Bielsa In The Big Time
Being born in 1999, hopefully the Leeds fans amongst you can pardon me for only really remembering Leeds as a mid table Championship side, battling away with my beloved Watford, to finish 15th. I was too young to remember the Champions League glory days of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith. But finally, after a 16 year hiatus, they are most definitely back. A fact every Leeds fan I know has reminded me daily since their promotion.
All jokes aside, their promotion was no fluke. After many years of failed managers, players and systems, Bielsa has created a team that is tactically astute, physically fit, ruthless and exciting. Characteristics Leeds sides have failed to live up to in recent years. I will be giving an overview of Leeds tactics under Bielsa, by looking at each position's various roles within the system.
When the opposition has possession, Leeds shape up in a fairly simple 4-1-4-1 formation . When the ball is lost, Leeds counter-press relentlessly to try and win the ball back in the opposition third, whilst they are out of position.
If the opposition break the press, they sit rigidly in this formation, defending fairly narrow to block the passing lanes of the opposition, with Kalvin Phillips (Left, green 4) screening passes between the lines to the other teams striker or no 10. This is accompanied by other players close to the ball closing down the passer to increase the likelihood of a mistake. Due to Leeds defending narrow, their opponents often have to shift the ball side to side around the defence, in order to create spaces to pass into and occupy possession.
This can eventually lead teams into a false sense of security, making them comfortable, which may then lead to mistakes by defenders. If the opposition defenders miscontrol or misplace a pass, the front 3 of Leeds are onto them instantly, using their pace and excellent reading of the game to be efficient in the press. Patrick Bamford has been criticised for his work rate and pressing ability in previous seasons, allowing players such as Kemar Roofe to enter the fray for example. However, this season has seen this aspect of his game improve tenfold, allowing Leeds to press ruthlessly and efficiently. The ability to press and win the ball back has allowed them to score 8% of their goals from counter attacking situations this season and has allowed them have the best average possession of any side in the division (63%).
As I’ve said, Leeds have the ball more than any team in the division and this is the part of their style which is the most interesting. When attacking, they employ Bielsa’s famous 3-3-1-3 which he has implemented across many teams he has managed including Argentina, Lazio and Marseille. It is a bold system which requires high degrees of rehearsal combined with the ingenuity of players such as Hernandez and Harrison out wide. Due to the attacking nature of this approach, it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the premier league, facing the possession based sides such as Man City and Leicester.
In the offensive phase Leeds use their keeper primarily as a cog at the base of play. Bielsa used ex-Real Madrid keeper, Kiko Casilla, at the start of the season but after a few errors, the young French keeper, Messlier came into the side. Both keepers have great distribution and footwork, allowing the team to use them as an outlet to form attacks. Either playing short to the defence or clipping the ball out wide to the advancing full backs. Messlier in particular has the ability to play Ederson like passes, bypassing the midfield and going straight to the forwards. A very useful tool when counter attacking from an opposition corner for example. This was shown multiple times in their recent 3-0 win against Fulham where they exploited the less mobile Odoi at right back, allowing Harrison to get in behind to score.
The centre backs both split wide with Kalvin Phillips slotting in between them. The usual centre backs, Ben White and Liam Cooper are mostly used for short range passes to the midfield. Phillips however, has the ability and license to carry the ball forward from defence to push the team up or spray the ball around the pitch, to the creative forces they have. To counter this, some teams press the centre backs when they have the ball. When this happens, Phillips moves forward and passes the first line of the opposition press (above) to get into a position where he is free to receive the ball. The full backs also can offer for the ball, if they are pressed wide.
Leeds have two very good full backs. Luke Ayling who is very industrious and does his job both defensively and offensively, pushing forward to deliver from wide or provide driving runs when countering. Stuart Dallas is a converted wide midfielder which gives Leeds many attacking options providing 5 goals and 3 assists in 19/20. Leeds use their attacking full backs to great effect. The opposite full back to the side where the ball is, stays high in order to receive the switch or drag the opposition full back, providing space for the wingers to drift inside unmarked.
Leeds play wide, this can come from either the wide players or the fullbacks. Primarily, the wide players play on the opposite wing to their footedness allowing them to drift inside for shooting opportunities. This also creates space for the onrushing fullbacks to come forward and deliver crosses. From these crosses the wingers can either linger in the box for knock downs or drift in at the back post. Jack Harrison, on loan from CIty, has been the main beneficiary of the inside forward role, scoring 6 and assisting 8 this season. 45% of Leeds’ possession goes down the right, meaning he sees a lot of the ball and can use his pace to dribble (blue), creativity to link play (white) in addition creating his own chances to shoot (red).
The two central midfielders in Leeds’ team (Tyler Roberts and Mateusz Klich) are used to shuttle the ball forwards, playing balls into the wingers feet or in behind for their mobile front 3 to chase. Roberts is generally more advanced, with Klich playing an enforcer role, preventing counter attacks. When building attacks, the central midfielders are rarely static. Meaning there is continuous forward momentum. This makes it harder for the opponents to pick up men and can leave the forwards free when making runs in behind. The midifielders also make late runs into the box to finish and are able to roam to create overloads in various areas of the field.
Patrick Bamford has been the player of choice for Bielsa. His intelligent runs create space for others as well as allowing him to score 16 goals this year. His goals mostly come from poaching or good positioning when the ball is crossed. His pass completion rate of 75% is very good for his position, highlighting his ability to link play and then turn and get into the box, ready for the cross or tap ins.
Leeds are perhaps one of the most in form and exciting teams in English football. Their style is exciting and definitely deserves its place in the Premier League. Whether or not Bielsa and his players will be able to adapt to better opposition is yet to be seen. With a squad composed of youth, talent and the might that is Leeds United, who knows where the ceiling is for this team. The fact is now “dirty dirty Leeds” couldn’t be further from the perception most football fans have of the club. They play the game with ruthless precision, picking their opponents apart methodically thanks to Bielsa’s unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfection.
Welcome back to the big time, Leeds United.
This piece was written by Taylor Christopher.