Written by Samuel (Twitter @9squeeze)
Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds are probably the most scrutinised team to be promoted to the Premier League in recent years, both Leeds and Marcelo Bielsa hold incredible pedigree in the world of football. In the 2003–04 season Leeds were relegated from the Premier League (at the time known as the Barclaycard Premiership) after 14 consecutive seasons in England’s topflight division during the club’s financial crisis. Leeds boasts an impressive handful of legendary premier league players, James Milner, Gary McAllister, Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and many others. They have won 3 English titles, 1 FA cup, 1 League cup and 2 Community Shields. The club has reached the European Cup Final once, losing to Bayern Munich and they also reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001. So, in hindsight it seems quite normal for a club with a history so rich to be as heavily scrutinised as they are. To put it quite simply they are a big club, some would argue bigger than 1 or 2 clubs considered to be in the “Big 6”.
In 2018 Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds joined forces and it took just 2 seasons for the Argentinian to lead Leeds to the Championship title, which in turn promoted them back to the Premier League after so many years lingering in the lower leagues, for those who haven’t watched I would recommend watching “Take Us Home: Leeds United” available on Amazon Prime as it offers incredible insight on the journey Bielsa and Leeds went through to being promoted to the Premier League.
Marcelo Alberto Bielsa Caldera is also an individual who is highly revered in the football world, highly regarded coaches all over the world have spoken highly of him. Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone & Johan Cruyff are among many footballing icons who have mountains of praise for the Argentinian.
“He is like my football father. We are a generation of coaches that were his disciples. How he feels football, the passion he has for football, I think we all took that from him” — Mauricio Pochettino
“My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge because he makes players much, much better. Still, I didn’t meet one guy, a former player from Marcelo Bielsa who speaks no good of him. They are grateful about the influence on their careers in football. He helped me a lot with his advice. Whenever I speak with him, I always feel like he wants to help me. He’s the best coach in the world” — Pep Guardiola.
“Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile played the most attractive football in this World Cup (2010) — Johan Cruyff
“At first he seems tough, and he may even annoy you with his persistence and don’t take no for an answer resilience but in the end he is a genius” — Fernando Llorente
It’s very much clear Marcelo Bielsa is a man held in high regard, he has managed prominent teams across Europe; Lille, Marseille, Atletico Bilbao, Lazio, and Espanyol. He has also managed 2 International Teams (Argentina & Chile).
Now with the brief background of Leeds and Bielsa covered, I want to move on to the actual subject of discussion. How do Leeds play? Why have they caught the attention of so many? Now before I discuss this, I must mention Leeds have so many components to their style of play I couldn’t quite possibly write about every single detail down to a T as we’ll be here forever! So, I’ll be covering only a select few components about their philosophy and style of play.
Leeds play a very high-risk, high reward type of football. For their style of play to be at its best every single player must be performing at the peak of their powers. They can’t afford to have any passengers or ‘luxury’ players, every single player is required to put in the nitty gritty work for his style of play to thrive. They play possession-based high-speed football; at its peak, there is a constant rotation and movement of players which makes it very hard for the opponent to contain and causes ultimate disruption to the opponents defensive structure.
“While the opponent has the ball, the whole team presses, always trying to cut off play as close as possible to the opponents goal. When we get it, we look to play with dynamism and create spaces from improvisation” — Marcelo Bielsa. So, in essence Leeds try to get the ball back from the opponents as fast as humanely possible, once they get it they look to keep the ball by dynamic improvisation of movement, this in turn creates “chaos” in the form of spaces which will allow his team to create chances.
Leeds different formations which allow them to build up from the back as efficiently as possible, building up from the back is something Bielsa clearly takes very seriously as he picks his formation depending on the team’s front-line setup. Leeds are fourth for average possession with 56.9% which is quite remarkable; all credit must be given to Leeds and Bielsa for being able to maintain their possession-based football. One would’ve thought being promoted to the Premier League would mean Leeds would adopt a more pragmatic approach. Building up from the back is essential to Leeds’s current success in the Premier League.
Leeds play a variance of formations, the 3 most used ones in Bielsa’s tenure are the following:
Bielsa often switches between 3–4–3 or 3–3–3–1, he does this when he is facing a team that operates with 2 strikers in their frontline, the reason for this is to maintain their triangle between the 2 centre-backs and the central defensive midfielder. The image below shows the formation Leeds played this season when coming up against a team with 2 strikers in Burnley. Although it shows the Kalvin Phillips playing as a centre-back, in possession he would often push out forward into the central defensive midfield zone and this would mean Strujik and Ayling would become compact and this in turn would mean a diamond shape was maintained as it would be in the primary 4–1–4–1 formation Leeds favour. In short: teams that play with 2 strikers would be able to press the 2 centre backs in a 4–1–4–1 formation but the extra defender allows Leeds to maintain the ability to play out from the back.
In the image below, Bielsa is playing his 4–1–4–1 formation. You can see the diamond which is absolutely essential to allowing Leeds to play out from the back is much clearer. Structurally — Meslier, Koch, Strujik and Phillips are the ‘diamond’ in this setup. It must also be mentioned that the central defensive midfielder (Kalvin Phillips) sometimes drops into defence which in turn allows the full backs to push on, which also allows the wingers to push further up the pitch to aid the attack and create chaos further up the pitch.
Wrapping It All Up
Leeds when in full motion can be very beautiful to watch and can cause any team problems on their day, however there are glaring shortcomings to their style of play. Leeds adopt a man to man marking system which mean they can often be undone against teams with high technical quality players. Teams who have players who often make runs off the ball thrive if their players are not operating at the peak of their powers. Leeds have lost 4–2 to Arsenal, 6–2 to Man United, 4–1 to Leicester City and have suffered more embarrassing losses which has led to criticism from some sections of the media for being naïve in their style of play. Bielsa has even had to come out and adamantly state he will not deviate from his style of play no matter what. It is clear that if Leeds wish to progress, these weaknesses are areas they need to improve. Which is something I truly believe they can do in the coming years.
Leeds currently sit 11th on 39 points, with Premier League safety practically guaranteed for next season. They have a strong chance of finishing in the top half of the table and even have an outside chance of finishing in the top 8. I have really taken to them as a team and I’ve been keeping extensive tabs on their progress, I hope next season they can really push and compete for a Europa League spot as I would love to see this exciting team play in Europe.
Whatever happens this season it can not be disputed that Leeds are one of the most entertaining and refreshing teams to have been promoted to the Premier Legaue and have definitely proven their worth in the Barclays Premier League.