Tactics Explained: Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United

Words By Alex Stewart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 3, 2019

Marcelo Bielsa’s hugely influential approach to football has not taken long to bed in at Leeds United. While there have been some new signings, the effect on the existing Leeds squad, largely tipped for midtable ahead of Bielsa’s arrival, has been remarkable.

Mateusz Klich, the Leeds United midfielder, said in an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post: “He is very strict, it is like being in the military…We don’t play games, it is tactics, tactics, tactics and fitness.” Bielsa’s remarkably thorough opposition analysis is part of this, determining how Leeds United’s opposition will play and finding solutions to this, but such intensity is also required to instil his own ideas of how football should be played. Bielsa likes direct, attacking football, played at pace while retaining possession. He favours using width, with players moving constantly and rotating to achieve numerical overloads. Build-up begins at the back and often results in rapid, incisive counter-attacks even from deep. Bielsa also coaches his teams to press relentlessly, and look to profit from turnovers and attacking while the opposition is still trying to position itself in transition.

Leeds United’s set-up suggests a 4-1-4-1, which is the usual formation in the defensive phase. Here, Leeds will essentially press hard and look to win back the ball quickly. Their attacking system is more complex, though.

In transition between defence and attack, and in the attacking phase, they do resemble Bielsa’s famed 3-3-1-3 more than the 4-1-4-1 formation might suggest. This sees a defensive midfielder moving backwards, covered by one central midfielder, with the full backs pushing up to join the middle line. One midfielder sits behind the attacking three, while the wide midfielders split wide flanking a striker.

In build-up, the centre backs, usually the excellent Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper, will split to allow Kalvin Phillips, the preferred choice in defensive midfield, to drop and collect the ball, either from the centre-backs or the goalkeeper. He can then turn and drive forwards, or look for a passing option, ideally an aggressive, vertical pass to the midfield line.

Phillips is key to the system. He tends to look to play forwards, but this is not always possible. Taking the ball under pressure, he can shepherd it back to the centre-backs, or the goalkeeper, all the while looking to then push beyond the first opposition line to find space to take a return, or shuttling across to make himself available as an option should the ball be worked wide.

Ahead of this single pivot, Leeds United’s full backs push very high. They will also stay wide, so that if the channel of attack is down the right, for example, the left back, Douglas or Alioski, will be in space to receive a switch pass. It’s also notable that should one of the full backs start an attack by carrying the ball forwards, they will generally remain as part of that attack, rather than releasing the pass and then holding a position. This helps Leeds create overloads in attacking situations, relying as much on the work rate of players to get back and cover as it does on the defensive shield of the defensive midfielder and centre backs.

While the central midfield is nominally two players, there is a significant amount of movement and rotation, as one would expect from a Bielsa-coached side. The aim of the midfield in transition and attack is to find space between the lines, then carry the ball forwards and look for through balls or passes that can exploit the space out wide, before pushing up to support the attack in the final third. One midfielder will often push further up, so that Leeds can look to achieve a staggered series of pass and move situations to progress the ball directly and at pace.

It’s noticeable, too, that there is a degree of rotation and flexibility among the two central midfielders and wide attacking midfielders. While the full backs generally stay wide and look to create width, the wide midfielders are happy to come inside and attack the channels between the opposition centre back and full back, if they’re playing a back four. Pablo Hernandez, probably Leeds United’s key attacking player this season, excels at this and has weighed in with double figures for goals and assists.

In addition, the central midfielders will push out and the wide attackers tuck in, if this helps move the ball quickly into dangerous areas. Leeds’ players are unafraid to roam from their positions, and this is likely due to Bielsa’s insistence on a mixture of repetition and invention – moves are rehearsed but then, in game, creativity is encouraged within those parameters.

It’s also worth noting that Leeds players will often pass while moving forwards – it’s very unusual to see a series of passes between fairly static players, and Leeds players will push up to meet the ball even if it’s coming towards them. This consistently generates forward momentum, putting Leeds on the front foot and also forcing the opposition to move backwards. This often causes issues for opposition defenders, as their retreat from and focus on a number of advancing Leeds players means they don’t pick up movement behind themselves or from wide positions infield.

Ahead of this, the striker has a key role – his movement and running off the ball and between the lines is key to creating the space for the attacking midfielders, or on-rushing central midfielders. Kemar Roofe’s dynamism and off-the-ball movement has been excellent for Leeds in this regard; his stand-in, Patrick Bamford, has delivered less, which has hampered the dangerous runs forwards of midfielders like Klich.

Leeds United have stuttered somewhat as the season approaches its end. Part of this has been an inability to profit from chances – while Leeds shoot more than any other Championship side, they are not good at taking their best opportunities. Roofe’s injury issues played a part in this, as his movement was key to players like Klich and Hernandez finding space to attack. Leeds’ approach and system have not changed in the run-in to the season’s end; they are simply not executing it as well.

But in Bielsa, the side have a coach who has taken a fairly talented squad, but without any genuine stars, and fashioned something that is both greater than the sum of its parts, and, when it works, superb to watch. Tactically complex and thought-provoking, and capable of devastating football with pace and precision, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds has been one of English football’s outstanding teams this season.

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