Leeds United travelled to London for their first game of 2021 and were soundly beaten by a typical Tottenham Hotspur performance; Leeds had the most of the ball and created a roughly equal number of chances, but fell to a 3-0 loss.
Just four days prior, Marcelo Bielsa’s side had romped to a 5-0 win over West Brom (who had drawn 1-1 with Liverpool two days earlier). On December 20th, Leeds conceded six at Old Trafford – a mere four sleeps after putting five past Newcastle.
The exhilarating matches Leeds have been involved in since returning to the Premier League have certainly caught the eye; the above examples only cover those played in the past 17 days. Pundits, writers and fans alike have been swept along with the excitement and have regularly exclaimed their admiration of the bravery with which Bielsa’s men go about their business.
Does this brand of football really deserve such praise, though?
There is no question that we all enjoy watching the great footballing sides of past and present; Guardiola’s City centurions and Barcelona Champions League winners; Klopp’s English champions and Dortmund underdogs; Sir Alex’s free-flowing United sides. We admire them for a reason.
But now think of Mourinho’s great Chelsea and Inter teams and the great Italian club sides of the 1990s; are these clubs’ successes not as admirable simply because they didn’t play as entertaining a style of football? Why, even Leicester City’s incomprehensible title win in 2016 only became a realistic possibility once they’d sorted out their defensive issues a quarter of the way through the season.
Defending and attacking are equally important in football. The fact that most YouTube highlight reels consist of bamboozling skills and streaming offensive moves doesn’t automatically make their perpetrators more important than those whose job it is to defend them. So why do attacking teams receive so much credit, while their defensive counterparts are slated for being ‘boring’?
It’s true that watching a side ‘park the bus’ for eighty minutes of a game can be on the tedious side. At the end of the day, however, it is a manager’s job to win games – and if he and his players’ strengths lie in their defensive third, then why not play to these strengths?
This brings us back to Leeds, who’s unpredictable form could probably justify their team name replacing the word “inconsistent” in the dictionary. This is normal for any promoted side, and sitting 12th in the Premier League table after seventeen games is a satisfactory spot. At the moment, the ends are justifying the means.
Does that mean they should be praised for losing games by such wide margins? After losing 6-2 to Manchester United, Leeds were still being celebrated for the way they went about their business. Why? Should positives really be taken from a game in which your defence is split open time after time and your goal difference decreases by four? If Sean Dyche’s Burnley lost by that scoreline, plenty of football fans would be quick to tell them they deserve it because of their style of play.
The only team to have conceded more goals this season than Leeds are West Brom (highlighting the scale of the task Sam Allardyce has on his hands). The Hawthorns side are also the sole side who have more Expected Goals Against them than Leeds. This kind of defending is typical of a team at the bottom of the table, and the fact that Leeds are conforming to those kinds of trends should not be applauded.
Leeds’ goalscoring exploits are pulling them clear of safety, of course. Their 30 strikes so far are undoubtedly impressive and make for a good spectacle. The argument is over whether or not a team should be commended for losing 4-1 at home to Leicester just because they won by three at Aston Villa a week earlier. Poor defending should not be preached, especially at this level.
Another prime example of “bravery” and “trust in the system” being strangely eulogized came last season with relegated Norwich City – an example of what can go wrong with the Leeds model. Manager Daniel Farke was continually showered with praise for sticking to his principles and refusing to alter his style of play despite his side sitting bottom of the table for the majority of the season. Why? Because his side played with what was commonly perceived as an exciting style.
The reality? Norwich scored just 26 goals all season, and let in 75. They attained a mere 21 points and were well adrift by the time the league drew to an overdue ending. Is this so-called ‘excitement’ really worth it, or should Norwich have switched up their tactics to accommodate more resilient characteristics? Farke is still in charge and his side sit top of the Championship table, so if they are promoted we will see if he has learned from his mistakes.
So who provides the blueprint for a side of Leeds’ stature going about their business with riveting attacking moves and strong defensive foundations while still achieving good results? The answer is simple; Southampton.
It took Ralph Hasenhuttl a while to get his ideas across, but after last night’s win against Liverpool his side are back up to sixth in the table and are continuing to bear fruit. They’ve done it by combining clever attacking with solid defending and pressing, as well. However, the attacking doesn’t need to be as “all-out” as Leeds’ often is. The Saints’ xG so far this season is 17.55, which is the smallest by far among teams in the top half of the table (the second lowest in West Ham’s 22.86). However, they have actually scored 26 – just four less than Leeds.
The big difference is the defence. Southampton have conceded just 19 goals (20.43 xGA) while Leeds have shipped 33. That’s the difference a good defence can make to a team who are clinical in front of goal. Leeds may have scored three against Liverpool earlier this season, but they let in four. Southampton only converted one last night, but didn’t concede and got an extra three points for their troubles. That’s why they sit sixth while Leeds are in twelfth.
Brighton are another side who warrant a quick mention in this article; Graham Potter receives a plethora of plaudits for his nice style of play and you rarely hear any negativity surrounding his team’s performances, but the fact remains that they have won only two of their seventeen games so far this season. The ends do not justify the means.
There is no problem with playing free-flowing, attacking football. I’ve already mentioned some of the great sides who have flourished by doing so. Just have a think the next time you bemoan a 1-0 Tottenham win and clean sheet, while you praise Leeds for a 5-3 loss. At the end of the day, points are what matter in football – and goals alone don’t get you them.