Leeds United have returned to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years, finishing on top of the EFL Championship. They have achieved this feat after years of failing, including the bottle-job last season.
While football is a team sport, the credit for this massive feat boils down to one man – Marcelo Bielsa, a tactical genius madly in love with the game since his childhood. He did not ever get the glittering career a lot of modern-day managers have had and had to retire at the age of 25. After an anti-climactic retirement, Bielsa took the first step into management with the youth setup at Newell’s Old Boys.
Since then, he has gone on to manage the likes of Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lille, Lazio, Espanyol and the Argentine National Team. In the process, Bielsa has gained admirers and plaudits from around the globe for his intense tactical style, a large part of which includes an exhaustive study of the opposition and coming up with solutions for the same while remaining true to his ideas.
In the process, the man has gained a fair share of followers, including the likes of compatriot Mauricio Pochettino and new Premier League rival, Pep Guardiola. In fact, the two-time Champions League winner regards Bielsa as the “best coach in the world”, and his respect for the Argentine manager can be traced back to their time as competitors in La Liga and before then too.
Bielsa is often referred to as El Loco due to several reasons, all stemming from the incident where he threatened to “pull the pin’ of a grenade he was holding when a group of Newell’s ultras came to threaten him after a 6-0 loss against San Lorenzo. However, the most recent example of this was the infamous “Spygate” incident.
We have already told you that Bielsa loves to be prepared more than anything; however, Spygate can easily be placed at another level altogether. As coach of Leeds, he sent several club employees to spy on his upcoming opponents’ training sessions. The Whites were fined £200,000 for ‘failing to act in good faith’, but this was still not the most bizarre episode to come out of this series.
Bielsa went on to address this in a press conference, explaining to the world his ways and his extremely comprehensive dive into his opponents. It was, without a doubt, one of the most memorable press conferences of all time.
While immoral, Bielsa tried to justify his ways by recalling an incident with Guardiola when his Athletic Bilbao were beaten 3-0 in the final of the Copa del Rey despite some cumbersome preparation. So much so, Guardiola told him, “You know more about Barcelona than me!” after Bielsa sent him his ‘homework’ about the Catalan giants.
Now that Marcelo Bielsa’s deranged ways have been established, The Hard Tackle takes a deep dive into his tactical system at Leeds United, notwithstanding the decisions they will have to take to sustain the pressure of the English top flight.
A structure created to deceive
Leeds United set up in a formation that virtually looks like a 4-1-4-1 on paper with regards to the players and their natural positions. The key and most common elements of this structure feature Kalvin Phillips holding the fort from defensive midfield aided by Mateusz Klich and either of Pablo Hernandez or Tyler Roberts in hybrid 8/10 roles. Jack Harrison occupies the left-wing and Helder Costa takes up the right flank. Patrick Bamford leads the line for Leeds.
At the back, you will see captain Liam Cooper partnering Ben White at the heart of the Leeds defence, while Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas provide the width as the right and left-sided full-backs, respectively.
In essence, this is what you would expect Leeds to look like. Unsurprisingly, though, this is not what they look like on the pitch. The 4-1-4-1 shifts to Marcelo Bielsa’s famous 3-3-1-3 or 3-3-3-1 in phases of transition.
Here’s how the transformation happens:
The brilliant Phillips drops in between the centre backs, White and Cooper, to form a three five-person setting before Ayling and Dallas move ahead on their corresponding flanks. They wing Klich, who is in the middle of the second bank of three.
35-year-old Hernandez is Bielsa’s primary playmaker, playing in the hole as a number 10. Ahead of him, Harrison and Costa reside in advanced roles on the wings, flanking Bamford.
This shift in formation is a significant part of Bielsa’s masterplan this season and how they execute their game plan onto the pitch.
Marcelo Bielsa is a pragmatic manager who likes to come up with answers to every problem differently while implementing his philosophy into the team. His idea of football, though, is direct, attacking, and remarkably exhaustive.
The plan going into every game is to keep possession while playing vertical passes that help progress the ball higher up the pitch and into the opposition half. It only makes sense that they lead the league for possession, big chances created, big chances missed, total shots per game, and most number of woodwork strikes.
Kalvin Phillips is the flagship of this high-powered Leeds United. He drops deep as an auxiliary centre-back to add passing numbers. He is an athletic player who does not shy away from risks. In possession, he likes to turn and look for passing options on the wing or carry the ball out of position. Alternatively, Phillips is more than capable of playing a press splitting pass through ball which reaches one of the other midfielders.
Leeds’s full-backs rove very high up the pitch and stick to the touchline. When they attempt to attack through one side of the field, the defender on the opposing side can move into space that has been left open by opposition defenders.
Additionally, these wide players do not hold their station after carrying the ball; they move ahead into space or drift inwards to become a part of the attack. This helps Leeds overload the rival half with attacking numbers.
The central midfielders aid the full-backs by occupying the half-spaces and constantly shuffling their positions. A constant shift in their position opens them up to various passing options, consequently helping them in carrying the ball out of pressure zones.
Pablo Hernandez, Mateusz Klich and Tyler Roberts are all very able passers and find unmarked players on the wing with ease. One of the midfielders then roves into the box or near the edge from where they can finish a cross or a cut-back with ease. It all plays into Bielsa’s idea of making the best use of the pitch by expanding its width.
Leeds’s first-choice wingers are both left-footed but have different roles to play on the flanks. Helder Costa resembles a modern-day inside forward, starting far-flung before moving inwards on to his strong foot from where he can shoot or pass. Jack Harrison, though, is played as a traditional winger who sticks to his flank and likes to whip in crosses and powerful passes across the goal.
More often than not, this helps Stuart Dallas, who, while being right-footed, has played mostly as a left-back. He can find advance spots near the edge of the box and attempt to cut in himself if need be. They produce high attacking numbers through crosses and the proof of the same is their 5.2 crosses per game – third highest in the league.
Patrick Bamford has been the best attacker of the season for Leeds, at least in terms of the sheer numbers he puts up. He finished the season with 16 goals and two assists, majorly feeding off of Leeds’s ability to exploit his brilliant off the ball running.
The Englishman likes to stay in advanced roles before spotting an empty run through the defence, which is excellently taken care of by the team through killer through balls or long balls. Leeds are third in the league in terms of long balls per game, with 25.6; only behind Preston North End and Queen Park Rangers.
However, it is noteworthy that Bamford has scored only 16 (8th highest) of a grand total of 80 goals by the team (second highest). They have been invariably unpredictable in front of goal which has given them the edge over their opponents. You never know who is going to pop up with the goods.
It is clear that Leeds like to attack a lot, and with intent; however, this puts a lot of pressure on their defence who are stranded with no more than four men at once in case of a turnover. Bielsa likes his team to fall back and continually press the opposition while marking passing lanes. The result of this is a lot of turnovers, and a lot of fouls, despite what the stats tell you.
Leeds have conceded just 11.6 fouls per game, which is the 17th highest in the league. However, they also boast of the highest possession per game, averaging 64.2% per game, which means Leeds have been without the ball for 36.8% per game. Over the course of the season, that number translates into 1,523 minutes without the ball, which essentially means Leeds have conceded a foul every 2.85 minutes – the worst rate in the league.
That said, Bielsa has to trust his players’ work rate to get him over the edge every game without being outscored. After attacking in numbers, the Whites also have to return to their half to put in a defensive shift. A system this tiring works well for a majority of the season, but the impact of the same is visible during the final quarter of the season, when fatigue gets the better of players.
This has often been termed as ‘Murderball’, a parody of Arsene Wenger’s style of play at Arsenal – Wengerball. Every team Bielsa has managed so far has felt the repercussions of the same, most recently Leeds United themselves, last season. After a brilliant two-thirds of the season, Leeds were tipped to qualify sitting first but fell victim of Murderball as they failed to capitalise on their chances.
Bielsa was able to sort these problems out this season, partly thanks to the transfer business, bringing in the likes of Helder Costa, Ben White and Jack Harrison. They were not only able to give Leeds the avant-garde they were so desperately missing last season but made them a far more entertaining team than they ever were.
Leeds United don’t boast of a superstar or just one standout performer. Under Marcelo Bielsa, they have managed to come out on top as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, and taken control of a league after 16 years. Bielsa has made the people of Leeds believe again, and he is already going down as an immortal in their hearts and history books. No bigger achievement than that, is there?