Leeds United stumble against Villa: What went wrong?

Bertrand Traore of Aston Villa is challenged by Luke Ayling of Leeds United (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images)
Bertrand Traore of Aston Villa is challenged by Luke Ayling of Leeds United (Photo by Tim Goode - Pool/Getty Images) /

Leeds United took on Aston Villa at Elland Road in the hopes of taking down Villa for a second time this season. Home advantage was nowhere to be seen however as the defensive performance Villa displayed proved too resolute for Leeds to break down.

Leeds United’s first season back in the Premier League has been a story of ups and downs, a tumultuous journey that has played into the narrative of this year’s Premier League campaign quite well. It is a campaign dominated by a mantra of ” you never know what you’re going to get”, and this fits Leeds quite well up to this point in the season. Marcelo Bielsa’s side have put in some impressive attacking displays, however the defensive end of their game seems to inevitably let them down.

In many ways, this is less of a criticism, and more a statement of the obvious, because despite their performances not having been perfect, who can really fault them? They are a newly promoted side in one of world’s top leagues. They are in a place of relative comfort, not stressing over trying to make it into a European spot, nor are they fighting for relegation. Establishing themselves as en entrenched, mid-table side is a good start. They can build from there.

Leeds have had some stellar results this season, the likes of Leicester and Everton falling to the Yorkshire side in impressive fashion. Manchester City were only able to leave Elland Road with a point, and who could forget their well fought game with Liverpool to open the season? These are all signs of both passion and progress.

This is not the first time Leeds United have fallen

That being said, inconsistency has plagued Leeds for many a year, even back in their Championship days. It is this inconsistency that was on display against Villa, as well as a defensive frailty that adds a propensity to allow early and avoidable goals. In the first minutes of the game, Leeds seemed to be on the front foot. Just 20 seconds into the game, Patrick Bamford was able to make a run into the Villa box and provide a shot turned cross over to an onrushing Raphinha at the far post. The Brazilian winger was unable to convert the chance, but it boded well for Leeds.

Four minutes into the game however, Villa seized upon an opportunity created from a corner. Leeds have been notoriously inefficient in defending set pieces, and space provided at the far post allowed a pass to reach the feet of Ollie Watkins. The Villa number 11 quickly put a cross into the box, in similar fashion to Bamford just minutes earlier. Anwar El Ghazi would take the chance provided by Watkins to slot home, putting Villa ahead.

The corner is indicative of a more widespread defensive culpability that is often covered up by Leeds’ prowess going forward, but unfortunately for them, even going forward the team was rather lackluster. The first half was much more productive in terms of chances for Leeds, and quite a few fell into the path of Raphinha, who has been one of Leeds United’s most in form players over the course of recent games. Unfortunately, the Brazilian winger was unable to convert any of the chances that fell to him in dangerous positions.

Aside from the defense, I think the most problematic portion of Leeds United’s performance came from the midfield. It was often far too easy for Villa players to walk through the center of the park and play passes to the likes of Ollie Watkins and co. Even thought the score remained 1-0,  Villa and Watkins in particular were given access to the ball far too easily, and that came as a result of a lack of intensity in midfield. While the likes of Mateusz Klich and Tyler Roberts did have brighter moments throughout the game on the attacking end, they did not do a great job of smothering Villa’s progress through the center. They seemed to spend more time giving away unnecessary fouls or allowing themselves to be dragged into scuffles with the opposition instead. Both players have been important for Leeds this season, but this game in particular showed how important Kalvin Phillips is for them at the center of the park. When fit and on the field, he helps bring balance to their play. He plays a very important role in stopping opposition attacks and then very effectively dictating Leeds’ counter-assault, and it was clear that this was very much missing this weekend.

Bielsa has been very clear with regards to why he has been waiting for the right moment to bring Phillips back into the fold. He and his staff are being extremely careful with the England international:

There’s a phrase I try to use frequently that is the player will return subject to his evolution… When he got injured I told you he had the option of having a quicker return. But his injury is in his calf, it’s a place where we have to avoid him having a recurrence because that can make the situation worse.” -Marcelo Bielsa, The Mirror

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Leeds fans will be hoping the return of Phillips is sooner rather than later. Looking ahead Leeds will play West Ham and Chelsea, both of which are now embroiled in the race for European positions. This will be followed by very winnable games against Fulham and rivals Sheffield United. They are in a safe position now but this could look very different should they continue to drop points. Much of their success will hinge on when Phillips returns to the center of Leeds’ midfield, as his presence could play a crucial role in determining just how many points they are able to secure.