Demolition Derby as Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United Build on Opening Performance

Marcelo Bielsa expressed his feelings post-match that Frank Lampard had “a good taste for attacking football” however over the course of 90 minutes, the rookie Derby coach received a schooling in ruthless, structured and penetrative attacking football from his Argentine counterpart. Lampard set his Derby side up in a 4-3-3 shape looking to play expansive, possession-based football but the lack of structural security when in possession was a vulnerability exposed by Leeds United’s vertical football.

In many ways it was kamikaze football from Derby, with their naivety affording Samu Saiz the freedom of Pride Park in the space between the defensive and midfield lines where the Spanish midfield maestro is most effective. On several occasions the entirety of Derby’s central midfield committed to running beyond the ball. The addition of Bielsa’s much fabled high press into this mix was tantamount to Derby playing a game of Russian Roulette and it would be safe to conclude that chance wasn’t in their favour on Saturday. The opening three goals for Leeds came from situations where Derby would have expected to have been enjoying secure possession. The ability of Leeds to hunt in packs, identify pressing triggers, recover the ball and play forward quickly to break the lines.

The dynamic of Leeds in midfield, with Kalvin Phillips playing deep as the destroyer, Mateusz Klich playing from box to box as the engine and Saiz playing as the technician (with increased intensity off the ball), looks much more effective and much more capable of dealing with the varied range of playing styles seen in the Championship. The combination of these roles in midfield (the destroyer, the engine and the technician) is an essential ingredient for success, even if the recipe must be varied slightly to account for the traits of the opposition.

It was no surprise that Lampard elected to change his shape to match Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1 and introduce Bradley Johnson to attempt to mark Saiz out of the game at half time. Although this switch was effective in limiting the instances Saiz was able to get on the ball between the lines, his ability to manipulate the ball in tight areas enabled him to contribute to the attacking play as the following example, where the Spaniard got on the ball and created space on the edge of the penalty area, illustrates:

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This example also demonstrates one other notable feature of Bielsa’s Leeds United so far, being the willingness to commit bodies forward into the penalty area when attacking. It is worth pointing out that in this instance, there is a 3vs2 situation at the far post and within this scenario Fikayo Tomori being overloaded 2vs1, with both Roofe and Hernandez in proximity. One would have expected Richard Keogh to assist his young defensive partner with greater authority, however, the explosive movement of Gianni Alioski away from goal saw the Derby Captain follow his runner and leave a gaping space directly in front of goal. This is one of several instances in both games so far of opponents being drawn to the ball or movement towards the ball, leaving critical expanses of space unguarded behind them.

Interestingly, the one game where Leeds managed to perform the action of pushing the full backs into the opposition box with any real kind of consistency last season was the 5-0 home victory over Burton Albion. During his press conference after the game, the Argentine referenced this as being an action that he expects his players to undertake naturally:

“When the offensive action is from the left Pablo and Ayling go to the box and when the offensive action is on the right, Alioski and Douglas go to the box.”

As per the Stoke game, the contribution of the Leeds No.7, Kemar Roofe, was again magnificent in setting the tone for Leeds defending from the front. Intelligent movement, awareness of his surroundings and a killer instinct saw Roofe deservedly bag a brace in this fixture and it was clear that Bielsa appreciated the contribution from his striker:

“It’s always important when a player scores goals. In the last game he worked more than today and in the last game he made the offensive actions of his teammates easier.”

Doubts have previously been expressed regarding Roofe’s capability to lead the line on his own, however, two consecutive man of the match performances illustrate that intelligent positioning, movement and link play can more than make up for the lack of presence one would ordinarily expect from a more conventional target man leading the line for a Championship side.

In the build-up, the striker has frequently made diagonal movements that create uncertainty between the two centre backs and full backs which have ultimately lead to instability in the back four and opened space for teammates. It is particularly interesting that most of these movements are across and in behind the defensive line, when under previous coaches it was apparent that Roofe had been instructed to drop deep to receive the ball or indeed played off the sides, which inhibited his goal threat to a certain extent. Although these movements may not seem to take Roofe towards goal in the first phase, they position him closer to goal in the second phase, where his sharp movement and goal poaching instinct can come to the fore.

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When Leeds have looked to cross the ball into the box, Roofe has also taken up intelligent positions in relation to the opposition defenders and identified the space where he is likely to be afforded the best opportunity of scoring to run into:

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In addition to the movement from Roofe, it is noticeable that Bielsa is looking to have at least one other player positioned in proximity to make runs into the box when the ball is out wide. Should the ball miss the first runner, or be flicked on, another player is moving in anticipation of a chance coming their way, which is considerably more adventurous than some of the attacking endeavours of last season.

There is a growing sense of anticipation at Elland Road and the fact that this performance from Leeds United built upon all of the solid foundations and good footballing habits seen in the opening game was particularly promising, especially when the appalling run of form on the road since Boxing Day is taken into account.

The next League fixture against Rotherham represents an excellent chance for Leeds United to continue to build momentum. This may appear the most straightforward fixture of the season so far given Stoke and Derby have already been overcome but following a chastening 5-1 defeat away to Brentford on the opening day, it is likely that the visitors from South Yorkshire will set up in a bid to not give anything away at Elland Road.

Encountering a low defensive block, with limited space between the lines and limited opportunities to catch the opponent out of balance in transition may require a slightly different approach and variation in patterns to those seen in the opening two games and it will be intriguing to see how Bielsa’s Leeds attempt to overcome this.

Bielsa’s Leeds United Explode into Life – Stoke City (H)

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.

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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.

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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.