Marcelo Bielsa – Leeds United – Tactical Analysis

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Leeds United have waited 16 years to be back in the Premier League, and under Marcelo Bielsa that dream has now finally turned into reality for the 2020/2021 season. The Argentinean manager has long been hailed as one of the best in the world, not just by fans and players, but by other managers like Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pochettino. It’s easy to see why, as in just two years he has turned Leeds United into one of the very best teams in the Championship and has had the club hovering inside the top two for almost the entirety of both seasons. After a poor run of form at the end of the 2018-19 campaign resulting in Leeds missing out on automatic promotion to Sheffield United, Marcelo Bielsa has just continued to work his magic to the point where they secured automatic promotion this season with two games to spare. Here is a Tactical Analysis of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and the extraordinary exploits his team have pulled off in the 2019-20 EFL Championship season.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-1-4-1

4-1-4-1

The EFL Championship incorporates a gruelling 46-game schedule. But that hasn’t stopped Bielsa from playing the same consistent set of players over the course of the season. Only twelve players have featured in over half of Leeds’ matches in 2019-20. In fact, the gap between their twelfth highest minute-maker Pablo Hernandez and thirteenth highest Gaetano Berardi, is thirteen matches and well over a thousand minutes. This lack of strength in depth may be considered a weakness for Bielsa’s team if they do progress to the Premier League, but it also highlights just how incredibly fit and durable his players have been over the course of the season. Further, Sheffield and Wolves took similar approaches to secure promotion, and the philosophy of a core squad of players playing the bulk of the minutes has continued to work for those clubs in the Premier League. 

Leeds United primarily play in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Although being known for tactical flexibility and unconventional creations like the 3-3-1-3 and 3-3-3-1, this shape has remained relatively consistent over the course of both of Bielsa’s seasons so far, even if adapted during build-up phases. Other than in-game changes, Bielsa has also utilized variations of a 3-4-3 (even at times looking more like a 3-3-3-1) this season. The most common time for Bielsa to change to a back-three occurs when his team come up against two-striker systems. This is unsurprising, considering what I will mention next about their build-up. But Leeds are very comfortable going up against one-striker systems when they have their triangle at the back of White, Cooper and Phillips always in place. Against two-strikers, that extra centre-back allows Phillips to maintain a defensive midfield position, while keeping the opposition strikers occupied. 

Despite the limited amount of changes to the 4-1-4-1 formation game by game, it’s a different story when you talk about minute by minute. When both fullbacks push high up the pitch the shape can sometimes look rather crazily like a 2-1-6-1 or 3-3-1-3. When only one advances and the other drops into the back-three, Leeds will overload the other  side in a rather unbalanced looking 3-1-3-3. Without visuals this may all be very confusing, but I’m going to give it a shot. 

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The 3-3-1-3 is the most extensively studied of Bielsa’s concoctions and often involves Kalvin Phillips dropping in alongside the centre-backs, with the fullbacks pushing high alongside one central midfielder. The other central midfielder looks for space higher up the pitch, but removed from the front-three. The 2-1-6-1 on the other hand has been neglected by other tactical analyses of Leeds this season and for good reason, it’s rather outrageous. This involves the two centre-backs remaining back alongside Phillips to cover the opposition’s one centre-back and the other players playing rather high in attack, chopping and changing positions as though no one told them where they were playing. The main difference here is Klich and Hernandez both joining the attack, rather than one of them dropping in, forcing Phillips to cover the gap in front of the centre-backs rather than truly joining them in a back-three. Finally, a 3-1-3-3 will often be created to see Stuart Dallas join the two centre-backs, and the team overload the right, with no natural left-sided player in the second line of three. The second-line of three then includes Ayling, Hernandez and Klich, and it is the Polish international who will remain the furthest left, although not really actually slotting in to cover any sort of a gap that could be created by Stuart Dallas dropping in. Since the team overloads the pitch in this manner, the lack of the left-sided player is not necessarily that grave of an issue. If they lose possession, they have several numbers ready to swarm in and stop the opposition’s attempts to exploit any perceived lack of balance.     

With all that said, it is important to note why it is generally agreed upon by everyone that Leeds operate in a 4-1-4-1 formation. It might be because this is actually their most common defensive shape, rather than their attacking shape. Which is true. It might also be because the footballing world is not ready to admit that Leeds play a 2-1-6-1 or 3-1-3-3 in attack, because that would simply just be absurd and unheard of. I would love to be the one to break the news, but it remains to be seen what Leeds will do in the Premier League, against some of the very best teams in the world. This isn’t necessarily to say that we as a footballing society designate Leeds in a 4-1-4-1 for purposes of simplicity. It is after all their most common defensive shape and close enough to the average position their players take up on the pitch. But it is to say that proclaiming Leeds to play in a 4-1-4-1 ignores the complexity of their team’s movement in attack. The best way to describe their attacking shape may instead be to adopt Thomas Muller’s term – Raumdauter. Leeds United have a team of about six or seven Raumdauter’s and the rest adjust their positioning in accordance. 

PERSONNEL

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In Leeds United’s 4-1-4-1 shape, they often deploy the same twelve or so players. Spanish goalkeeper Kiko Casilla has been a key addition to the team since jumping over from the bench of Real Madrid. Illan Meslier has fared well in his place since the restart, but the 33-year old is still a very important player to the squad. It’s a testament to the quality of Bielsa that Leeds can actually bring in a player of Casilla’s quality, having played in La Liga for a decade between Espanyol and Real Madrid. His eight-match ban has now ended, but with Meslier impressing in his place, Leeds may look to make the 20-year old’s loan from Lorient a permanent one. Between the two keepers, they’ve had a hand in Leeds conceding just 35 goals in 45 matches this season, compared to 50 in the league when their season wilted away in 2018-19. 

Also deserving a massive amount of credit for that league-leading tally of fewest goals conceded are of course the back-four. Luke Ayling is the only regular in the back-four who has not played in League Two, highlighting the remarkable rise of these players and how the club hasn’t just bought their way to success. Ayling himself was a long-time League One player between Yeovil and Bristol City and might never have been given a chance in the Championship had Bristol not secured promotion in 2015. Ayling’s fullback partner has predominantly been Stuart Dallas, with Ezgjan Alioski filling in when needed. The centre-backs in between have been Ben White and Liam Cooper. Still only 22, Ben White has started every single Championship match and has been so consistent alongside his captain that when Cooper’s out, Bielsa frequently changes formation to accommodate a back-three instead. In front of the back-four is none other than the fantastic midfield destroyer Kalvin Phillips, accompanied by Polish international Mateusz Kilch and former Swansea man Pablo Hernandez. Like Klich and Ben White, former MLS star Jack Harrison started all 44 matches for Leeds before their promotion, while former Wolves man Helder Costa has fit into the team seamlessly down the other side. Up top, Patrick Bamford has proven to be exactly what Bielsa needs from a number 9, after failing to make a mark at Chelsea and playing second-fiddle to Kemar Roofe last season.

Other regulars include 21-year old Tyler Roberts who may be slowly edging out 35-year old Pablo Hernandez, and Gaetano Berardi, who frequently features as either a sub or third centre-back when Leeds change shape. But the fact that these are the only two major peripheral players other than Alioski, suggests that Bielsa has a lot of trust in his core group of players.

ALWAYS ON THE MOVE 

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Only Fulham have completed more passes per game than Leeds this season, and no team has had more of the possession (60%). In fact, they don’t just have the best possession statistics, but no team in the league has had more of the possession in their opposition’s third than Leeds this season, and no team has had less of the ball in the middle third as a result. It’s not as though they like to play it long from their third to the opposition’s. Instead of long and direct, they play quickly and direct. In other words, when they look to go forward, everything is done at pace and precision. They don’t keep possession for the sake of it nor are they gradual, slow or progressive when they keep the ball. They look for the best option to play forward at every opportunity, and with players at their disposal like Phillips and Hernandez, are more than capable of doing so with ease. This is done in part thanks to their players often delivering and receiving the ball while on the move, rather than engaging in any form of static, back and forth passing. This quick approach to their play has allowed the team the freedom to take risks and aids in the positional rotation, where players are encouraged to be creative in finding space, rather than being fixed into one place. With this approach to their play, the opposition are always forced back deeper and deeper, and Leeds can gallop forward in larger numbers. 

This direct approach may also be why Fulham have better pass accuracy and complete more short passes, despite Leeds having more possession. Bielsa’s team are riskier, edgier and almost always on the move when they play the ball forward. They’ve been caught offside more times than any other team in the league because of this risky approach, but they’ve also been the most successful at both creating chances and getting the ball into their opposition’s penalty area. This is a physically demanding task, but Leeds are one of the fittest around and consequently, they’ve helped themselves to 73 goals this season. It’s not the best in the league, but it’s certainly been the most fun to watch. 

ATTACKING STYLE

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Although Leeds prefer to keep possession of the ball and play fast-paced possession football, they are also particularly fast-paced on the break. Only Hull have scored as many counter attacking goals (6) this season in the Championship as Bielsa’s team. 

Leeds love to play in the wide areas, which is unsurprising given that Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas can frequently be found bombing forward from their fullback positions. As the fullbacks gallop forward, they will frequently continue their runs well into the team’s attacking third, rather than holding their position. Kalvin Phillips’ awareness and positioning in behind allows them to have this freedom, but he too also looks for opportunities to get forward. This is one of the main reasons why I have chosen to declare their shape to be more of a 2-1-6-1 in attack than the 3-3-1-3 that other tacticians might proclaim. Not only does this style and shape allow Leeds to create overloads in attack when their opposition least expect it, it has also allowed the team to dominate wide areas and create chances through crosses. Bielsa’s men have made the most crosses per game in the Championship, with 26. But what might be surprising, is that the leader in that category is actually defensive stalwart Kalvin Phillips, who will often adopt positions on the right and deliver from deep, knowing that Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich can fulfill any defensive duties if needed. Although he’s only assisted 2 goals, Phillips has created 1.8 chances per game, the third highest for Bielsa’s team. This helps to make Phillips one of the most impressive performers for Leeds United, as not only is he the team’s top tackler and crucial to build-up, he’s also a key creator of chances and an important element to their play higher up the pitch. 

I’ve already mentioned how the team prefer to attack down the right with players like Luke Ayling, Pablo Hernandez and Helder Costa. I haven’t mentioned however just how drastic the use of that side is. 45% of their possession this season has come on the right-side, compared to 35% on the left and 20% on the middle (WhoScored, 2020). Despite that, shots come from the left and right in a near equal manner, and as you’d expect, 63% of their shots have come from what is designated as the middle of the pitch. Pablo Hernandez in particular is a key creator. 9 goals and 7 assists in his 35 appearances makes the Spanish midfielder still one of the best around in the league, while he’s also created 2.2 chances per game, the 5th highest in the league. Top scorer Patrick Bamford has also had a big role to play with 16 goals in 44 matches, and has improved his movement this season to fulfill the boots of Kemar Roofe. 

PRESSING FROM THE FRONT

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Unsurprisingly, Bielsa asks his team to press high up the pitch at speed and win the ball back immediately after losing it. The 4-1-4-1 shape allows Bielsa to press high and easily keep a diamond shape when pressing, with the striker, near-sided winger, and the two attacking midfielders linking up to win the ball back. The high press isn’t just a reality, but a necessity. Without it, Leeds would be caught on the break far more often than they are. This is in part due to the team’s desire to attack in numbers. Without a high pressing system in place there simply would not be enough transition time to get bodies back in numbers.

But their high press is also one of the most impressive in the league. Despite Leeds keeping the highest amount of possession, they rank third in tackles and fifth in interceptions per game. Leading that charge is Kalvin Phillips. With 2.6 tackles per game, the 24-year old ranks tied for eighth in the Championship in that regard. It is very unusual for a possession-based, league-leading team to also be one of the top tackling teams in the league, but it is an important element to their play and has helped ease the pressure on the back three and goalkeeper this season; while simultaneously allowing the team to remain on the attack and in control of the game. 

POSITIONAL ROTATION

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I discussed Atalanta’s positional rotation a few months ago, and this tactical analysis would be far from complete if I didn’t devote an entire section to Leeds’ positional rotation too. As already mentioned, Stuart Dallas and Kalvin Philipps frequently drop alongside the centre-backs to allow Leeds to change shape in attack. It is also important to note the role of Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez in dropping deep to cover the gaps left by those two; or further forward, as they move wide and the wingers come inside. Costa and Hernandez will frequently interchange positions, as Harrison also loves to come inside and create overloads with Stuart Dallas. But it is one thing to engage in positional rotation for the sake of creating chaos for the opposition, it is another to consider the crucial creation of space in attack that this affords Leeds United. When Costa or Harrison drift inside, they look to exploit the gaps in between the opposition centre-backs, centre-backs and fullbacks, and in between the centre-backs and defensive midfielder. With this creation of space and movement inside, even more space is likely to open up in the wide areas, as the opposition are forced to become narrower and more compact in tracking the movements of the wingers. This in turn allows a player like Ayling, Dallas, Hernandez or even Kalvin Phillips to pop up in a wide area and deliver a cross. Beyond that, this level of positional rotation also simply does create chaos for the opposition. As Harrison or Costa drift inside, opposition fullbacks have a difficult decision of what to do. If they follow, Ayling, Dallas or Hernandez may be able to exploit space out wide. If they don’t, Harrison and Costa will be able to exploit the space they moved inside to create in the first place. You may wonder whether or not this exposes Leeds on the break, considering that so many players are pushed so high up the pitch. However, because of their high-pressing mentality and the simple fact that so many players will be hovering around the middle of the pitch, Leeds are one of the best around at quickly winning the ball back and stopping any counter attacks before they start. 

A final benefit to this positional rotation worth noting is its ability to just complete undo the opposition to the point where they put the ball into the back of their own net. Rather crazily, Leeds have forced their opposition into eight own goals this season. That’s double the amount of the next highest pair of teams (Wigan and Blackburn) and under pure speculation, probably close to some kind of obscure record.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

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Leeds United are one of the most exciting teams to be promoted from the Championship to the Premier League in recent memory. Although they are far from perfect, they always put on an entertaining performance thanks to their tactically fluid and innovative style of play. Their reliance on positional rotation and forward thinking possession has troubled even the best of Championship teams, and will likely hold up well in the Premier League next year. Although the players have all performed remarkably well this season, it will be interesting to see how Leeds progress and change their side to fit England’s top flight in 2020-21. For now, they can rest easy going into the final game of the season, knowing that they have been far and away one of the most exciting teams to watch in England over the past two years and have finally secured promotion back to the Premier League. 


So there it is! A tactical analysis on Leeds United F.C. If you enjoyed this one be sure to check out more from our Tactics section, including our popular Tactical Analyses of Atalanta, Sheffield United and Inter Milan. Thanks for reading and see you soon! 

 

 

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