THINGS are hotting up in the Championship and Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) explains why he thinks Leeds will pip Sheffield United to automatic promotion.
One To Watch | Leeds to edge race for second?
Sheffield United’s 1-0 win at Elland Road, just before the international break, was perceived as potentially the defining weekend in the race for automatic promotion from the Championship.
Look slightly closer though and the Blades had been slightly fortunate to get that victory, which came thanks to Billy Sharp holding off Liam Cooper to set up Chris Basham, who popped up to bag the winner.
For the first half hour of the contest, Chris Wilder’s side had been under a siege of Leeds pressure; they finished the match outshot 17-10 and 12-5 on penalty box efforts.
The ‘defining weekend’, in so much as there is one, could yet be remembered as the weekend we have just had.
In the first half, Leeds were losing at home to Millwall at the same time Sheffield United had gone against Bristol City via a trademark Sharp header; had scores stayed the same, the Whites would have gone into these final seven games four points off second.
Instead, Marcelo Bielsa’s side were rewarded for relentless pressing with a 3-2 victory, whilst an Andreas Weimann hat-trick dealt Sheffield United a defeat by the same scoreline.
Here’s why Leeds can use those results as a springboard from which to surge towards the finish line.
The stats favour them
Over the last four games, Leeds have averaged 1.89 Expected Goals For (xGF) and just 0.86 Against (xGA), giving them a ratio of 68.80%, which is the second-best in the Championship in that sample.
By contrast, Sheffield United’s performance levels have dropped off slightly over the same period.
The average just 1.13 Expected Goals For (xGF) and 1.25 Against (xGA), giving them a ratio of 47.60%, only the 14th-best in the Championship.
Although this is a relatively small sample size, the disparity of 21.20% is significant – and partially explained by Sheffield United’s dependence on Mark Duffy.
Blades rely on Duffy
The skilful playmaker was forced to withdraw from the Bristol City game due to an Achilles injury on the Thursday; his absence means he has now featured in just one league game since mid-February.
Two of the victories recorded in his absence games have been adaptable 1-0 displays away to their direct promotion rivals, West Brom and Leeds.
Kieran Dowell, added in January as an alternative to Duffy, is very dynamic and can get from one area of the pitch to another very quickly, which means those types of fixtures arguably suit him.
The downside to the Everton loanee is that, because he’s either grafting next to John Fleck and Oliver Norwood in midfield or pushing up next to Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick, he rarely finds the kind of spaces between the lines that Duffy can.
When Fleck and Norwood are closed down, a tactical Bristol City employed, they need the option of that short pass through the press which brings Duffy into play; from there, the Blades can then introduce wing-backs and wide centre-backs to the attacking phase.
Duffy’s inconsistent availability could be problematic for Sheffield United – the former Birmingham man could be doubtful for Saturday’s trip to Preston.
Leeds have Hernandez
For the previous two seasons, Championship followers have perhaps not fully grasped how lucky we are to be watching Pablo Hernandez.
His main selling point under Garry Monk, Thomas Christiansen and then Paul Heckingbottom was his ability to produce a moment of quality that had a significant bearing on the game.
Even on a quiet day, he could still put in a perfect cross, a pin-point set piece or a well-weighted through ball.
What we are seeing under Marcelo Bielsa, however, is a player who can not only still do those things, but also become a constant influence on general play.
He has conducted play on the edge of the final third, he has produced clever movement, cute flicks and tricks, outstanding crossfield passes and sparkling goals like the one inside 16-seconds in the 4-0 win over West Brom.
He has even shown a willingness to at times drop slightly deeper, especially when playing centrally in a 4-1-4-1 to share the defensive workload with Mateusz Klich; although he has also been effective on the right.
The 33-year-old, who we should not forget has played in European competitions with Getafe, Valencia and Swansea, now represents more than just somebody who can conjure something up from out of the blue; Bielsa has drawn everything out of the Spaniard’s game.
Luke Ayling has struggled with injuries over the last 18 months and at times that has affected his form on the field.
When fit and firing however, one could argue that he is the most intelligent right-back in the division (Max Aarons is excellent but his game is based more on pace and athleticism).
Although Ayling does not have the wherewithal to attack the flank directly, his ability to play sharp forward passes and initiate combination play is unparalleled at this level.
It means pressed, because he has that ability to play an effective pass in behind his opponent, rather than needing space ahead of him to build up ahead of steam, as we would see with a more athletic right-back.
Ezgjan Alioski, meanwhile, started 2018-19 on the left wing but, since Barry Douglas picked up a long-term injury, he has moved to left-back, where he has performed even better.
The transition has not been as sizeable for Alioski as it might have looked on the surface.
He played in his current position internationally for Macedonia; besides, he has always been a direct, industrious, no-frills winger, which made the change easier for him than for a more technically experimental wide man who likes who cuts inside.
Sturdy defensive trio
Kalvin Phillips sets the tone for aggressive Leeds performances by putting in strong challenges, sometimes sliding to do so and then playing forward quickly.
The Young Player of the Year contender protects an excellent centre-back pairing of Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson.
Cooper at times puts in tackles and interceptions in the opposing half if necessary, which highlights his tactical bravery; he is also strong and dominant in the air, next to a slightly more cultured centre-back partner.
Jansson is not quite as aggressive in aerial duels but he defends has goal-line very well and has completed 86% of his passes this season, which is the optimum number; he uses the ball sensibly enough to retain possession, but audaciously enough to contribute to attacking moves.
The Betting Angle
A top two finish for Leeds is currently available at 11/18 quotes, which show the bookies believe they have an excellent chances.
It looks more likely that the odds on that bet will narrow through Sheffield United dropping points at Preston on Saturday, than it is that they will widen through Leeds dropping points at Birmingham.
In fact, in the former eventuality combined with Leeds winning at St Andrews, the Whites would extend their gap to four or five points.
In that scenario, Bielsa’s boys would need only win five of their final six games – a run of form they would at that point already be on – to rubber-stamp promotion regardless of what their rivals do.
Jump on Leeds now while there is still a smidge of value in backing them.
Championship – Leeds to finish in the top two (11/18 RedZone)