A hard fought 2-0 victory over Rotherham saw Marcelo Bielsa become the first Leeds United Manager to win his opening four competitive games at the helm of the club. This victory also saw Leeds become the only club in the Championship with a perfect record at this early stage.
It must be said that the game plan that Rotherham boss Paul Warne opted for made this victory slightly less straightforward than a sold-out Elland Road may have initially expected. It is likely that other opponents will adopt a similar tactical approach to Warne against Leeds this season, but it was promising to see Leeds offer solutions to several of the problems posed when facing this style of football, particularly in an assured second half display.
Warne sought to nullify the threat of Samu Saiz with centre back Semi Ajayi deployed in a defensive midfield role. This was a move clearly in response to the damage that Saiz inflicted upon both Stoke and Derby when the Spaniard was allowed time and space on the ball between the midfield and defensive lines of the opponent. Despite the opportunities to exploit this space being extremely limited in transition given the low block from Rotherham and close attention from Ajayi, Leeds did attempt to work the ball to Saiz through the lines whenever possible. Unfortunately, with the compact lines from Rotherham holding firm, it was difficult for Bielsa’s side to maintain attacking momentum through central areas.
When asked what he felt had not gone as well as he would have liked in the first half, Bielsa stated:
“We built too much from the back. We built in a lateral way, it was not easy for us to go from defensive positions to offensive ones.”
The fortunate escape in the 26th minute of the first half epitomised this overly lateral way of playing. Barry Douglas had an opportunity to make a vertical pass to Kalvin Phillips and break the Rotherham press, however, passed backwards to Liam Cooper who played a dangerous square pass across the penalty area. Fortunately for Leeds, Ryan Williams did not show the ruthlessness required to punish this mistake:
It must be said that the pass from Cooper was poor, however, although the initial pass Cooper received from Douglas wasn’t poor itself the choice to pass to the centre back instead of Phillips was. Similarly the starting position of Bailey Peacock-Farrell was perhaps too deep, but the goalkeeper was well positioned to block Williams’ effort.
In contrast, the way in which Leeds moved the ball out from the back for the second goal scored by Kemar Roofe epitomised the verticality that Bielsa demands in the game. From a similar position to the lucky escape in the first half Leeds played out in a way that drew Rotherham players towards the ball before Douglas played a precise vertical pass to Alioski. The Macedonian International combined with Phillips, who set Roofe free with a lofted pass into the channel, before the striker beat Sean Raggett for pace and expertly finished beyond Rodak.
It was notable that the visitors from South Yorkshire initially attempted to apply more pressure (particularly from Michael Smith) on Kalvin Phillips than in previous games. This direct pressure was a factor in Phillips misplacing a few early passes, however, the academy graduate was brave on the ball and constantly willing to attempt to make vertical passes (or slightly riskier lateral passes) to open passing lanes forward. It was particularly pleasing to see Phillips to continue to show for and demand the ball after a couple of early setbacks, which illustrates the increased level of accountability and responsibility that the players are assuming on the pitch under Bielsa’s tutelage. Phillips has assumed considerable responsibility on the pitch and against Rotherham he managed more passes, more touches and more inceptions on the ball than any other player on the pitch.
Gaetano Berardi played a big part in the build up for Leeds, stepping out with the ball beyond the defensive line into midfield. This became an increasingly common feature of Leeds in possession, with Berardi’s runs forward provoking Rotherham out of their midfield block of 5 to avoid giving the Swiss defender the freedom of Elland Road. Towards the end of the first half Rotherham were indeed lethargic in their closing down of Berardi, who stung the palms of Marek Rodak in goal. Berardi stepping into midfield continued to be a feature of Leeds possession-oriented play in the second half, with a 74% share of the ball being the highest enjoyed by the Whites’ under Bielsa so far.
In an attempt to find space between the Rotherham lines the positional rotation between Gianni Alioski, Pablo Hernandez, Mateusz Klich, Roofe and Saiz became more pronounced and apparent than previously seen. This movement was relentless and at times fruitless, however, over the course of 90 minutes this unlocked the door on a number of occasions, particularly with the contribution of Luke Ayling and Douglas on the flanks. Bielsa indicated that he felt Leeds were not particularly effective with crosses from the left. It is worth pointing out that the success Leeds have had from crosses in recent weeks have involved at least two players making runs into uncongested penalty areas – an opportunity Rotherham simply did not afford Leeds given their low block.
With little time remaining on the clock, Rotherham rolled the dice for a final time and switched to a 442 formation. In response Leeds adopted a 3313 formation with seamlessly with Phillips dropping in as a third central defender between Berardi and Cooper, highlighting Bielsa’s rigid belief that the spine of his side should have one more defender than the opposition has attacker. This change in formation from both sides gave Leeds the ascendancy in the final exchanges of open play with Lewis Baker able to receive the ball and drive forward with some menace between the lines.
Next up for Leeds is a visit to Swansea for Bielsa’s first experience of Tuesday night Championship football. Judging by their opening performances, it would be a surprise if Swans boss, Graham Potter, moves away from his preferred 433 formation. There are quite a few similarities between the style of play that Potter is attempting to implement at the Liberty Stadium and the style of Frank Lampard’s Derby. This should represent an opportunity for Leeds, with more opportunities and space presenting themselves in transition. Against Birmingham, the Swansea midfield struggled with middle block pressing and conceded numerous chances leaving the back four exposed, which, on another day could have quite easily resulted in a heavy defeat. That midfield consisting of Jay Fulton, Tom Carroll and Bersant Celina seems relatively lightweight for the rigours of Championship football and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Potter opts for the greater physicality of Leroy Fer on Tuesday.
Leeds have already demonstrated this season that they possess the flexibility and mentality to find solutions to win games by ruthlessly exploiting transitions and the Rotherham game demonstrated Leeds also have the patience and guile to wear down their opponents with the ball, waiting for the right moments in the game to see off their prey.
As Bielsa himself as intimated, nothing is won after four games, particularly in the Championship but the football being played is imperious at times, the type of football consistently played by those teams challenging at the top of the division come May.