Shootout of Fashion?

There was much to admire in the penalty shootout that decided the 2022 League Cup final, with 21 successful kicks confidently & stylishly reaching the net before Kepa, a late Chelsea substitute for specialist reasons, sent his effort high into the Brent sky. It was reminiscent of the 2021 Europa League final, also a game that saw a series of excellent kicks before culminating in a Spanish goalkeeper missing. Some noticed that once again, both sides got into double figures in the shootout, prompting concerns that the classic 12-yard game-deciding mechanism has become too easy, due to a combination of improved player ability and more stringent anti-movement rules for goalkeepers. But is this the case? If we take all penalty shootouts involving English top-flight teams in major competitions (apologies in advance to the Texaco, Watney and Full Member [aka Simod/Zenith Data Systems] cups), then none of the first 200 attempts saw a team reach 10+ penalty goals in the shootout. We’ve come a long way since Liverpool and Birmingham played out a 2-0(!) penalty shootout in the FA Cup in 1995. Birmingham’s four spot-kicks were all missed; hang your heads in shame Mark Ward, Steve McGavin, Liam Daish and Gary Cooper.

That run of 200 shootouts without double figures being hit stretches from Everton against Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1970 all the way through until 2014, when Liverpool eliminated Middlesbrough from the League Cup 14-13. It has happened three more times since then, once in 2020, once in 2021 and then yesterday at Wembley. So, long 20+ converted penalty shootouts are becoming more common, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Football is the world’s most popular low-scoring sport and is enhanced by occasionally having an absolute flurry of penalty kicks at the end. Deep down, unless you’re a Spanish goalkeeper, everyone loves a shootout.

Bielsa’s PPDA Legacy

By losing 4-0 to Tottenham on Saturday, Leeds became the first team in Premier League history to let in 20 goals in a single calendar month, something not even Swindon “FYI 100 goals conceded” Town managed in 1993-94. The club’s response was to bring the Marcelo Bielsa era to a close, meaning that Burnley are now the only club in the bottom five not to change their manager this season. The Bielsa era was a largely thrilling one for Leeds fans, who saw the Argentine return the club to the top-flight in 2019-20 and keep them up with relative ease last season. Bielsa’s singular brand of intense, whirling football has a shelf-life and he was employed at Elland Road longer than he had been at any of his previous clubs. The PPDA metric (passes per defensive action) is a good way to highlight the club’s sheer commitment to pressing under Bielsa, with Leeds recording a figure lower than their opponents (the lower the number the more you are – theoretically – harassing your opponents) in 49 of the 64 games under Bielsa.

Leeds PPDA Bielsa
That insane spike in game 22? That’s what happens when Bielsa meets Hodgson

Interestingly, there does seem to be a recent Bielsa attempt to change the club’s approach, with a three-game spell where Leeds’ PPDA was higher than their opponents, although it should be noted that those opponents were Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. You can have a commitment to furious pressing but sometimes the opposition just don’t let you do it.

Either way, Leeds switched back to their trademark-Bielsa approach in seven of the manager’s last eight games, posting an incredibly low 6.2 PPDA in his penultimate home game in charge against Manchester United. Of course, Leeds were going to press their arch-rivals to an almost insane level in front of a home crowd baying for that to happen, but there it is in black and white. It very nearly worked too, with Leeds coming from 2-0 down to draw level in a matter of seconds, before eventually losing 4-2. That opportunity right there was Bielsa’s chance to fix the trajectory Leeds were on but it proved a task too far for a depleted and exhausted squad. He leaves with the club in the midst of a relegation battle but with his legacy assured.

Happy (near) Birthday

February 28 is as close to February 29 as we’ll get this year so let’s pay tribute to the five players born on that rarest of days to feature in the Premier League. Mike Pollitt, Niklas Gudmundsson, Darren Ambrose and, most recently, Ferran Torres, born in 2000, so a beneficiary of the rule that while a year divisible by 100 is not a leap year, if it is divisible by 400 then it is. “Hat-trick vs. Newcastle and born in a year divisible by 400, you’ll never sing that.”