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A look at Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics at Leeds United

Leeds achieved the perfect start in their comeback season to the Premier League. Leeds’ amazing beginning of the season has been mostly because of Marcelo Bielsa’s brilliancy. El Loco, as Bielsa is famously nicknamed, is regarded as a cult figure, because of his immense influence on the tactical aspect of the game of football. Bielsa has transformed a Leeds team into a top team in the Championship in his first season and got Leeds promoted in his second season by winning the league. Leeds has opened the season with 3 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses, which see them at 6th place in the Premier League table.

Bielsa is a strange/special character in a pleasant sense. Bielsa is enigmatic and a hard-wired man, he demands everything to be perfect and is very detail-oriented, which is one of the primary reason for his success. He doesn’t get motivated by money, but might be the most demanding coach in the world. He resigned after two days at Lazio because Lazio’s board didn’t pick up the players Bielsa wanted. Bielsa also signed his latest contract with Leeds just one day before the new season started. I assume it’s because he wants his team to compete in the Premier League. Bielsa’s wishlist has contained players like Robin Koch (bought), Rodrigo (bought), Ben White (failed), Helder Costa (bought), and Rodrigo De Paul (failed). Former players have described being coached by Marcelo Bielsa, is like being in the army.

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Moving on to his tactics aka Bielisimo. Bielsa plays a 4-1-4-1 formation that is a changed/modernised version of his classic 3-3-1-3 formation, which hasn’t worked as smoothly for Leeds. When playing under El Loco are the players encouraged to constantly moving around to detect passing avenues. Bielsa is not a huge fan of long balls when building up, Bielsa likes to play quick passes that get executed in fast sequences to destabilise the opponent’s defence. Bielsa loves to use the entire width of the pitch when building up because it makes it tougher to cut the passing lanes/putting pressure.

Leeds are applying two distinct styles of counter-attacking depending on which situations they are in. They have half counters (getting the ball before the opponent makes it over the middle) and counters, Leeds utilise these counter-attacking situations differently. When Leeds has a half counter, will they attempt to attack through the middle, because they want to overwhelm the box before the opponent can set up their defence. When Leeds have their normal counters, will they attempt to attack through the flanks and use a lot of combinations between the wingers and wing-backs.

Leeds presses hard after losing the ball and when getting the ball Leeds will play directly in their passing style, which is best illustrated as a high-tempo counter-attacking style of football. Their passing style is very direct but is also concentrating on creating width via sideways passes. Bielsa’s pressing style is unique because all 10 outfield players are doing the pressure. Another fascinating point about the pressing is the style of it, which is man to man based. They also don’t focus on cutting passing lanes. His defending style is old-school and uses a lot of man-marking, this style of defending gets use by Gasperini’s Atalanta. Man-mark defending requires high intensity, which causes them vulnerability to tight schedules.

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This form of defending has some issues. You can’t play with a low block, because it’s easy for the opponent to pick apart this. The opponent just has to beat off their man when attacking to generate massive gaps in Leeds’ defence, which happened against Fulham. That’s why Bielsa wants to establish a high tempo game to not end in those situations.

This season, Bielsa’s side had difficulties in breaking down low block defence, which Wolves and Sheffield United used. They have troubles overloading the box and creates space between the defence. Leeds record against teams using a low block is 1 win (1-0 against Sheffield United) and 1 lost (1-0 against Wolves).

Bielsa hasn’t forgotten his 3-3-1-3 formation because when Leeds moves from defence to attack, they convert to the legendary formation. The most noteworthy feature you will discover in offence is the full-backs bombing up and Kalvin Phillips playing as a half-back (the Pitbull role) by falling back, while the center backs are moving wide. This tactical move causes the entire team to look like a unit when moving forward. Another fun factor when watching Leeds is Klich dropping to be the deeper-lying playmaker, while the other midfielder which is either Pablo Hernandez or Rodrigo playing as an Enganche. The Enganche which is the second most essential position for Bielsa after the half-back in this system. The reason the Enganche is essential for Leeds is that he dictates the game in the final third. The player in this role will normally be the creative force. Enganche will always seek to search for one-twos passes and works in tight spaces. Enganche will in most instances be the “connection link” for the wingers. Rodrigo has been solid in this role. Rodrigo is a more direct/offensive player in the Enganche role compared to Pablo Hernandez. Bielsa’s intention in using Rodrigo in this position, instead of Pablo Hernandez, is to include another goal-scoring option beside Bamford and the wingers.

The wingers play extremely wide to create as many passing options as possible, but when Leeds gets into the penalty box, then both wingers will seek to get in central. They do this to overload the box. Bielsa wants to use all the width of the pitch because it makes it tougher to defend them. Harrison and Helder Costa are both capable of beating their man, which is fundamental if you want to be a winger in this system because the wingers get isolated regularly in the counters. The expectation for the striker is to flow into channels and being a part of the link-up play frequently in Leeds’ build-ups. Bamford has been exceptional at accomplishing these tasks this season. His off the ball movement looks questionable at times, but his positioning in the final third has been excellent. Bamford isn’t the most efficient player, but he has achieved an outstanding job in front of goal this season. Leeds has several players that have a good amount of versatility, but I would still want them to sign Rodrigo De Paul. De Paul offers creativity, intensity, hard work and leadership. De Paul’s creativity is elite and his versatility is unmatched. De Paul can play as an 8, 10, LW and RW in Bielsa’s system, which makes Rodrigo De Paul the perfect player to Bielsa system.

Let’s hope Leeds doesn’t get hit hard on fatigue later this season because that happened in Bielsa’s first season at Leeds. Bielsa’s style of football is super hard to execute, but El Loco is a special mastermind.

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