Fulham v Leeds United - Defensive upgrades needed at Whites

Leeds United, so the stereotypes goes, are a gung-ho football team, wonderfully cavalier with the ball, hopelessly naïve without it.

With the second-best goalscoring record outside the “Big Six” (behind Leicester City) and the sixth-worst defensive record, it is not a completely false statement.

Ask coach Marcelo Bielsa how they need to improve next season and he is typically evasive but good though this maiden Premier League campaign has been, it is clear they must, and getting better defensively is part of the package. Look at recent matches, though, and you will see they already are doing.

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With Diego Llorente bedding in and Robin Koch close to a first-team return after knee surgery, some upgrades might be possible from within.

Diego Llorente goes past Mason Mount and N'Golo Kante. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Despite having lost three of them, Bielsa’s side travel to Fulham for tonight’s Premier League game having only conceded four goals in their last five matches.

According to the FBref website, Saturday’s 0-0 – yes, 0-0 – draw at home to Chelsea was only the second time this season Leeds’s opponents have seen more of the ball. The other was also recent, also at home, and ended in a crushing 3-0 victory over Southampton that could easily have been even more convincing.

Playing Thomas Tuchel’s in-form side gave an opportunity to show there is more to a Leeds side missing their two first-choice centre-backs, captain Liam Cooper and Koch, that day than the stereotype.

“We were not superior to Chelsea but we had an improvement with regards to the first game in all the parameters,” claimed Bielsa, whose side lost the reverse fixture 3-1 (with 54 per cent of possession).

“Normally we have more possession than the opponents but in this case we weren’t able to. Normally we’re able to create an equal amount of opportunities if not more but we weren’t able to do this either.
Even though we had to defend a lot, we did this well and even though we had the ball less and fewer chances, we managed to attack well. We had five or six opportunities to score. Although it was difficult to defend, it was important they weren’t able to score.

“We achieved less than we usually do but it was against one of the two best teams (in the Premier League) at the moment.”

Bielsa thinks it disrespectful to talk about the upgrades needed in the summer. “We have to finish this season and see how the last 10 games go,” he stresses. “To talk about the future would be unjust with the players still being here. It would be unforgivable to plan the future as we will be evaluating before we should.”

There will be changes, though, so whilst Leeds’s season would appear to be petering out – safe from relegation but with Europe out of reach – individuals have much to play for.

Fulham will provide a different test to their west London neighbours, but not that different. They too have the ball more often than not according to the statisticians and whilst they are not in Chelsea-esque form, they are making a real fist of their fight against relegation. Having first come across them in last season’s Championship, Bielsa is a fan of the Cottagers and their young manager Scott Parker.

“The idea of the manager is reflected in Fulham’s play,” he notes admiringly. “In the first round (the opening 19 matches) it was difficult for them to impose their style and in the reverse fixtures they’ve started to do this better.

“I remember the style when we’ve faced them in the Championship and it’s the same style but they’ve managed to impose it in the Premier League.

“They’re a team that plays on an even keel in the majority of the games and in games against the top six they’ve played to impose themselves and not to (simply) avoid being beaten.”

Parker is “a manager who’s earned the recognition of all of those in the Premier League. He’s gone through difficult moments in the Championship and the Premier League and in all of them he’s managed to overcome them by imposing his ideas. The system he uses is a very creative one”.

Imposing ideas, teams reflecting their manager’s personality, creative systems – all are ideas we associate with Bielsa. There is, though, a bit more to his team than that.

Last six games: Fulham LWLDWD; Leeds United LLLWLL

Referee: D Coote (Nottinghamshire)

Last time: Fulham 2 Leeds United 1, December 21, 2019, Championship.