Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa has admitted that he was aware of the issues Stoke City’s aerial threat could cause his side in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night, via quotes by the Yorkshire Evening Post.
The Whites fell behind to Nathan Jones’ Potters just before the break when central defender Danny Bath nodded home a powerful header, after rising above the United defence to beat Kiko Casilla following a Sam Clucas corner, before Sam Vokes doubled the scoring.
Leeds eventually rallied back to take the game to penalties, but the regulation time action showed the hosts to be weaker in the air, which is an aspect Swansea City may look to capitalise on at the weekend, having scored four of their 11 league goals with headers (WhoScored).
Bielsa has conceded since his side exited the Carabao Cup to Stoke that he had considered the visitor’s prowess in the air when naming a relatively small squad, but was hesitant to make wide-ranging adaptations.
“I was thinking about this before the game,” he said. “And at the same time, this fact had an impact on the game. Not only in this situation [the goal], but also in general, because every set-piece they had in the first half created a problem for us.
“The aerial game depends on the quality of the skills that the players who head the ball have from one team and the other team.
“[Gaetano] Berardi is a very good player, but when you have a high difference, for example, when a striker is complicated, it’s hard to equal this challenge.”
Whether Bielsa reconsiders his tactics for the visit of Swansea City to Elland Road to smother their strength in the air remains to be seen, but failing to learn from the mistake of not doing so against Stoke could prove to be a key flaw that presents issues further down the line.
However, with a relatively small squad at his disposal (as highlighted by The Guardian), there are not many alternatives the Argentine can turn to in order to make changes, and those who have already featured for Leeds this season are relatively well matched.
Captain Liam Cooper has won the most aerial duels of any United player in the league with five per ninety minutes, according to data recorded by WhoScored, but the Scottish defender has lost an average of 6.3 duels, too.
Berardi has likewise lost more duels than he has won with an average of 5.3 unsuccessful battles for possession going against his 4.4 triumphs, while on-loan Brighton & Hove Albion man Ben White has won and lost 2.4 duels per ninety minutes respectively.
Neither of three regularly used centre-halves’ records are comparable to Swansea striker Sam Surridge, as the 21-year-old is currently averaging 18.4 duels a game, and winning 6.1, which could be an aspect Steve Cooper looks to capitalise on this weekend.
Mastering their deficiencies in the air to sides like Stoke, and potentially Swansea, may also prove to be one of the many key aspects that will decide whether or not Leeds can secure promotion this season, as teams could soon realise that it is their best chance to score against the current best defence in the second-tier.
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