After their first game of 2021, Leeds United currently possess the second worst defence in the Premier League.
Having conceded 33 goals in their opening 17 games of the season, only West Bromwich Albion have displayed a shakier backline. There is often a particular focus on Leeds’ defensive woes and how it so starkly contrasts their impressive, 30 goal offence. Bielsa’s men have consistently been criticised for the porous play at the back. Arguments in favour of Leeds United and the questions surrounding their defensive performances are often brushed over and ignored in favour of the far more prominent negative opinion, but this is a side that had the best defensive record in the 2019-20 season, conceding only 35 goals in 46 games and consistently displaying a far solider line than they have so far this season. Whilst the opposition will of course be of a better pedigree, there too are many other reasons as to why The Whites have been so leaky so far this season.
The injury issue at centre back
The main point surrounding Leeds United’s defence is their injuries at that position. Leeds signed both Robin Koch and Diego Llorente in the summer of 2020, two international centre backs who had both been capped at an international level and had established themselves as formidable players who both still had time to develop and expand their game. Diego Llorente has been absent from every Leeds game since he signed, barring a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in December. Robin Koch, after said defeat against Chelsea, was ruled out for around three months, having aggravated a knock he developed against Liverpool in the season opener. As such, Leeds United have never played a Premier League game with what can only be presumed to be Marcelo Bielsa’s preferred central defensive pairing.
As can only be expected with a small squad, Bielsa has been forced to adapt. He has been playing Luke Ayling, a wing-back, as starting centre back whilst often pairing him with Pascal Struijk who, regardless of his potential, only made his tenth start as a Leeds player in the January defeat to Tottenham. It is a curious matter as to why media are seemingly consistently confused by Leeds’ poor defensive statistics when for the majority of the season, they have been missing starting quality centre backs in a league that will punish you for not having them.
The Full Backs
Whilst the centre-backs are seemingly the biggest talking point in regard to the backbone of the Elland Road side, it too is worth noting the preference for Marcelo Bielsa at the full-back position. Whilst the established right-back, Luke Ayling, has been plying his trade there for his entire career, his left full back spot is frequented with wingers who have been converted into more versatile players. With Stuart Dallas and Ezgjan Alioski comes a higher attacking work rate given their background as offensive players, with which perhaps comes a higher quality of passing and awareness that would greatly benefit any system, particularly Bielsa’s. The point worth noting is that even with significant financial backing (at least in comparison to the recent history of Leeds’ transfer windows), Bielsa has been supportive of the defensive system he has established. It is noticeable that the defence is poor, but with such an offensive-minded system and to have a less conventional wingback pairing to further support it, it is perhaps a far smaller concern that Leeds United have conceded as many goals as they have.
The goalkeeper position is one too of notice when looking at Leeds United. The starter between the sticks for the West Yorkshire side is Illan Meslier, a 20-year-old who, in spite of his age, brings a particular calm to his box and his defensive line that is lacked by his veteran counterpart, Kiko Casilla. Whilst too displaying a more consistent motion in his passing patterns, Illan Meslier has made several decisive saves that have kept Leeds in games and kept their goals conceded as minimal as he could. Leeds United have put their faith in Meslier and the benefits of such a decision are continuous and worthwhile. Meslier plays as a keeper far beyond his age and will only get better.
The downside to this, and one Leeds United have been willing to accept, is the mistakes that will come with his age. A misplaced pass, a hand on a ball that is too weak to prevent it from crossing the line, the wrong decision on when to come for a cross. Illan Meslier is a young player and, arguably, a more experienced keeper would have kept their goals conceded far lower. Fans and staff alike at Leeds however are consistently rewarded for their faith in the Frenchman, whose glimpses of caliber are becoming ever more consistent.
Worth noting Leeds United offence
It is also worth noting the overwhelming offensive focus in Bielsa’s side. Leeds on defence either man mark in a fluid pattern to ensure a consistent press on the man with the ball at his feet, or they sit deep, absorbing a period of press with the aim to counter and catch the opposing team off guard. Both can understandably lead to goals conceded. Man marking can often lead gaps that can and have cost Leeds points, as can sitting too deep in an attempt to absorb pressure, as was evident in the 6-2 defeat at Old Trafford on December 20th 2020. Leeds’ defensive strategies will seem strange to some, more so those who follow the club less intently.
Fans are fully aware of the offensive possibilities that Bielsa’s men often put into fruition with a classy, extravagant game of dominant possession and attacking plays with a particular Bielsa flair.
As such, most fans are content with the idea of shipping a lot of goals at the other end. It is annoying at the time, in the moment of the game, no fan would argue that. Often though, in hindsight, the ‘leaky defence’ of Leeds United is outweighed by their presence in attack, which is of far more value, regardless of the underwhelming report on such. Leeds’ defence can, at its base, be described as makeshift. Wingers at full-back, full-backs at centre-half, with the occasional central midfielder deployed across the back three or four, depending on the preferred choice of system by Marcelo on matchday. Yet, the Leeds defence still holds its own.
Regardless of the goals conceded, Leeds have, at the turn of the new year, accumulated six clean sheets, with five of those games being victories for the Whites. Leeds’ defence could be improved, but the same could be said about any defence of any team. Bielsa’s side concedes goals, a fair few at that, but they make up for it in their attacking displays and their courage and willingness to never abandon their gameplan. It is the reason they’re, comfortably, a mid-table side by the new year in their first season in the Premier League, and the reason they will not, by any means, be an easy target for a relegation battle.