The last month of Championship football has seen Leeds United become the epitome of consistency once again; a tough start to 2020 has been forgotten and the Premier League is only nine games away for Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds are unbeaten in their last six fixtures and have won the last five, keeping five consecutive clean sheets. The Whites are performing at the peak of their powers and are consistent with everything they do at both ends of the pitch.
Bielsa’s tactics and selection – minus a Kiko Casilla ban and injury to Kalvin Phillips – have remained consistent, with everything stemming from that and bringing a faltering Leeds squad back to their best levels.
A key tactical change that Bielsa made to the squad following the 2-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest in early February was pushing Stuart Dallas back into the left-back role after a stint in midfield, something that has been worth its weight in gold in terms of results and performance.
The return of Phillips from suspension has allowed for that tweak, whilst Ben White’s ability to step into midfield during Phillips’ spell in the treatment room has presented Dallas a consistent run on the left of defence.
Coincidently, Dallas shifting to left-back and tightening things up there has also brought the best out of the man on the opposite side of defence, with Luke Ayling scoring three goals in only five appearances, dragging Leeds’ season back on track and picking up the PFA Player of the Month award for February.
Ayling has always been Bielsa’s preferred choice at right-back when he’s been fit, but the left-back position has been a constant headache, with Barry Douglas and Ezgjan Alioski other players who have been experimented with during the Argentine’s time at Elland Road.
Dallas is the utility man of this Leeds squad, but Bielsa seems to have settled on him at left-back now, with this run of form there impressive, just like his impact over two legs of last season’s play-off defeat to Derby County; Dallas scored twice over the games, as well as playing a part in the build-up to Kemar Roofe’s first-leg goal.
It’s fair to say that the bulk of Bielsa’s squad have been consistent over the 37 games so far this season, but as our graphic points out, Dallas and Ayling have been nothing short of outstanding with high numbers across the board:
For Dallas, this is his most consistent run in the side since arriving at Leeds in 2015, with the Northern Ireland international starting every Championship fixture and clocking up 3515 minutes.
In that time he’s scored three goals and registered one assist, as well as proving his worth to Bielsa with some incredible versatility. Interestingly, he hasn’t scored yet from the left-back position, with his goals coming from right-back (Stoke) and attacking midfield (Preston and Birmingham).
That goal at Stoke and spell at right-back came earlier in the season when Dallas was deputising for the injured Ayling, who didn’t get the first of his 2615 minutes until Leeds hosted West Bromwich Albion on the first day of October. Since then, the 28-year-old has been a key part of the side and has chipped in with four goals and two assists.
Ayling scored in that same thrilling 5-4 win in Birmingham, but his other goals have all come recently, with the right-back responding to defeat at Forest to produce some electric form; a winning goal against Bristol City, kick-starting a 4-0 rout at Hull and an emphatic volley on three minutes to set Leeds up for a Derby Day victory over Huddersfield Town.
And, respectable goal involvements for two ‘full-backs’ could be more, with Dallas (24) and Ayling (19) creating plenty of shooting chances on their regular visits to the final third. However, as we know, Bielsa’s Leeds are wasteful.
The adventure that Dallas and Ayling play with is evident in their progressive runs so far – 92 and 70 respectively – whilst they have accrued a pass percentage of over 80%, enjoying their roles in a Leeds side that love to boss possession week-on-week.
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It’s easy to focus on the impressive numbers this pair boasts in terms of attacking, but their role in the side still requires them to get through plenty of defensive work, which they do well; Dallas averages 3.69 interceptions and 1.64 clearances per 90 minutes, whilst the stats from Ayling tell a similar story (4.68 and 1.38).
In truth, there aren’t many of Bielsa’s core group of 14/15 players that drop below these types of standards. The squad as a whole is consistently praised by the head-coach and never hung out to dry, even when things were going badly at the turn of the year.
However, in Dallas and Ayling, Bielsa has finally settled on two of his most consistent figures in the important full-back roles. That’s a decision that has sparked some much-needed consistency in terms of results, as well as a couple of moments of individual brilliance from Ayling.
The role of Bielsa’s right-back since the defeat in Nottingham has turned this squad around, and it is the type of impact that’ll thrust him into contention for end of season awards when they’re dished out. Yet, he will face tough competition there from Dallas, who has finally settled into a deserved run of games and become Mr Consistent for Bielsa.
One of Leeds’ many club mottos reads ‘Side before self, every time’ and is plastered on the East Stand of Elland Road and the Thorp Arch training base. This squad’s leaders – Dallas and Ayling included – have bought into that more than most to create an exceptional atmosphere under Bielsa and, for what it’s worth, neither will be bothered about the individual accolades and plaudits they’ll receive.
Eyes are on the big prize, with the brilliant consistency of Dallas and Ayling helping to put Leeds just nine away.