In the 1960s and 1970s, Leeds and Chelsea would look at their unlikely rivalry as the biggest game of the season.
Back then, the two teams fought for the Division One title but the ferocity of the rivalry ebbed away in the early 2000s.
Leeds’ fall down the English divisions coincided with Chelsea’s rise following Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s takeover. But with both sides facing critical moments in their season, the tense build-up going into Wednesday night’s battle between the two teams – live on Sky Sports – feels like this rivalry never went away in the first place.
The omens do not look good for relegation-threatened Leeds, who dropped back into the relegation zone for the first time since October following a horror run of form.
Not only have Jesse Marsch’s side fallen from eight points above the zone three weeks ago to into the bottom three, but Leeds have also lost 11 out of their 11 matches against the Premier League’s top six this season – conceding an average of four goals per game in these contests.
But Chelsea have also been sucked into trouble themselves, taking just eight points from their last possible 21 on offer and are just one point ahead of fourth-placed Arsenal. The Blues still need just four points to secure a Champions League place for next season – but this contest with Leeds is now a must-win distraction ahead of their FA Cup final with Liverpool on Saturday.
How do Leeds get back on track in time?
Two months ago, Marsch inherited a Leeds side that was leaking goals under his predecessor Marcelo Bielsa, irrespective of the exciting brand of attacking football the Argentine brought over his four years at Elland Road
Stopping the amount of goals conceded by the team was the first task on the German-American manager’s agenda and he had managed exactly that. Leeds are conceding fewer goals per game with Marsch at the helm, while their ball recoveries and tackling numbers are up under their new manager.
But there’s a reason why Leeds, who have outrun their opponents in eight out of their nine Premier League games under Marsch, are having to work a lot larder without the ball. Leeds simply do not have the same control of matches under the German-American than with Bielsa in charge.
The reason why Leeds are literally chasing games, rather than controlling them, is down to their efficiency on the ball. Their players are struggling to create enough passing options in the first two thirds of the pitch which leads to fewer completed passes, balls played in the opposition half and overall created chances – along with less possession per game.
Take Eddie Nketiah’s first goal for Arsenal against Leeds on Super Sunday. The lack of passing options available to the visitors meant Illan Meslier was forced to dawdle on the ball, allowing the Gunners striker to close the Leeds goalkeeper down and score an easy opener.
One potential reason behind this is the change in formation by Marsch, which has impacted the midfield. For the past four years, Kalvin Phillips played as the sole sitting runner under Bielsa but Marsch has brought in another team-mate to help him in that area – currently Mateusz Klich while Adam Forshaw is out injured.
In Leeds’ 0-0 draw against Crystal Palace on Monday Night Football last month, both Phillips and Marsch discussed how the change in system has impacted the team in terms of creating chances, especially as the team looks to move away from Bielsa’s style of play .
“I wish I played a bit better,” said Phillips to Sky Sports, with the player playing in his first game in the new formation after being injured for Marsch’s first games at Leeds. “I’m trying to get to grips with the new formation and the way that we’re playing. It’s very different.”
Meanwhile, Marsch added: “Some of the things in possession that we wanted to create and the connections and confidence we wanted to have, we weren’t able to establish enough in the game, [along with] being more dangerous to win the game.
“There’s still a moment where they get caught in the man marking. This takes time. It’s such a unique project trying to change the playing philosophy and survive and thrive in a relegation battle.”
Under Marsch, Leeds have spent a lot of time playing up the line from their full-backs to attacking wingers Raphinha and Jack Harrison, but a lot is being asked of the pair in the tight spaces out wide.
Both Harrison and Raphinha are more unsuccessful in their take-ons and overall duels than they are successful, which could explain why Leeds have been guilty of rescinding more possession to their opponents following their change in manager.
Marsch has been successful in keeping Leeds’ back door reasonably shut since coming in, but the way he rearranged the furniture is not helping them bang down the front door too well.
But there’s still plenty of fight in this Leeds team and Wednesday’s clash with Chelsea could be the best chance for them to show that.
Chelsea must stop being so sloppy
In the middle of March, Chelsea were nine points clear of fifth place with a game in hand, with Thomas Tuchel’s side strolling towards a top-four spot at that point. Nobody saw such a horrible run of form coming.
Drawing two and losing three in their next seven games means the Blues could start next weekend with just a two-point buffer ahead of the fifth – should they lose at Leeds and Tottenham beat Arsenal in Thursday’s north London derby, live on Sky Sports.
The horrid run since the beginning of April has come even though Chelsea have averaged the most possession and shots per game than any other Premier League team in that same period. Meanwhile, only Manchester City (2.5) have mustered a better Expected Goals (xG) total per game in their last seven games than Chelsea, with the Blues’ wastefulness in front of goal being brought to light.
Chelsea have the fifth-worst shot conversion ratio in the Premier League since the start of the last month, with the fourth-worst defensive record in terms of goals conceded in that same period. To put it simply, Tuchel’s side can be far more efficient in the two penalty areas to both put teams away and keep them at bay.
The goals have really dried up for Kai Havertz, who has scored just once in the Premier League in his last seven games – despite having an xG of nearly three.
At the other end of the spectrum, Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku actually look in form and the pair – who cost a combined total of nearly £150m – have scored more than their xG totals say they should have done.
There is sloppiness at the back for Chelsea too, with Tuchel’s side making three errors leading to goals since the start of last month – no Premier League team has made more in that period. For a side with a cup final on Saturday, the Blues are coming into this weekend’s Wembley final in rather poor shape.
But while the FA Cup final with Liverpool can be seen as a distraction, Wednesday night’s clash allows Tuchel to kill two birds with one stone by winning. The first stone is picking up three points to help boost their top-four credentials – but the second is the German manager getting a better idea of which players can deal with pressure the best ahead of the Wembley final.
For Leeds, the Elland Road clash on Wednesday is their very own cup final – and the home fans will create a hostile atmosphere that very few can rival. Chelsea showed against Everton last month they struggled to deal with a team fighting for their lives at the bottom with a fervent crowd – the Blues’ ability to handle pressure will be tested once again here.
It’s time to see whether Chelsea’s mettle can handle another big test.
Can’t decide which of Wednesday’s crucial Premier League games to watch? With Wolves vs Man City kicking off during half-time of Leeds vs Chelsea, and both live on Sky Sports, you don’t need to miss a minute with our second-screen viewing on the Sky Sports App.
Download the Sky Sports App hereand Sky Sports customers can go to the ‘Live TV’ section at the bottom of the screen.