"This Leeds team will swarm all over us!"
"No way will we cope with the high press of Leeds!"
"Dreading the Leeds game, it'll be embarrassing to watch."
So far, Newcastle United have achieved roughly what you'd expect in terms of results. Although performances have been frustrating, ten games into the 2020/21 season sees a record of Won 4-Drawn 2-Lost 4 and the team sitting in their recent perennial home of 13th place.
Newcastle have lost at home to Chelsea and Manchester United but the post-match excuse was readymade that their riches and resources are not in the same league as ours, even if our clubs are. However, the other two defeats have come to Brighton and Southampton and were arguably even more comprehensive in their nature than those at the hands of the bigger clubs.
Newcastle are one game into what was described as a 'favourable five' run of fixtures. An away victory at Crystal Palace was a good start but any hope of momentum being built was lost as the game with Aston Villa on Friday night was postponed due to Newcastle's COVID outbreak. It remains to be seen whether the West Brom game will go ahead, before Leeds and Fulham complete the quintet.
With the break in schedule, I looked ahead to Leeds and wondered whether our defeats to Brighton and Southampton had any similarities to the way Leeds have played so far and what the numbers showed about the performances of our opponents.
Bielsa's successful return of the 2000-01 Champions League semi-finalists to the Premier League has been met with lavish praise of their performances, if not their results. The hype around their promotion was matched with an opening weekend performance at Anfield, which saw them lose narrowly in a seven-goal thriller against the champions.
However, now ten games into the season, Leeds and Newcastle have identical records (W4-D2-L4). Leeds have conceded four goals on three occasions to Newcastle's one; have scored two goals or more on three occasions to Newcastle's four and yet it is Leeds who have generally been praised or even revered by pundits and supporters alike.
Newcastle fans, who generally walk the line between realism and pessimism, see the upcoming game against the team from Yorkshire as the biggest test in this run of fixtures. This set of statistics (Leeds shown first) shows why:
Total shots: 153 vs 83
Shots on target: 54 vs 26
Touches: 6871 vs 5006
Touches in attacking third: 1870 vs 1151
Touches in attacking penalty area: 293 vs 154
Progressive distance of carries: 14795 vs 8587
Progressive distance of passes: 29370 vs 20793
Crosses: 149 vs 93
So, are Newcastle fans right to be worried?
A look at the concept of 'swarming' or pressure suggests so. Successful pressures are defined as pressures that result in a team regaining possession within five seconds of the pressure being applied. The top three teams in successful pressures so far this season are Leeds (543), Southampton (453) and Brighton (447).
Newcastle have already been punished by the other two teams on this list, with individual errors resulting from successful pressures and Leeds having 90 more of these than Southampton is a worrying statistic.
A look at tackling reveals a similar picture. The top three teams in tackles so far this season are Leeds (150), Southampton (124) and Brighton (120). These clubs also make up three of the top seven in tackles made in the attacking third of the pitch, with Leeds comfortably top of this category with 34 - six more than second-placed Liverpool.
Newcastle generally play with an incredibly deep backline and the successful pressures by Leeds, combined with the number of tackles in what will be our defensive third of the pitch, is another concern. Averaging over 3 tackles in their opponents defensive third per game puts Leeds in a goal-threatening position immediately. Unsurprisingly, Newcastle have 13 such tackles - the lowest in the league.
So how have Newcastle fared so far with playing their way out of pressure? Well, not great - Newcastle are 19th in the league in the number of passes made while under pressure from an opponent. This further highlights how much the team struggles with an opponent that plays this way and showing why the pressure and offensive tackling of Southampton and Brighton was so successful for them. Fans are therefore right to be concerned about these particular areas, considering that Leeds are comfortably ahead of those two teams and in first place in all three of these statistics.
Moving away from the similarities with Brighton and Southampton and focusing just on Leeds, a look at the numbers for when they do have the ball only increases concern about the matchup with Newcastle.
Leeds have averaged 60% possession this season, with their lowest single game number being 50%. Newcastle have averaged 39% possession, with their lowest single game number being 30%. So, once again, don't expect Newcastle to have much of the ball. Of course, possession doesn't necessarily win games and what a team does with the ball when they have it is of greater importance.
Roy Hodgson talked pre-match about some possession being the defensive line playing it between them and therefore suggested that such numbers are meaningless. I agree with him, to an extent, and a look at a specific kind of passing is a more useful analysis.
Progressive passes are defined as completed passes that move the ball towards the opponent's goal by at least 10 yards but do not include passes from the defending 40% of the pitch. It is essentially a measure of what teams do with the ball from just before the halfway line and beyond and is a useful way of separating teams who tend to go sideways or backwards from this position versus those who continue forward.
The numbers show that there are ten different players in the Leeds squad who have made 20+ progressive passes so far this season, with a squad total of 449. There are only two players in Newcastle's squad to do this, with a squad total of 192. When Leeds reach halfway, they move the ball towards their opponent's goal more than double the amount that Newcastle do.
This number is a good indicator of intent but to be truly effective, these progressive passes must then lead to shots on the opponent's goal. The numbers show that Leeds have had 54 shots on target compared to Newcastle's 26 so, again, Leeds are doubling Newcastle's number in an attacking statistic.
This progressive and committed attack does leave space and opportunity to get at the Leeds defence and goalkeeper. In fact, Leeds have conceded two more goals than Newcastle so far this season, including conceding four on three separate occasions already.
A look at the number of shots on target allowed by the two teams shows a total of 43 for Leeds, compared to 54 for Newcastle, and therefore not a substantial difference over a ten game period. However, due to the number of shots on target they are producing themselves, the differential (shots on target for - shots on target against) is +11 for Leeds and -28 for Newcastle.
Despite the overall goal difference being -2 for Leeds and -3 for Newcastle, the shots on target differential suggests that this is not sustainable for Newcastle and that this goal difference is likely to see a dramatic shift should this pattern continue.
Interestingly, two of Leeds' highest possession games were 67% versus Leicester and 64% versus Crystal Palace and they lost both games 1-4. This would suggest that their high possession games are vulnerable to clinical finishing. A closer look at those two games shows that Leicester had a 78% shooting accuracy and Palace 60% - both far higher than the Premier League average of 35%.
Newcastle's season average shooting accuracy is 31%, with their highest being 57% in the 1-4 defeat to Manchester United, suggesting that a significant increase in this will be required in the Leeds game.
Newcastle won't be facing a team worth hundreds of millions of pounds like Manchester United or Chelsea. They will be a facing a team with similar resources to them, just like when they played against Brighton and Southampton. The excuse of resources does not apply in these matchups and the lessons (ought to) have been learned the hard way - twice - regarding dealing with a high pressing, offensive tackling team.
It is no coincidence that Wolves were able to cope with Leeds and, despite only having 36% possession, came away with a 1-0 victory. Wolves are filled with ball-playing midfielders and defenders who are able to pass out of pressure. If Newcastle are to have any chance, they have to ensure that their most comfortable ball players are on the pitch otherwise the risk of turnovers in dangerous areas is evident.
The statistics are worrying and everything points towards Newcastle being unable to cope with the way Leeds play. However, as the all-important W4-D2-L4 shows, there are different ways to win points in the Premier League. Newcastle are perhaps the masters of defying statistics and find ways to win points without ever warming the opposition goalkeeper's gloves.
This game is likely to require another one of those performances but the statistics suggest that the fans of the club in its fourth consecutive Premier League season are right to be worried about the newcomers.
How depressing is that?