Leeds United have historically been a great team, having won the English first division three times, won the FA Cup and League Cup once and the Charity Shield once in their domestic trophy cabinet. In European competitions, they went to the finals of the 1974-75 European Cup but lost to Bayern Munich. They were also semi-finalists in the turn of the century in the UEFA Champions League. But, in most of the 21st century, Leeds have languished in the Championship and League One divisions of English football. Now, however, they have got the right personnel and management team to make their meteoric rise to the Premier League after a long wait. They sit in 1st place of the Championship on 78 points and have guaranteed a top 6 place as of writing this article. In the centre of all of these developments is one man: Marcelo Bielsa.
Marcelo Bielsa, nicknamed El Loco, is a renowned Argentinian Manager who had famous stints for Newell’s Old Boys, Athletico Bilbao in La Liga and Lille. Bielsa is enigmatic and a hard-wired man who constantly thinks about football and tactics. His detail-orientedness has brought Leeds to the top of the Championship and should be on course to take them to the Premier League next season.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at how Marcelo Bielsa almost single-handedly revived Leeds United by analysing his tactics. This analysis will look at the philosophy of the Argentine, which has been dubbed Bielsa-ball.
This is Bielsa’s classic 4-1-4-1 formation. This is his most-used lineup this season so far. Kiko Casilla starts in goal as the goalkeeper. Ben White, who has impressed from his loan stint from Brighton starts alongside captain and Leeds veteran Liam Cooper. The full-backs are the aggressive Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling who complete the defence. Kalvin Philips plays as the deep-lying midfielder and in front of him are Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez to finish of the central midfielders. Helder Costa and Jack Harrison are the wide players while Patrick Bamford is the lone striker.
Bielsa prefers an aggressive pressing side. In a league like the Championship, the pressing style of Bielsa is not the norm as the teams like Nottingham Forest prefer to sit back and defend, then counter-attacking when gaining control of the ball. This is very evident in Leeds’ statistics this season. Leeds have a PPDA of 5.86 per match, which is the lowest in the Championship and way lower than the league average of 9.22. The team averages 0.83 goals conceded per game and have the joint lowest goals conceded at 34 goals. They also have a defensive duels success rate of 72.5%, which is the second-highest in the Championship.
The defensive pressing system is based on two expected outcomes- winning the ball back from their opponents and creating a counter-attack or to force the opponents to hoof the ball up the field. This type of pressing means that everyone from the striker to the centre-backs must be involved in getting the ball back from the opponents. A key element of this pressing is how close the players are when getting to press their opposition. The picture below against Birmingham illustrates the point better:
The players in the translucent boxes are viable passing options for the Birmingham player on the ball. So, he is either forced to lose the ball to the Leeds’ midfielder or to pass behind and get pressed by the Leeds striker – Patrick Bamford. This cross of man-marking and pressing puts the player in a very difficult position, and in this situation, the Birmingham player loses the ball.
The second option that Leeds aim for is to force a long ball from their opponents. This is relatively straightforward, as the Leeds centre-backs, Ben White and Liam Cooper, are strong aerially and are good at controlling the ball. By pressing the opponent, they sometimes have no option but to hit the ball up the pitch.
The defensive structure of Leeds is maintained as a 4-1-4-1 at the back when defending as shown below:
But sometimes, when defending, the full-backs go centrally to press the opponent or to mark a potential threat to goal. This exposes the space on the flanks. To counter this, the full-backs Ayling and Dallas have improved their space to cover the half-spaces and flanks as quickly as possible.
This picture covers all of Bielsa’s defending ideologies. There is plenty of man-marking in the central part of the pitch by the midfielders, the high press is in action and the option of passing forwards, sideways or backwards is being blocked.
This ruthless defensive tactic has led Leeds United to have a fortified defence. Now, we shall look at their attacking style and see a unique Bielsa attacking formation that he put in place centred around Kalvin Philips, Patrick Bamford and the full-backs.
While talking about Bielsa’s attacking style, it is impossible to forget his famous 3-3-1-3 formation that he employs when transitioning from defence to attack after winning the ball back after pressing the opponents. It looks like below. There may be a lot to process here, so it will be broken down step by step to understand Bielsa’s attacking formation. We shall split it into stages to understand the process better.
Bielsa prefers attacking full-backs that bomb up the pitch and create width for the side. The full-backs go so advanced up the pitch that they are in line with the midfielders. This allows them to make line-breaking passes forward to the wingers. As these full-backs need to go up quickly, they must be fast and good at ball progression. In case of any counter-attacks, the full-backs must trackback quickly and defend as well. In some cases, this is not possible, and we shall see how Bielsa covers for it below:
To cover for the players up front, the two centre-backs, Ben White and Liam Cooper move wide, while Kalvin Phillips slots in the gap to form three at the back. This only happens when Leeds are building out from the back and not during counter-attacks. This stops attacking from the wide areas as the centre-backs cover for those areas until the full-backs arrive. The presence of Kalvin Phillips, who is strong defensively, covers the central areas and leads to minimal goals conceded by Leeds.
The next movement noted here is the movement of one of the central two midfielders transitioning from Central Midfielder to Central Attacking Midfielder. This can be either Pablo Hernandez or Mateusz Klich but in this example, Hernandez will be moving forwards. The midfielder moves into the hole between the midfield and attack, and his role is to make the killer passes into the box or to dribble past the opponents and create goalscoring opportunities that way. This is known as the ‘Enganche’ and involves player mobility, good vision and tactical awareness. To Bielsa, the Enganche is important as he dictates the play: Where the ball moves towards and who gets the ball.
Finally, the wingers- Jack Harrison and Helder Costa. Throughout most of the attacking play, they provide sufficient width to create more passing opportunities throughout the pitch. But, towards the higher parts of the pitch, the wingers cut inside to pass to the target man, Bamford, or to shoot on target. This is one of the reasons why Jack Harrison has six goals and eight assists this season while Helder Costa has 5 goals and 4 assists this season. This can be seen below:
Thus, the 3-3-1-3 takes its shape. The final results of this can be seen below.
Bielsa’s side has a preference for playing short passes as well. This means that they build up from the back and pass the ball around in diamonds, from all over the pitch. There are three main diamonds that can be formed, and have been shown below:
This is the first diamond that forms and involves the goalkeeper, the two centre-backs that are wide and the pivot – Phillips. Playing in the middle between the defensive and midfield lines gives him the freedom to pass around and dictate play with his great passing vision and his ball-winning ability. The other two centre-backs have options to pass to Phillips, who transitions the ball to the next diamond, or directly to the full-backs, which takes us to the next diamond:
This diamond involves the two full-backs, the Enganche and the central midfielder. The full-backs movements here are important as they decide the position of the diamond formation. If the right-back moves narrowly, the entire diamond moves towards the centre of the pitch. If the right-back moves leftwards, the diamond moves into the left-half space while the left-back moves into the centre of the pitch. The ability of the full-backs to play the entire width of the pitch is an important element of Bielsa’s ball progression. Then, the ball falls to the Enganche, whose role we detailed earlier in the analysis. This then transitions to the final diamond in front of the opponent’s goal.
When the attacking midfielder gets the ball, he has two options. He can play a through ball to the striker who shoots on goal, or he can pass to any of the wide players. Here, they cut inside to go for a shot or to pass to Bamford.
Marcelo Bielsa plays with the ideologies of the Cruyffian school of football- Short, quick passing, high pressing and dominating possession. However, he has adapted to the physical culture of the Championship by playing long balls forwards. His focus on attacking football and pressing and tactical adaptability has not been seen before in the Championship, and should Leeds United be promoted to the Premier League, Leeds United have lots of potentials to shine there over time.