Marcelo Bielsa – Leeds United – Tactical Analysis (2020-21 Edition)

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Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most fascinating managers in the world of football and is currently tearing it up in the Premier League with Leeds United. After earning promotion from the Championship to the top flight last season, Bielsa’s side sit only 14th in the table. But the performances have been far better than the results and his side have achieved impressive performances and results against the likes of Arsenal, Man City and Aston Villa so far this season. Either way, the football that Leeds play can be described as genius, and simultaneously as one of our readers described it – madness. With that, here is a Tactical Analysis of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and the impressive exploits his team have pulled off in the 2020-21 Premier League season.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-1-4-1

Leeds have remained with a relatively consistent eleven to the one that got them promoted to the Premier League. The only major differences are Illan Meslier who has now fully replaced Kiko Casilla, Rodrigo coming into the team as an attacking midfielder instead of Pablo Hernandez, and Robin Koch in place of the fantastic Ben White. By making such minimal changes, Leeds have been able to play exactly the same way they did in the Championship, just against better opponents.

Meslier has been one of the top goalkeepers in the league so far this season, and in front of him he has a robust back-four of Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas, Robin Koch and Liam Cooper. Kalvin Phillips anchors the midfield and screens the back-four, allowing Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo to surge forward in attack more often. The flanks are occupied by former Wolves man Helder Costa and former MLS star Jack Harrison, who have both started eight out of the nine matches so far. Up top, Patrick Bamford has been one of the Premier League’s surprising performers so far, scoring 7 goals in 8 games (50% of his team’s goals).

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Another consistency of Bielsa’s Championship side is his reliance on the 4-1-4-1 formation. Bielsa has experimented with a 3-1-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 and what was probably more 3-4-3 than the 3-3-1-3 that is so commonly associated with Bielsa. But the 4-1-4-1 formation remains his preferred choice. Most frequently, this system will adapt and change over the course of the match, particularly to a 3-3-3-1 in attack and several midfield runners sprinting onto the end of crosses from wide areas. But the defensive shape holds true most of the time in a 4-1-4-1, in which the high pressing system that Leeds engage in is excellently balanced with loads of midfield presence. When moving away from the 4-1-4-1, Bielsa often adjusts his system in correspondence with his opposition. For example, up against teams with two strikers, Bielsa often changes to a back-three. The only two times this has happened this season were against Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, which were the only two times they adopted a back-three. They were successful in implementing the change of system against Sheffield, but got completely battered by Crystal Palace via a range of transitional, counter attacking and set-piece situations. One might posit that this change to a back-three up against a front-two is for defensive reasons, but I still believe, as I did last year, that it is more so to aid in Leeds’ build-up. When you think about the fact that the opposition were Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, two teams who don’t like to share much of the possession and play long-ball and counter-attacking football respectively, this seems to be the case even more so. What the third centre-back offers Bielsa’s team is an extra player in the build-up to create passing triangles and diamonds with, while ensuring Kalvin Phillips, their talisman in front of the back-four, can still get on the ball. If the Peacocks were to play with just two-centre-backs for example, then the opposition strikers can do a better job at screening passes into Kalvin Phillips. With thr back-three, the extra man creates greater passing angles, where Leeds can play out in several different ways, bypassing their opposition’s front two in the process. At the same time, Leeds can also adjust their back-four to achieve the same results in the build-up, with Ayling or Dallas sliding in alongside the two centre-back’s and Kalvin Phillips remaining in front.

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Last season, the formation changes within the 4-1-4-1 were, at times, a bit outrageous (see the 2019-20 Edition for more details). For now, things are a little bit less tactically complex by Leeds’ high standards and the formation’s changes in shape mostly occur out of the lung-bursting energy provided by their players to adopt positions in either attack or defense that appear rather unexpected but actually are very normal. This is less systematic, and more a shifting of positions or intelligent reading of the game from their players based on a teammate who has become out-of-position. The most frequent engine in the team to explore different areas of the midfield is in fact Mateusz Klich. The 30-year old Polish international is both a progressive passer and mobile runner, who often looks to get beyond or in and around his striker. Rodrigo often exhibits the same behaviours and is typically better at picking out an incisive forward pass. Beyond that, it is quite shocking how often their shape, build-up and positional play reads like a 2-5-3 or 2-3-4-1. But at the same time, considering how similar a 4-1-4-1 and a 2-3-4-1 will look on the field, it’s unsurprising why no one’s really talking about this.

possession & build-up

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Marcelo Bielsa has a strong desire to play out from the back and does so in a variety of different ways. This may include one of the fullbacks dropping in alongside the centre-backs to create a diamond with Kalvin Phillips, both fullbacks pushing high to allow the centre-backs create a diamond with the goalkeeper and Kalvin Phillips, or a third centre-back being used to aid in the build-up as the fullbacks push high. Luke Ayling is the fullback who more frequently engages in line or to the side of the back-two, which aids in Leeds’ desire to attack/play down the right side. But their most frequent shape is the 2-4-3-1, with one of the attacking midfielders creating a second option for passes, and the other staying higher up.

Their short passing game and ability in possession is highly impressive. Bielsa’s men have kept 57% of the possession this season, the 4th most in the league. But due to the higher number of crosses, through balls and long balls they attempt in comparison to those higher than them in possession, they have a lower pass success rate. This can be a positive for Leeds as they don’t look to just play it safe and keep possession for the sake of it. Instead, they are very progressive and look to play it into their target man Patrick Bamford to nod down, or the mobile attacking midfielders to carry the ball forward. Their constant passing and moving game and the give and go’s they create constantly allows space for Leeds to find new players in space, what many call the “3rd man”. Highlighting just how progressive they’ve been with the ball, Leeds have attempted 14.4 shots per game, and created 10.9 chances per game, 4th in the league in both categories. Only Aston Villa have achieved more with less possession.

ALWAYS ON THE MOVE & positional interchange

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Leeds United might be the most energetic side in the Premier League. Their press is intense and aggressive, and in possession their players are always on the move. When they have the ball, their players make a ton of forward, vertical runs as quickly as possible to get the ball up the field in central areas. In defense, they put in a ton of hard work to win the ball and look to force their opposition into longer passes, where the big men at the back can knock it down for a rebuild of possession. Literally all of their players could do quite well in a marathon, because they just never stop running. Rodrigo is someone who is impossible to mark. He’ll get on the ball at the half-way line, drive it forward, switch play to the wings through a diagonal pass, then keep on sprinting up the field. Jack Harrison is like an energizer bunny. Patrick Bamford must be one of the fittest strikers in the league. This constant energy provides Leeds with a load of options all over the pitch, using verticality through longer passes, through balls and combination play; but also utilizing their natural width and overloads in the wide areas. Dallas and Ayling constantly look to create 2v1 situations with their respective wingers. When Pablo Hernandez plays, that is further compounded on the right side by his presence and natural inclination to operate in the wide areas. Leeds have attempted the second most through balls and crosses per game, behind only Aston Villa. Kalvin Phillips also often looks to get himself on the right side and deliver a cross. He’s the team’s top crosser (1.7 crosses per game), and second highest chance creator despite playing as a number 6. So even their defensive midfielder, a position normally known for “holding” the midfield and staying relatively true to a few key areas on the field, can be found high up in attack.

HIGH PRESSING

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In defense, Leeds’ constant energy has continued in their high pressing system. The Whites have completed the most tackles in the league (20.7 per game). Their high pressing system is therefore both about setting traps and forcing their opposition into longer passes or turnovers; but more importantly about individual will to pressure the player in possession and win the ball back as quickly as possible. The surrounding players cover the nearby options, out of a desire to go on and then win the tackle or force the opposition into a bad pass. Out of the top ten tacklers in the league, Leeds have three – Ayling (3.2 per game), Dallas (3.1 per game) and Phillips (3 per game). This also highlights that although Leeds’ press is from the very front of their attack, the areas that they win the ball back are more frequently in the wide areas or in front of the back-four. The fact that they force their opposition into poor longer passes can also be illustrated by the fact that Robin Koch and Liam Cooper are both in the top ten for interceptions (2.3 and 2.2 per game respectively). With their high press and high amount of tackles and interceptions per game, you would expect them to also be quite high in fouls. But Leeds’ ability to win the ball back safely and cleanly deserves an immense amount of praise. Only Mateusz Klich has a reputation for being overly-rash at times. He’s made the 12th most fouls per game in the league (2.1), which is nearly double that of any of his teammates. Their impressive record of only 10.9 fouls conceded per game is the 7th best in the league. This illustrates that although Leeds don’t shy away from breaking up play, they don’t need to rely on it all that often, both due to their possession and success in the tackle.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

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With all of their fascinating tactics, it could be argued that Leeds United have underperformed this season. Recently I was asked if I thought Leeds United had been more impressive or intriguing. In other words, were their tactical nuisances actually working or is it more or less just interesting to talk about? I genuinely believe Leeds’ principles of play are working and that everything they do to win football matches will soon pay greater dividends. They need to clean up in front of goal and not rely so heavily on Patrick Bamford to score, but Bielsa has his team playing in such a fantastic way with loads of shots and chances created that it really should not be to great of an issue. Once they get their feet on the ground, Leeds United really could take off this Premier League season and stumble upon something far greater than what newly promoted sides normally achieve. For now, they sit 14th in the table, as one of the league’s current under-achievers.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. Be sure to check out more of our Tactical Analyses and share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!   

You might also enjoy…
-> Mikel Arteta – Arsenal – Tactical Analysis
-> Jose Mourinho – Tottenham Hotspur – Tactical Analysis
-> Pep Guardiola – Manchester City – Tactical Analysis
-> Marcelo Bielsa – (2019-20) Leeds United – Tactical Analysis

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