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Will return of key players change Leeds’ fortunes?

Leeds are struggling to implement the tactics that made them tick last season, but will the eventual return of injured key players change their fortunes?

Both Luke Ayling’s impact on the pitch and his absence have been central to Leeds’ tame start to the new season.
Melanie Salgado

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United were a marvel to watch last season. Players’ abilities to progress the ball so well meant that at any moment, an opposition attack could turn into a Whites goal. Players like Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas - who had looked destined to play out their careers in the EFL - combined brilliantly with imported talent like Raphinha to ensure a final total of 59 points for the newly promoted Premier League side.

It was to be anticipated, then, that some fans’ expectations would go through the roof, with premature (in hindsight) excitement surrounding a challenge for the European places. Although a few supporters - perhaps yet to shake off the feeling generated by countless mid-table finishes in the Championship - foresaw a more difficult challenge in Leeds’ second season since promotion, few thought it’d be so grim-looking going into the ninth game of the season.

A recent article from All Stats Aren’t We brilliantly dissects what has changed since last season and why the current statistical trends are worrying without deep-diving into the stats themselves, given the small sample size of numbers from this season. However, we are willing to try and make sense of those numbers and, by pairing them with what we’ve seen this season and comparing them with last season’s stats, try to determine whether or not the return of Leeds’ injured players could see the club’s fortunes change for the better.

Ahead of the match against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Elland Road, Robin Koch, Luke Ayling, Junior Firpo, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford are all ruled out, while Raphinha is set to make his first appearance since announcing himself on the international stage with Brazil. In this piece, we will focus on Ayling (whose ability to progress the ball was so integral last season), Raphinha (whose attacking creativity and flair cannot be matched by any of his teammates) and Bamford (whose place in the first team looks to be under little threat from Rodrigo Moreno).

Luke Ayling

Ayling started his season in the best possible fashion, but has since struggled to influence games the way he did in the last campaign.
Melanie Salgado

After scoring a stunner at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season, things have been less than consistent for Luke Ayling, whose fortunes seem to have been switched compared to last season; in 20/21, it was his excellent ball progression that enabled Leeds to create countless opportunities by cutting the ball into the middle from the flanks, but he didn’t register a single goal contribution. His attacking woes did not last long this time round, but a mixture of poor form, filling in at centre-back and injuries have limited his influence down the right.

There is little data to work with this season, obviously, but the fact that the 30-year-old has started four of his five league games at right-back means there is at least a little scope for comparison with his excellent debut campaign in the top flight. The table below shows that while Ayling is actually progressing the ball more per-game than he did across last season, but there is still a notable decrease in the number of times he is carrying the ball into the final third and penalty area.

A comparison of Ayling’s carrying statistics between 20/21 and 21/22 so far.
Data: fbref / Table: Josh Ramsbottom

Brazilian winger Raphinha is one of those most impacted by the ex-Bristol City and Yeovil Town defender’s absence, as we will later discuss, but even when he is on the pitch Ayling is struggling to replicate his progression of the ball that made him such a significant piece to the puzzle last season. There is little doubt that he, like others, has suffered from simply playing so often under Bielsa - he did start all 38 games last season, after all - so hopefully he will be fresh upon his return from injury. Either way, for Leeds to generate the sorts of chances that they created last season, an improvement in that area of the pitch is needed.


Raphinha’s statistics so far this season.
Art: Melanie Salgado / Data: fbref / Infographic: Josh Ramsbottom

The absence of Ayling, and his underperformance when he is on the pitch, has a direct influence on how Raphinha himself impacts matches. Usually, most of the heavy-lifting regarding progression of the ball is carried out by the right-back, enabling Raphinha to receive the ball deeper into the opponent’s half and subsequently decreasing the distance between him and the goal. This allowed the winger to cut inside on a more regular basis last season.

But without the same heavy-lifting being achieved behind him, Raphinha isn’t baring as many attacking fruits as it did in 20/21. Considering the circumstances, Jamie Shackleton has impressed at right-back despite the collective poor form among the majority of the players, but while he is effective at playing one-twos, he struggles in the ball-carrying department. Raphinha has subsequently been receiving the ball deeper, and this has resulted in him executing long passes and shots from a greater distance that have less chance of success.

While the first two charts above show that Raphinha’s attacking output has so far increased compared to last season (likely because he is being more heavily relied upon to take goalscoring opportunities, particularly in the absence of Patrick Bamford, who we will talk about later), his shot accuracy has seen a reduction of over 10 percent. This corresponds with the fact that on average, the 24-year-old is shooting nearly four yards further away from goal than he did in 20/21.

Additionally, his tendency to attempt more long passes is illustrated in the third chart, showing that while the number of attempted long balls has increased, the number of those completed per-game remains the same. And although his number of overall carries has increased, perhaps highlighting the overreliance Leeds have on Raphinha to create as well as score, the number of times he is carrying the ball into the final third has decreased, resulting in the passes and shots from distance.

As mentioned in the All Stats Aren’t We piece, only Norwich City have been collectively shooting further away from goal than Leeds this season, and the individual shot maps (above) from each of the Whites’ fixtures so far this season show how rarely they are able to get most of their shots away from inside the penalty area. Bielsa’s side are struggling to get the ball deep enough down the flanks as they did last season, and the quality of the chances Leeds are getting in the area isn’t as good on average.

Making matters worse is the fact that fellow wingers Dan James and Jack Harrison have failed to match Raphinha in some areas, while failing to capitalise on their differences to the Brazilian in others. The table comparing the trio’s shooting stats this season shows that Raphinha far outperforms James and Harrison in terms of the number of shots taken, as well as the accuracy and quality of those shots. This is despite the fact that both players, particularly James, shoot closer to goal.

Although James and Harrison cover less distance with their passes, the second chart shows that Raphinha still bares the brunt of chance creation duties. In fact, he registers over four shot-creating actions per-game, as opposed to the three created by Harrison and 1.87 by James (an accidental exclusion from the data charts). The graph depicting the trio’s long ball output shows that Raphinha’s counterparts do not rely so heavily on long balls, yet this is not translated into James and Harrison creating the sorts of chances that resulted in goals aplenty in 20/21.

Furthermore, the Brazilian is sorely missed from the starting XI despite James and Harrison managing to carry the ball into the final third more often as shown in the third table. It obviously isn’t that simple - Raphinha is clearly the more talented player - but the fact that James and Harrison have been more successful in an area that was significant to the way Leeds created chances last season without reaping the rewards is still noteworthy.

We can certainly expect Raphinha to increase Leeds’ attacking output and a subsequent improvement on the woeful display at Southampton, but collective changes must occur if we are to get closer to the absolute best out of the Brazilian. But could the return of talisman Patrick Bamford help to set things straight?

Patrick Bamford

Rodrigo has failed to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by Bamford’s injury.
Melanie Salgado

Having scored 17 goals last season, Patrick Bamford established himself as a key cog of Bielsa’s machine in the Premier League last season, and although record signing Rodrigo came to life in the final four games of the campaign there was little to suggest that Bamford’s place in the first team was under threat. A solitary goal at Burnley is all the England international has to show for his efforts so far this season, on top of two assists, but there is little question over the fact that Leeds are weaker without him.

Optimism surrounded the build-up to Rodrigo’s second season at Elland Road, with many pinning hopes of success on the Spaniard finding consistency in front of goal and settling into his midfield role. Both are yet to occur this season, partly down to the fact that Rodrigo has been filling in for the injured Bamford up front; this was a huge opportunity for the 30-year-old to establish himself in a more natural role, but he has unfortunately let that chance slip thus far.

The graphs above, which unfortunately do not take into account Rodrigo’s exploits in midfield, do show that Rodrigo is more accurate with his shots despite shooting from a greater distance than Bamford. However, anyone who has watched Rodrigo this season is likely to agree that the Spanish international has looked unconvincing in the 18-yard box, and that is reflected in Bamford registering a much higher xG so far this season.

Following the torrid display at Southampton, attacking output should arguably be the priority, and Bamford certainly provides that in comparison to Rodrigo. And while his accuracy hasn’t been at its best so far this season, Bamford’s presence in the box and ability to get shots away at greater ease than Rodrigo does is integral if Leeds want to maximise their attacking threat.

Bamford’s pressing ability is also missed when he takes to the sidelines; so far this season, the 27-year-old has managed 18.5 pressures every 90 minutes with a success rate of 33.7 percent, compared to Rodrigo with 14.9 pressures per-game, 31.7 percent of which have been successful. Indeed, the Englishman has registered more pressures per-90 minutes than Rodrigo in both the midfield and attacking thirds of the pitch.

Raphinha is expected to return to Leeds’ matchday squad as they welcome Wolves to Elland Road later today, and his return, along with the eventual resurfacing of Patrick Bamford, will undoubtedly improve Leeds’ attacking output. But for a lasting change in comparison to the way the Whites have started the season, more needs to change in Leeds’ build-up play.

The recovery of Kalvin Phillips should go a long way to doing this, but the most worrying signs in the opening eight fixtures have been Leeds’ inability to progress the ball like they did last season. Only Lionel Messi made more progressive yards in possession than Ayling in 20/21, and we need to see more of that from the right-back if we want to see the same Leeds side that we enjoyed watching so often last season.


Which player do you think is most important to Leeds’ chances of finding their form this season?

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