Match Analysis: How Leeds can avoid repeating Sheffield United’s fall

As the dust settles on Leeds United’s first campaign in the Premier League since 2004, people are beginning to turn their attention to next season.

Unsurprisingly, following their brilliant ninth place finish and the form of Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and others, many are optimistic going into 2021-22. Some even believe European football is possible whilst the recent struggles of Arsenal and Tottenham have led some to believe Leeds could nick a spot in the top six.

But Leeds need to be just as wary of relegation this season as they were last. Why? Second season syndrome.

Going into this season many pessimistic Leeds fans had one goal in mind: finish at least 17th and avoid relegation. That goal was accomplished with ease as United cruised to the top half of the table. But this isn’t the only time we’ve seen a newly promoted side look extremely strong in their first campaign only to suffer relegation in their second.

Look at Sheffield United for instance. The Blades were brilliant in 2019/20 but will be plying their trade in the Championship next season after a torrid second season in the top flight.

In 2020/21, Sheffield looked like a shadow of their former selves. Their vibrant style slowly subsided removing the remarkable threat they posed every team in the league. Many forget that they came the closest to stopping Liverpool’s perfect start to the 2019/20 campaign. The Blades were denied by one goal courtesy of a Dean Henderson error – a mistake that 99 times out of a hundred doesn’t happen and Sheffield United end the afternoon with a remarkable point at Liverpool’s expense.

To match that special Liverpool side took a special kind of intensity, great organisation and commitment both in defence but also in attack to ensure the likes of Virgil Van Dijk don’t have the freedom to stimulate attacks from deep.

Sheffield United had the tools to do just that and showed that on multiple occasions drawing with Chelsea and beating Everton and Arsenal. This was largely down to their ability to cause other teams problems in attack because of their unique application of overlapping centre-backs which threw something new at the league’s top teams.

With an average of 400 passes per game that season they also demonstrated the quality on the ball needed to cut it in the Premier League and that resulted in the creation of 60 big chances throughout the campaign 39 of which were converted into goals down to a fairly impressive 32% shot accuracy.

But it was their defence which underpinned their success. Despite the dynamic and shifting shape of their defence, they only conceded 39 goals all season leaving them with one of the best defensive records in the league complimented by 13 clean sheets. Crucially that also meant that the 39 goals they conceded were spread across 25 games demonstrating how rare a thrashing occurred helping maintain confidence and resulting in a healthy goal difference which ultimately ended up at 0.

There was also a significant intensity to their defence in 2019/20 with 611 tackles and 62% tackle success throughout the campaign complimented by 95 blocked shots, 420 interceptions and 880 clearances.

A year later this all changed. They scored 19 less goals despite a shot accuracy of 31% demonstrating that their plight was not the fault of individual players but rather a tactical insufficiency as other teams found them out, restricting them to 36 big chances throughout the season.

This becomes more apparent when you consider they were actually averaging more passes per game and had to do less defending making just 796 clearances and 351 interceptions. Granted their tackle success lowered to 56% but that’s only a 6% decrease.

Thus, it’s clear that an inability to build on a solid defence as well as decent possession and create clear cut chances was their downfall and that can be attributed to teams working out the way the Blades’ attack nullifying the threat of their overlapping centre-backs.

Therefore, the thing Leeds must learn from Sheffield United is to be adaptable and evolve the way they attack. That’s something all the top teams in the league do. If you analyse Manchester City’s attacking shape under Pep Guardiola since 2017 and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool since 2016, the basis of their attack remains the same but slowly evolves and changes to ask new questions of defences and to create space for their best players to ask different questions of defences year on year.

Sheffield United failed to do that last year, but Marcelo Bielsa must evolve his attacking style. It doesn’t need a complete overhaul by any means, but small tweaks which will carve open defences in new ways is a must going into 2021/22.

That said, there is another important difference between the two; the fact Leeds United finished this season strongly unlike Sheffield United last term.

After riding the buzz of promotion at the start of the season, Leeds maintained their momentum unlike many sides before them and that momentum needs to be maintained going into the next campaign along with the marked improvement in defence.

Lessons still need to be learned however especially looking at the case study of Ipswich Town at the start of the century. They finished fifth and earned European football in their first season after promotion only to be relegated the following year. Leeds cannot become the new Ipswich.

One thing they need to do to avoid such a fate is recruit well. Any top tier players lost – such as Raphinha who is constantly linked with Liverpool and Manchester United – need to be adequately replaced whilst extra depth needs to be added to cover for potential injuries, cup runs and any drop off in form from those who impressed this year.

The West Yorkshire side must be adaptable too. All too often teams have been found out tactically in their second season – just look at Sheffield United – so Marcelo Bielsa needs to be pragmatic and adaptable. He needs to have a plan B that can startle the very best Premier League sides.

The most important thing for Leeds is to stay honest and stick to their principles however. If they show the same effort and commitment next season it’s unlikely relegation will follow. Yes, there may be a drop off but, if they stick to their guns, they shouldn’t have a problem. Often, it’s when teams get arrogant that they are undone.

Nonetheless, it is vitally important that relegation is again avoided to keep Bielsa at the club as long as possible but also to maintain the trajectory of a club once again on the rise having been in the wilderness for so long.

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