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Last season, defence was Leeds United’s best team attribute as they pushed for promotion to the Premier League. Ultimately they missed out on a place in the Championship playoffs, but this had nothing to do with the quality of their back line.
Only three teams in England’s second tier conceded fewer than they did in 2016/17; two of those teams – Brighton and Hove Albion and Newcastle United – were promoted. However, this characteristic has been missing since Thomas Christiansen took over from Garry Monk in the Elland Road dugout.
Six Championship teams have better defensive records than Leeds at present, and this is only likely to increase given recent form. After keeping six clean sheets in their opening seven league games, they have since kept just one in nine. Having let in 19 goals in 16 games so far, their goals against per game rate has gone up from 1.02 last term to 1.19 this.
One reason for this decline in resolve has been a lack of consistency in the back four. Christiansen has not fielded the same defensive line on a regular basis. This has often been simply down to injuries, but on some occasions it has been the result of managerial decision-making.
So, who are Leeds’ best defenders? Football Whispers delved into the statistics to find out.
Following Kyle Bartley’s return to Swansea City, Leeds have had a hard time identifying their first-choice centre-back partnership at the heart of the back four. They have, at various different stages, utilised Liam Cooper, Pontus Jansson, Matthew Pennington and Conor Shaughnessy in this area.
Traditionally, tackling and heading have been seen as the key abilities for central defenders. In the former category, Jansson emerges on top with 1.07 per 90 minutes, while in the latter Pennington tops the list, winning 3.32 aerial duels on average.
The on-loan Everton youngster also leads the way in other areas, such as interceptions and clearances. This suggests him to be a centre-back with good reading of the game who is unafraid to get rid when under pressure. However, when it comes to blocks he gets nowhere near Shaughnessy, who has averaged 2.12 per 90 minutes across his four league outings.
There is more to a centre-back than the aforementioned defensive fundamentals, however, particularly when playing for Leeds, a team who have averaged 51.2 per cent possession this season. With this in mind it is important for the central defenders to be able to distribute the ball effectively.
Jansson emerges as the clear leader in this particular aspect. Not only does he complete more passes per 90 than his positional peers, averaging 33.85, but he does so at a significantly higher accuracy percentage of 86.
The closest to the Swede in terms of pass completion is Cooper, whose left foot produces a 77 per cent accuracy percentage.
One of Leeds’ most consistent problem areas has been left-back. With Charlie Taylor moving on over the summer, three players have competed for this berth: Gaetano Berardi, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Vurnon Anita.
Luke Ayling has dominated the right-hand side, starting every single one of the team’s 16 Championship fixtures so far. His importance was underlined by his being handed a contract extension in October.
It’s easy to see why the Englishman is so vital to Leeds. While he may get into the starting XI by default, he deserves to stay there on merit. He averages more tackles and interceptions than any of his fellow full-backs. He also completes significantly more take-ons per 90 minutes – his 1.4 average is over three times that of Anita, who placed second in this category.
There is no need for discussion on who starts on the right-hand side of Christiansen’s back four: it’s Ayling every time. However, on the left there are three players of various different styles and skillsets vying for one role.
Borthwick-Jackson, signed on loan from rivals Manchester United, simply hasn’t played enough to be seriously considered. He has made just one appearance so far, so the sample size for his statistics simply isn’t large enough to compare him to Leeds’ other left-backs, Anita and Berardi.
Anita is a highly versatile player. He can play in central midfield or at left-back, although his right-footedness could enable him to fill in for Ayling at right-back if necessary. Not only does he average more tackles and interceptions than Berardi, but he completes more take-ons per 90 minutes and has better passing statistics.
The Dutchman averages 30.14 passes to Berardi’s 21.39, while his success percentage is nine per cent higher at 81 per cent.
LEEDS’ BEST BACK FOUR
Assuming Christiansen persists with his favoured 4-2-3-1 system, a shape he also opted for while in charge of APOEL Nicosia, he will require two centre-backs and two full-backs.
Jansson is the best tackler and passer of the central defenders, so should be one of the first names on the team sheet. He should be partnered by Cooper, the club captain, who is second best to the Swede in tackling and passing.
Ayling has nailed down the right-back berth already and there is no need for that to change. On the left, however, Anita appears to be the higher quality performer when compared statistically to Berardi.
If Christiansen is to turn his team’s poor form around, he would be wise to utilise the following back four: Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Anita. Interestingly, Leeds have won all four of the league games this defensive line have started together so far without conceding a single goal.