Aside from the litany of rumors that go hand-in-hand with the January transfer window, a great deal of the talk surrounding Leeds United recently has been Neil Redfearn's decision to deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation. It resulted in the Whites leaving Macron Stadium with a hard-earned point and a major component of the result was how Leeds utilized the flanks.
The 4-2-3-1 system that was employed usually allows two things to happen. First off, it adds an extra man in midfield, which in turn allows the now five-man unit to retain possession and challenge the ball more effectively. Secondly, it encourages wide play, as the wingers and outside backs charge upfield trying to cut inside for a shot or beat their man on the dribble to cross.
On Saturday both of these phenomenons unfolded on the pitch. The central midfield trio of Lewis Cook, Rodolph Austin, and Luke Murphy worked diligently to shield the back four, disrupt Bolton's advances, and create through the middle. Those three were far from perfect, but it allowed Leeds to grind out an away point which would have surely not been obtained if the attacking and defensive central midfielder of the 4-4-2 diamond formation manned the center of the park.
As far as wide play goes, Leeds used their outside midfielders and outside backs to great effect. Bolton's Liam Feeney and Darren Pratley worked their respective flanks, but were largely held quiet throughout the affair. However, when Leeds' own flank play gets broken down analytically and spatially several interesting trends appear.
First off, below is a positional map that shows where each Whites player showed up most often on the pitch. The important numbers to look at on it are Gaetano Berardi's #12, Charlie Taylor's #21, Sam Byram's #2, and Casper Sloth's #33.
Starting with the outside backs, it reveals that Berardi and Taylor spent the majority of the afternoon virtually pinned to the touchline. As for Byram and Sloth, the wingers, it illustrates that they had a tendency to tuck in to either support possession or combine. This theme causes one to look at the pitch in groupings of backs and wingers, but when one looks at the positional map horizontally (right and left flank) a lot more is evident.
Most importantly it shows how much higher upfield the right-sided pairing of Berardi and Byram were than the left-sided pairing of Taylor and Sloth. Inferentially, the right-sided duo was more involved in the attack, whereas the left-sided duo was more active on the defensive side of the ball.
The following heat map provides even further insight into how involved the wingers and outside backs were against Bolton. The more green there is in an area of the field the more active a player was. Conversely, the more blue there is in an area of the field the less active a player was.
There is an incredibly higher density of green and overall data points on the right side of the field than the left side. This goes to show that Byram and Berardi were extremely involved and tirelessly defended and attacked over the course of the 90 minutes. The left sided players of Sloth and Taylor were still highly involved, but not nearly to the extent which Byram and Berardi were.
This fondness for the right side becomes even more apparent when the following image is introduced. It divides the pitch into a left, central, and right section. It then records a blue dot for every "football event" that occurs on the pitch and proportionally breaks down where they take place.
Normally the greatest percentage would occur in the central section, but the story is entirely different from the Bolton match. Even though Redfearn placed three midfielders centrally, the right side was the most active area on the field. Byram and Berardi's side was responsible for nearly 40% of Leeds' football events, while Sloth and Taylor's were only responsible for about 28% of them.
Given all of these metrics, images, and analyzations, there is one major idea that can be gathered from the Bolton match. The 4-2-3-1 formation thrives on flank play and it seems as though the right side of the field is where a great deal of time and energy is expelled.
To be blunt, one reason for this could be that many footballer's are dominantly right footed. It's only their natural tendency to lean towards the right side, but there are more in-depth reasons for this trend too. Berardi and Byram are both solid players who can sprint up and down the right flank and providing service and width. The Englishman of this duo provided what were arguably the best chances on the afternoon. They can be seen at the 2:28 and 2:55 marks of the below video.
Those chances surely left the Leeds faithful salivating at the prospects of players like Sloth, Taylor, Berardi, and Byram booming down their respective flanks, but it most importantly shows a new element to the team's game. In the 4-2-3-1 the team is no longer narrow, but now is maximizing the full width of the pitch. This then allows the team to produce free-flowing attacks, particularly down the right.
Everyone will have to wait and see if this trend continues, but the numbers and analysis from the Bolton surely back the tactical benefits of the 4-2-3-1. Given the precious away point that was gained this weekend, it appears as though Redfearn may just have unlocked tactical gold for his squad.