Perched upon his upturned big blue bucket, Marcelo Bielsa will have been left encouraged by the first competitive outing of his Leeds United side. In terms of Bielsa’s demands, it may not have been a perfect performance for 90 minutes, however, this was 90 minutes of purposeful, high octane football with moments of high quality that has seldom been seen at Elland Road in recent years. The carefully constructed rehearsed patterns, movements based on certain actions at certain times allowed Leeds to get players in positions to attack by making consecutive forward passes, dribbles and intricate but penetrative combinations in the final third.
There has been much discussion surrounding Bielsa’s 3-3-3-1/3-3-1-3 formation in pre-season, however, this formation was only used against Las Palmas in the final pre-season fixture. With Stoke opting to play Benik Afobe up front on his own, the 4-1-4-1 formation deployed was to be expected. Had Stoke sprung a tactical surprise, pushing Tom Ince into a more central attacking role close to Afobe it is likely Kalvin Phillips would have dropped deeper with Leeds changing their shape in that instance. The work in pre-season converting Phillips to a centre half gives Leeds a new found tactical flexibility that was lacking during the last mediocre campaign.
Fig 1. Leeds United Starting XI and Formation
In my previous article, I had talked about how regaining balance on the left would be an early priority for Bielsa to lay his football foundations. The partnership between Barry Douglas and Gianni Alioski (both natural left footers) allowed Leeds to maintain width stretching the play, maintain speed of pass when in possession and maintain forward momentum. Compared to the square peg in a round hole partnerships of recent seasons, there is some promise that like the combination of Luke Ayling and Pablo Hernandez on the right, the partnership of Douglas & Alioski can evolve to instil fear in opposition full backs week after week.
It was therefore noteworthy that both Mateusz Klich and Hernandez scored goals from chances engineered on the left-hand side. Bielsa and his coaching staff spend a considerable amount of time on the training ground equipping their players to exploit 1vs1, 2vs1 and 3vs2 scenarios and the intelligent movement and coordinated patterns for the opening goals was testament to this. The first goal from Klich was a textbook example of a player making a diagonal run to receive a straight pass and finish with precision.
Fig 2. Example of Bielsa Training Practice working on diagonal movements to receive straight pass to finish.
Although the second goal from Hernandez was fortuitous given the error from Jack Butland, there was a clear pattern at the end of the 15 pass move of Douglas and Alioski combining to beat the full back in a 2vs1 scenario before Hernandez drove into the space to unleash his shot at goal. These movements may seem complex at first glance but are in fact incredibly simple and intuitive to integrate into training sessions, whether you are playing for the Leeds United first team or in the park on a Sunday morning.
Fig 3. Example of 3 Player Combinations to Finish Movement Practice
The high pressing game that Bielsa is so renowned for was key to stopping Stoke from breaking the lines, thus forcing them to play backwards and sideways, the ball often being forced all the way back to the feet of Jack Butland so effective was the press. It is said that when out of possession the Argentine Coach wants his team to be vertically compact, with no greater than 25 metres between the defensive line and striker. When pressing Stoke high, the Leeds defensive line had to therefore step up and adopt a noticeably high line. The starting position of Bailey Peacock-Farrell was often outside the box (considerably higher than last season) and on one of the very few occasions Stoke managed to play a ball in behind, the young goalkeeper confidently swept up with a clearing header.
Liam Cooper was impressive in his defensive work and marshalling of the high line. His best performances last season came when Thomas Christiansen played a relatively high line and attempted a possession-based game. I had previously expressed my concerns at Cooper’s ability to play with enough swagger and reliability to deliver passes that penetrate the lines. Given the first class line breaking pass Cooper made to Alioski in the build up to the first goal (that took 5 defenders out of the game), I walked away from Elland Road with the belief that Cooper can thrive under Bielsa’s tutelage.
Fig 4. Positive starting position adopted by Leeds United Goalkeeper, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, behind high defensive line
The energy and dynamism of Klich and Phillips applying pressure from the front coupled with the impressive efforts of Samu Saiz and Kemar Roofe applying pressure from behind the Stoke central midfield was one of the key areas in the press that allowed Leeds to emerge victorious. This frequent doubling up by Saiz and Roofe allowed the Spaniard to recover the ball quickly in transition, with opportunities to drive forward and pass the ball wide. Joe Allen, Badou Ndiaye and Peter Etebo were not given the time to pick passes through the lines, their only threatening forward passes being made on the occasions Leeds lost possession cheaply in midfield. On the occasions that Stoke worked the ball out wide from the central areas, Hernandez and Alioski doubled up well to protect the full backs sufficiently.
Peter Crouch and Bojan being introduced off the bench late on enabled Stoke to pin Leeds back in their own half more consistently and threaten to break the lines although the necessary finesse and guile to unlock these scenarios was missing from midfield. When the Leeds team started to display signs of tiredness, it was interesting that Bielsa elected to replace Mateusz Klich with Stuart Dallas, deploying the Northern Ireland international in a central midfield role. This was clearly an attempt to inject some energy back into the press but given Dallas (understandably) did not appear entirely comfortable in this new position, Leeds struggled to retain possession more than Bielsa will have intended. It is perhaps unsurprising that given this the likes of Oliver Norwood and George Saville have been linked with moves to Elland Road before the transfer deadline day.
Prior to kick off, Gianni Alioski had said that Leeds “were like a bomb ready to explode” and this most impressive of performances suggests that with Bielsa’s philosophy taking hold, Leeds United have the potential to challenge at the top end of the Championship consistently this season.