a tactical level. It still is an attacking and proactive formation, but it changed the team shape, which in turn altered how Leeds approached the match.
The back four had similar responsibilities, but the five man midfield is where the magic took place. The two holding midfielders were vital as they must have extreme positional awareness and stay disciplined to their duties when the team is with and without the ball. They shield the back four, spray distributing passes, and even make occasional forays forward into the box or in support of the attack.
While the holding midfielders tend to focus primarily on the defensive side of the game, the attacking three midfielders are given license to roam forward and express themselves through dynamic runs. The central-most player primarily supports the striker and pulls the string in attack, whereas the wide players are tasked with beating their marker on the dribble or cutting inside to shoot or combine.
The last key tactical element of the 4-2-3-1 formation is the lone striker up top. This player's responsibilities are generally two-fold. He must have excellent hold-up play and he must also be able to make runs into the box and finish off chances that are carved out for him. If the striker is unable to do either of these things then chances may be created at will, but the scoreboard will remain empty.
When Redfearn employed all of these tactical intricacies against Bolton he chose a largely surprising cast of players to operate on the back-line, in midfield, and up top. Below is how the Whites lined up against the Trotters.
Players like Gaetano Berardi, Charlie Taylor, Rodolph Austin, Luke Murphy, Casper Sloth, Sam Byram, and Steve Morison all constituted critical and poignant lineup choices for Leeds, but their inclusion says a lot about Redfearn's 4-2-3-1 formation. Rather than leaning towards a dynamic and free-flowing style of football, Redfearn opted for committed players who will battle for the entirety of the match.
Austin and Murphy brought bite and determination to the holding positions, while Sloth, Byram, and Cook took up attacking positions. This trio were vital on the afternoon as they provided a great deal of urgency and dedication on both sides of the ball. They put in challenges, tracked runners, kept possession in tight spaces, and created chances.
In what was the most perplexing lineup decision on the afternoon, Morison who was chosen as the lone striker. The former Welsh international held the ball up well, but he left a lot to be wanted up top. He forced Andy Lonergan into a save in the 10th minute, but missed several other opportunities and could have surely left the Macron Stadium with a goal to his name.
The most interesting aspect of this lineup though was that it sacrificed possession for doggedness. Neil Redfearn's team got engaged in 27 tackles against Bolton, cleared the ball 39 times, and fouled their opponents 12 times. Time after time one could also see Leeds players coming up big in vital defensive situations to deter Bolton attacks.
The other element that best represents this change in style of play is Leeds' ability, or rather inability, to string passes together. The Whites completed 66% of their passes as a team and the below infographic from Squawka shows how much Leeds struggled at times to keep the ball.
The green lines represent completed passes, whereas the red ones represent incomplete passes. This goes without saying, but there is far more red on that image than Redfearn or any person associated with Leeds would like. The team still managed to generate 10 chances and attempt 13 shots on the afternoon, but the team's inability to connect passes is not characteristic of a typical 4-2-3-1 formation.
It will be interesting to see if Redfearn sticks with the 4-2-3-1 formation in the coming weeks, and if he does how it evolves. On Saturday the gaffer made some bold lineup decisions and the players repaid him with a hard-earned point, but it wasn't done in the prettiest of manners.
One thing is for sure though, players who were absent from the starting lineup will be clamoring to get back into the fold and the Whites are desperate to continue gaining points.