Bristol City host Leeds United at Ashton Gate on the opening weekend of the Championship season. Both sides suffered disappointment at the end of last season with Bristol City narrowly missing out on a playoff spot and Leeds falling to defeat to Derby in the playoff semi-final. Both managers appear to have undertaken a substantial amount of analysis of last season and have been experimenting with new formations in pre-season.
With pre-season finally out of the way, it will be interesting to see whether the clues that have been available about potential changes in formation come to fruition in this match. In this tactical analysis, we will explain the potential approaches that both Lee Johnson and Marcelo Bielsa may choose to employ in this fixture.
Changes in formation?
In pre-season, both sides have deployed different systems to what they used last season. Bielsa is well-known for his preference to have one extra defender than the opponents press with, which often leads to changes in formation between a back three and a back four. Against a side pressing with two strikers, he will deploy a back three and a side pressing with a lone striker he will use a back four.
When using a back four, the players will rotate and change positions depending on the position of the ball and their teammates. Despite the fact, they start with a back four, in possession Leeds would morph into a back three in one of two ways. The first way would be with both full-backs pushing higher up the pitch and the holding midfielder (usually Kalvin Phillips) dropping into the backline to create a three-man defence. The alternative way, depending on the individual characteristics of the fullbacks would see one of them push higher while the other moves infield to create a back three. This enabled Leeds to create a 3-3-1-3 in possession.
In their final pre-season game Leeds lined up using their 3-3-1-3 formation from the beginning of the match potentially pointing towards its use against Bristol City. Bristol City have also moved away from their formation from last season, deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation in their most recent pre-season matches. This could create some potentially interesting match-ups throughout the match.
First of all, this will create numerical superiority for Leeds in the initial build-up phase of the game. They will have an initial 3v1 superiority with their three centre backs against the lone striker. In pressing moments one of Bristol City’s midfielders (usually the one positioned behind the striker in last seasons 4-1-4-1) will join the striker to apply pressure on the ball possessor. This, however, will still leave Leeds with a 3v2 superiority and as such they should be able to easily outplay Bristol City’s pressure.
As a result of the two styles of play, Bristol City could look to prevent Leeds from passing the ball into wide areas and force them to play through the centre. For this particular tactic to work the two wide players will need to arc their pressing runs and block passing lanes into the wide players, while simultaneously being able to access the outside centre backs.
With Famara Diedhiou likely to start up front for Bristol City their ability to press effectively from the front is greatly diminished as he is unable to sustain pressure for any period of time and is often slow to react to pressing triggers. This may see Bristol City start from a deeper position on the pitch and look to engage Leeds in the middle third of the pitch, should Leeds bypass their high press. In this situation, Bristol City will be concerned with blocking off passing lanes and looking to intercept passes before breaking with speed and counter-attacking.
Pre-season has seen Lee Johnson work with the side on regaining possession of the ball in central areas of the pitch close to the opponents’ goal. This would, therefore, make it unlikely that they will sit further back and allow Leeds to build up with minimal pressure. It may, however, change as the game progresses if Leeds are able to easily bypass the initial press.
A key tactical concept of Leeds United’s play under Bielsa has been the switch of play. Leeds look to create an overload on one side of the pitch to drag the opposition towards the ball. This leaves the ball far fullback or wide player with a 1v1 opportunity against the opponent’s full-back.
This tactic, in particular, could prove to be very effective against Bristol City, especially if they look to play aerial switches targeting left-back Jay DaSilva. As DaSilva is smaller in stature, should Bielsa decide to employ a player who is tall and good in the air it could provide them with opportunities to win the initial aerial ball leading to knockdowns in the area.
Part of Bielsa’s attacking strategy is to create overloads in the wide areas through the rotation of different players. As one player moves inside from a wider position, Bielsa expects somebody else to occupy the space vacated to give balance to the side. This makes man-marking particularly difficult and as such will result in Bristol City employing a zonal marking system, with players responsible for marking players who move into their zone.
Defensively Bristol City defend very compactly horizontally which leaves them vulnerable to both overloads in wide areas and the switch of play. To combat this they will need to apply pressure on the ball possessor to limit the time and space they have on the ball to play accurate longer switches of play. If Leeds are able to draw them out of position into wide areas this will open up the dangerous central areas in which they can exploit with through passes behind the defence.
Lee Johnson has a preference for playing with the wide players tucked inside towards the centre of the pitch. With Bristol City potentially operating with a narrow three behind the striker, this further strengthens their ability to play through central areas. With just 59 goals scored last season, Bristol City need to address this problem going into the new season if they are to make the playoffs.
Last season Diedhiou was often left isolated with a large gap between himself and the rest of the midfield, which hindered Bristol City’s ability to sustain attacking momentum. With a change in formation, this should provide better support to him as Bristol City will have more players positioned in advanced areas of the pitch. With more players in support of Diedhiou Bristol City will have greater numbers attacking the box from advanced areas, therefore providing a greater goal threat than was seen last season.
With Bristol City focusing on playing through the central areas and Leeds’s defensive shape, this will create a tight area in the centre of the pitch. This could cause a large number of turnovers in possession should the play be forced into this area. The full-backs for Bristol City could prove to be important in these situations as they may well find themselves as the free players if the centre of the pitch becomes crowded. Both Jack Hunt and Jay DaSilva, the two likely starters at full-back, are better offensively and their delivery may well prove to be an important aspect of the game.
Bristol City host Leeds in what is sure to be an entertaining game between two sides who have been widely tipped to challenge for promotion this season. Both sides will be looking to get their seasons off to a positive start in front of the TV cameras.
With the potential for both sides to employ different formations than used last season, it should be an intriguing tactical battle and the result could well depend on which side is best able to adapt to a change in tactics. Regardless of formation, Bristol City will look to attack through the centre of the pitch which could well play into the hands of Leeds United as they can counter-attack at great speed.
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