Championship Play-Off 1st Legs: Why Leeds Aren’t Falling Apart8 min read
Championship A: Derby v Leeds
Derby’s positive campaign
Frank Lampard has enjoyed an encouraging introduction to management.
It is easy to look at the fact that Derby have gone from sixth in 2017-18 under Gary Rowett to the same position this term and conclude not much has changed – but there is more to it than that.
Lampard has been tasked with lowering the average age of the squad as the Rams seek financial sustainability – academy graduate Jayden Bogle is enjoying a strong debut campaign at right-back.
The former Chelsea midfielder has had to adjust very quickly to a whole new way of working, too.
Lampard is no longer responsible for his own individual performance – he is taking care of the whole club which is far more consuming and requires a challenging shift in working patterns.
— Ashley Woodhouse (@AshWoody90) May 5, 2019
However, his side’s shot data is a slight cause for concern.
Over the last four games, the last eight games and the whole season, they are overperforming relative to their numbers on each category: Expected Goals For (xGF), Against (xGA) and Ratio (xGR).
Even in last week’s 3-1 win over West Brom, though there were lots of positive aspects to the Rams’ performance including the impact of substitutes David Nugent and Mason Bennett, they looked defensively insecure.
Derby slightly clumsily allowed their hosts two guilt-edged chances in the first half – plus nobody closed down Stefan Johansen from the edge of the box for Albion’s goal after the re-start.
The issue is not helped by stalwart Richard Keogh looking past his best but starting regularly in the absence of alternative centre-backs, which can affect how the team defends collectively.
Bielsa’s boys to bounce back
Given their recent form, it seems tempting to write Leeds United off.
Marcelo Bielsa’s men were defeated by Sheffield United before the international break; since then they have also lost to four sides below the top-10: Birmingham, Wigan, Brentford then already-relegated Ipswich on the final day – Wigan and Ipswich won with a numerical disadvantage.
The “Leeds are falling apart” narrative is perhaps a convenient one: external supporters relish one of the Championship’s biggest clubs performing poorly, while some Whites fans themselves are almost defeatist to allow for self-preservation.
However, if we look at the performances, rather than results, they are not exactly getting loads wrong.
Over the last eight games, Leeds have averaged 1.59 Expected Goals For (xGF) and 0.77 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio (xGR) of 67.31 they qualify for the Play-Offs, having been eight points off before that run, but also that they enter the competition as the most-fancied team for promotion.
Jack Grealish’s return from injury has been a massive help; his individual statistics are often judged with rigour suitable for a forward yet perhaps the 23-year-old’s main strength is the control he provides.
Grealish’s ability to turn opponents, wins free-kicks, play clever through balls and retain possession high up the pitch have been crucial to bringing others into the game.
— FourFourTwo (@FourFourTwo) April 10, 2019
His presence appears to have given everyone a lift and, having regained that momentum, Villa showed that they can perform without him in that 2-1 win over Bristol City – Sunday’s 2-1 home loss to champions Norwich will hardly cause concern due to the rotated line-up.
Anwar El Ghazi has been in excellent form from the left and, having shown both pace and product in exciting flashes earlier in the campaign, appears to be adding consistency.
Defensively, meanwhile, the Villans have eradicated issues from earlier in the campaign: the aggressive Tyrone Mings has formed a strong centre-back pairing with the more cultured Axel Tuanzebe.
Albion flatter to deceive
When West Brom have won games this season, it has often felt like they have done so through brief flashes of brilliance.
Once they do get the ball into the final third, they are very productive – Dwight Gayle moving centrally to partner Jay Rodriguez under caretaker boss Jimmy Shan has helped.
For example, much of the build-up play against Preston last month was uninspiring – the likes of Sam Johnstone, Ahmed Hegazi and Craig Dawson are all limited in terms of distribution.
And yet, Albion still won 4-1 through a Dwight Gayle hat-trick – three of their goals came inside a 16-minute first half blitz.
Tickets for Saturday's trip to Villa Park have now sold out. 🎟
— West Bromwich Albion (@WBA) May 8, 2019
The Black Country outfit rely on momentum; they can struggle to unpick teams for long spells but once they find one crack in the armour, the floodgates open in a way that sometimes flatters their overall performance.
Albion typically get away with that against lesser opponents – Rotherham, for example, do not have as much quality in terms of shooting and that was reflected in both of their meetings with the relegated Millers.
In seven meetings with fellow top-eight sides in 2019, however, West Brom have won one, drawn one and lost five – in other words, the absence of a clear playing identity is often exposed against better teams.
Aston Villa should therefore be backed to win this first leg – even at odds-on quotes.
Leeds to win draw no bet –
Aston Villa to win –
Read Gabriel’s League One Play-Off 1st Legs preview.