Oh Koch! Why are Leeds conceding so much?!

Thomas Cundell
8 min readJan 6, 2021

If Bielsa is such a genius… then why are Leeds so leaky? Leeds United have conceded 33 times this season. Simply put, that’s the second most in the Premier League, 6 goals behind West Brom. Sitting second bottom in that table and looking at some of the heavy defeats Leeds have suffered this season, two 4–1 defeats and a 6–2 defeat to name only 3, some would ask if it is really sustainable that they can carry on like this? But what if we looked deeper into this, what has really been contributing to these defeats?

In the Heart of the Defence

A key contributor is likely to be the fact that Leeds have had a very unsettled defence. Not just in defence but in the centre back roles especially. Below is a list of Leeds’ senior centre backs and their current availability:

Robin Koch — £11.7m German International signed in the summer. Out since 6th December with a knee injury for 3 months

Liam Cooper — Promotion winning captain and Scottish International missed the past two matches with an abdominal injury and has missed a further five through injury this season.

Diego Llorente — £18m Spanish International that has only played 81 minutes so far since signing in September due to injuries.

Gaetano Berardi — Often forgotten but out with a knee injury and expected back mid February. Some may disregard the relevance of his inclusion here but under Bielsa, Berardi has played 37 times with Leeds having kept 19 clean sheets out of those. 11 of which the Swiss defender has clocked more than 60 minutes.

Yes, that’s right. That’s not just a list of injured Leeds United central defenders but also a list of their only senior central defenders. The next in line in the heart of Leeds’ back four is Pascal Struijk, a Dutch defender who is a product of the Ajax academy system, who only has 13 senior appearances to his name nearly half (6) have come in defensive midfield and at Championship level.

Partnering Struijk and holding the captain’s armband in Cooper’s absence is Luke Ayling. Despite spending time in his earlier career plying his trade at center half, since joining Leeds, Ayling has primarily been used as a right back. Under Bielsa’s tutelage he’s excelled in the attacking freedom the Argentine wants from his full backs. Therefore, he’s now being tasked with a very different job.

So how have Leeds’ defence lined up this season? In short, they haven’t. Not consistently anyway. In the 17 Premier League games so far this season, Leeds have used 11 different player combinations with 8 different partnerships or pairings in the middle of the back four. What you would consider the preferred first choice defence for Leeds has appeared only 3 times. Southampton in contrast who are currently getting plaudits for their increasingly resilient defence have only had 3 different centre back pairings and their back four have only lined up differently 4 times all season. This alone is one element as to why Leeds’ have leaked 33 goals this season. An injury ravaged defence which naturally leads to a lack of consistency.

Below is a 3 game rolling average table of Leeds’ Non Penalty Expected Goals against (NPxG — Goal scoring opportunities with penalty opportunities removed).

Red indicates a rolling average above Leeds’ seasonal average (2.21) and green indicates periods where the defence were performing better than their average.

You can see that there is a turning point in Leeds’ season, Chelsea away, where Leeds lost 3–1 and gave away a NPxG of 5.62, their worst defensive output of the season. Leeds have then not recorded a rolling average lower than 1.76 since that night. While giving away the most opportunities and recording 3 of their worst rolling averages. So what changed at that point?

In the 9th minute against Chelsea, Koch pulled up with an injury which has ruled him out for 3 months. At this point we see Leeds fall dramatically defensively. In my opinion Robin Kochs absence has everything to do with this. The NPxG per game for the peacocks in the period before the Kaiserslautern born defender was sidelined is 1.93, while since he has been out of action that average has jumped to 2.60. Not only do Leeds begin to give away higher quality goal scoring opportunities but something else has changed now that they are missing their German libero. Below you can see a table of how Leeds have performed from corners with and without Koch.

It is obvious that Leeds have had an increase in concessions from corners that aligns with Kochs prolonged leave from the first team squad. What is also noticeable is that the goals that Leeds conceded from corners while he was in the squad were scored by players he was marking.

Scott Dann highlighted by the pink disc, Robin Koch by the yellow
Virgin Van Dijk highlighted by the pink disc, Robin Koch by the yellow

At the time it was considered that Koch was therefore a weak link at corners. However, I’d argue that Koch was tasked with marking the key danger men from set pieces. He can’t be 100% effective in that role, at times he is going to be beaten. Since then Leeds haven’t had the aerial presence they have needed to defend corners. Zouma out muscled Cooper, Soucek was too tall and strong for Dallas, Lindelof lost Phillips at the back post, Clark was too tall for Ayling and Phillips again lost Alderwiereld for his header in Leeds’ game last Saturday against Tottenham. I’d argue that 3 out of 5 of these goal scorers (Zouma, Soucek and Clark) would have been their clubs main target man at set pieces. This theory is further supported by the corner in the first minute at Stamford Bridge where we can see Koch marking Zouma before he left the field.

Kurt Zouma highlighted by the pink disc, Robin Koch by the yellow

Leeds have since the Manchester United game tried to combat the loss of Koch by using Meslier as their first form of defence from set pieces, you can read more about that in my last piece here. This new routine however, did come unstuck against Tottenham as for their third goal, Meslier was caught slightly off his line when Alderwiereld glanced a whipped front post delivery towards goal this led to Meslier’s fumble when trying to stop the header. I think on this evidence it is fair to say that Leeds really miss Koch.

But it’s not just about the Centre Backs is it?

Correct, it isn’t. So let’s talk about Leeds United’s full backs. We’ve already discussed Luke Ayling but with him moving central who is his back up at right back? Well it’s their preferred left back, Stuart Dallas, who contrary to popular belief is not born in Cookridge, but Cookstown possibly the most central town in Northern Ireland. Dallas plays in this position at international level. Pre-Bielsa though he was certainly never seen, by anyone but Marcelo himself, as anything other than a winger. Dallas transformed into one of, if not, the most versatile of players in the Championship under Bielsa. The Rosarían trusts Dallas with any job whether that be to play as a holding midfielder, inverted wing back on the left or attacking full back on the right.

But Dallas is currently the first choice left back at Leeds, something which I’m sure they are looking at is a new first choice specialist left back, but who comes in to replace him now? The answer, Gjianni Alioski. Another player transformed by Bielsa into a new role, this time from the right wing. When Alioski was signed in his first season he played primarily on the right wing under Thomas Christensen and Paul Heckingbottom. El Loco switched him to the left hand side at first and then pushed him further back to left back when times got tough due to injuries sustained by Ayling and Barry Douglas (currently on loan at Blackburn Rovers till the end of his contract at Elland Road). The Macedonian has now found himself there as a regular. But he has defensive frailties, this stems from left back not being his natural position. His attacking output from that position is astounding, Leeds fans christened him as being duracell bunny like, a nickname which comes off the back of him bombing his way into the opposition 6 yard box to score late goals against Hull and West Brom in the 80th and 90th minute respectively.

Alioski, left back, in position to receive a square ball from Jamie Shackleton in the 92nd minute to score Leeds’ final goal in a 4–0 win over West Brom back in February 2019

Leeds have no other options at full back, except from playing youngsters with no experience of playing at Premier League level. Bielsa is already having to do this at center back (Struijk), an academy player could become too exposed if thrown in at the deep end with not enough senior pros around to help guide him and Bielsa knows this.

This means that Leeds United’s starting back line in the last game against Spurs looked like this.

Starting back four for Leeds against Tottenham Hotspur with the positions of the players before Bielsa joined the club in 2018


Some will point to Liverpool and say they have had defensive problems too and they haven’t conceded 33 goals. They have had 12 combinations of defenders this season with 9 different center back partnerships, but even then they still have established £30m+ players filling in, the difference is they have a Matip, a Gomez or a Fabinho forming part of that pairing. Leeds don’t have that luxury yet, they have only had one transfer window in the Premier League, they will hope to have that luxury in the future. Yes, Bielsas sole belief is to attack, to lose 1–0 and play conservatively to him is the same as being 2–0 down and attacking, except you have the opportunity to maybe steal something from it. But Leeds had the best defence last season so his methods and philosophies are effective. With that in mind I truly believe it is not as bad as the overriding numbers make out. Once Leeds get one or two of their key players back from injury or once Koch returns, they will get consistency at the back and we will begin to see improvement like we see at Southampton.

And finally, to answer the question from the start posed by a certain national newspaper earlier this week. If Bielsa is such a genius… then why are Leeds so leaky? Well, given Leeds have 4 senior centre backs out injured currently, winger-come-full backs as their most senior choices there and are starting a 20 year old goalkeeper and 21 year old defender who together haven’t made 25 top flight appearances, not forgetting the fact that it is also the majority of Leeds’ squad first time in the Premier League. Add in the fact that no defensive line up for them has managed to put more than 3 games together all in the same positions, never mind in consecutive matches. I’d say Leeds probably should be conceding more and that is why Bielsa is such a genius.

All data and images were sourced from WyScout unless stated otherwise



Thomas Cundell

Android Engineer for Weezy. Sports Analyst hobbyist and Host of The Backroom Staff Podcast Twitter: @BKRMStaff and @THCundell