Leeds owed West Bromwich Albion’s 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield Town to officially confirm their promotion, and then Brentford’s shock loss to Stoke to deliver the trophy without even kicking a ball.
Their first guard of honour was ironically held by Derby County, the side who derailed Leeds in last year’s playoff semi-finals. Marcelo Bielsa’s triumphant squad rubbed salt into the wounds by defeating their hosts 3-1 at Pride Park Stadium, simultaneously ending the Rams dreams of a top six finish.
Despite Derby taking the lead, the Whites washed their opponents away in a second half display typical of the tremendous title holders. This tactical analysis will cover how Leeds won the battle over their recently formed rival, taking apart the tactics of their intense pressing and confidence in possession, whilst also discussing Derby’s attempt to nullify their rampaging opponents in this analysis.
Knowing their destiny had ultimately been secured, Bielsa was afforded the luxury of making wholesale changes from the team that had beaten Barnsley four days previous. Tyler Roberts, Ben White and Stuart Dallas were the only survives of that victory, yet all three found themselves in a different position to the previous fixture. White dropped from central midfield into centre defence, Dallas swapped from left-back to right-back and Roberts became the central striker, having been deployed as a midfielder originally. Player versatility has become a staple of Bielsa reign, demanding his troops to be efficient in a variety of roles.
Aware that anything other than a win would virtually seal another season in the second division, Philip Cocu only made two altercations from Derby’s defeat at the hands of fellow promotion pushers Cardiff City. Martin Waghorn returned from suspension in place of Jason Knight, whilst Jayden Bogle replaced Max Lowe in a like for like swap at right-back.
Leeds opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation, entrusting the holding midfield role to Pascal Struijk. The young Dutchman had only made three appearances all campaign before being thrown into the hot seat, however, he became crucial in this particular tie for his role against fellow starlet, Louis Sibley.
Derby remained with their favoured 4-2-3-1, pushing top scorer Waghorn out onto the left, with Sibley in behind Chris Martin as the creative force. Unfortunately, both managers were forced to make unwanted substitutions in the first half due to injuries to Tom Lawrence and Gaetano Berardi. Derby perhaps lost a slice of quality as 19-year-old Knight came on for the Welshman, whereas Luke Ayling’s introduction caused Leeds no damage. In fact, he played a key role in United’s first and second goals to ultimately seal the tie.
Passive Derby against pressing Leeds
As spectacular first halves go, this one will not live long in the memory. Leeds stuck to the game plan that has more often than not reaped the rewards of Biela’s meticulous mind; intensity in the press matched with control of the ball.
The frontmen harried and hassled the Derby defence, or any Rams player for that matter, forcing them into a hasty pass or disposing them after being tight on their heels.
In polar opposite fashion, the home side were set up to sit back, inviting the opposing central defenders to either pass through them or attempt a longer ball. On numerous occasions, Martin, Sibley and Waghorn set themselves in a rigid line to disrupt any service through the middle of the field, whilst rarely attempting to apply any kind of pressure.
When they did decide to put Leeds under examination, it was generally from a goal kick or just outside his area. Martin and Sibley would be joined by former Manchester United striker, Wayne Rooney, in cutting off the short pass for Kiko Casilla. The Spanish shot stopper would instead search for a pass further upfield, usually intercepted by a Derby header or would go straight out of play.
Derby did mainly manage to survive the constant badgering by Biela’s Whites but were unable to fashion anything clear cut on Casilla’s goalmouth. This can be attributed to the strict man-marking system shown by Leeds, ensuring that whoever the ball is passed to, they have at least one figure on hand to disrupt the move.
This was typified by Struijk, who stuck to Sibley like glue, tracking the talented attacking threat wherever he went, halting Derby’s most creative outlet.
Leeds did enjoy some success down the right channel, pitting the skill and speed of Manchester City graduate, Ian Poveda, against the experience of Craig Forsyth. Poveda was often joined by Pablo Hernandez and the energy of Dallas in his corner, whilst Forsyth was offered little protection from Knight. Nor was he from Rooney, who was unwilling to leave his zone from midfield in case it offered freedom to a United player on the edge of the area.
Same tactics with different results
The second half certainly did spring into life thanks to the scoring exploits of either team, but it was not without a similar pattern of play witnessed in the opening period.
Leeds continued their intense work to regain possession, combined with the close marking, whereas Derby insisted on stepping off the gas apart from when Casillas was taking his goal kicks.
Although it was effective in the first half, the stubbornness of remaining touch tight actually led to the opener for the Rams. Sibley received the ball on the edge of the box, obviously with Struijk breathing down his neck. When the ball was recycled by Derby, Struijk was so insistent on staying with his man as Sibley entered the box, that he left a wide-open space for Forsyth to stab the ball into the path of Martin, who’s deflected shot nestled into the back of the net.
Nonetheless, Cocu had seen enough of Struijk’s obsession with Sibley and substituted him off for Graeme Shinnie. He then moved Rooney further forward, maintaining that flat line that Leeds could not always penetrate.
Different shirt number, same job for Struijk, who instead turned his attention to following the Rams captain in his new advanced position. From then on, Rooney’s influence on proceedings shrank, much like Sibley’s had before he was replaced.
Defenders dragging their team forward
Not contempt in allowing their crowning ceremony to end in with a whimper, Leeds applied more aggression in attack with far more incisiveness in the final third. Interestingly, all three of their goals were actually initiated by their defenders.
Bielsa ball was in full motion for the leveller: a delightful passing segment began right near their own corner flag, resulting in them breaking down the other end at speed before Hernandez eventually found the bottom corner after his original effort was blocked.
Rewind to the start of this move, and it is clear after Ayling makes his first pass, his is next movement is immediately forward into the open space, driving himself and his team mates forward, giving Leeds momentum in their attack.
Another recurring pattern from the first 45 minutes was the favouritism towards the right flank. However, instead of overloading it, Poveda was allowed one-on-one with Forysth after Hernandez picked him out with a delicate pass.
Instead of admiring his pick out, the Spanish superstar drifted just outside the 18-yard-box without the devotion of anyone in Derby colours. Martin allowed Hernandez to simply move away from him, the striker too worried about getting upfield to counter than to complete his defence duties, whereas Rooney and Bird were too busy filling the box with more bodies.
Leeds went in front thanks to Ayling once again. As Rooney went down to tie his laces it broke that defence front line that Cocu had planned out, allowing Ayling to pounce on the space afforded to him. He followed his pass into Patterson, creating an overload for Derby to deal with.
With attentions turning to the surge of the centre-back, Patterson span and fed Jamie Shackleton, the academy product going on to calmly score his first senior goal for the club. Typically, Leeds had several men over on the right to occupy the full-back, now Lee Buchanan after Cocu did not believe Forysth was coping efficiently.
For the third and final goal, it would be Dallas who would stride from defence to commence the build-up. The converted left-back intercepted the Derby attempt to break, passing firmly into the feet of Hernandez and continuing his run into the opposition penalty area.
Ezgjan Alioski’s teasing cross was turned into his own goal by the despairing Matthew Clarke, perhaps unsettled by the burst from deep by Dallas.
Struijk was the silent unsung hero of the afternoon and to see out the remainder of the fixture, Bielsa dropped the midfielder into the backline when Derby had possession just to ease the pressure of the closing stages.
Leeds once again proved why they are Premier League quality and although it was not their most convincing performance, the Whites still confidently got the job done when they easily could have taken their foot off the gas.
Bielsa never wavered from his tactical philosophy, insisting on high intensity from his players both in and out of possession, from his attackers all the back to his defenders. Derby also had a clear game plan, and in sections matched their opponents, even managing to take the lead through persistence of their own. Unfortunately, they were undone by the sheer force in the Leeds ranks and will now have to rebuild for another campaign in the Championship.