After a 15-year absence from the top flight, last season Leeds United came very close to returning to the English top division. Marcelo Bielsa’s strict training methods and incredibly thorough opposition tactical analysis saw Leeds United achieving the highest Championship finish since 2009/10 season. Leeds finished third narrowly missing out on the automatic promotion spot to Sheffield United after earning only a single point in the last four games. It followed with a playoff loss to Derby County which saw Bielsa’s side suffering heartbreak in what was a remarkable campaign for the West Yorkshire club.
Coming into a new season, no doubt Leeds United will look to build upon last season’s foundations and secure automatic promotion to the Premier League. With the other two arguably best Championship teams of last season in Norwich City and Aston Villa being promoted, Leeds are seen as clear favourites. Betting companies have tipped Bielsa’s side for Championship glory with Fulham seen as their biggest automatic promotion rival.
After an impressive 2018/19 campaign, all eyes will be on the West Yorkshire club. This scout report will take a deeper look into Bielsa’s tactics at Leeds and what can be done to avoid the scenario of last season-ending.
Tactical set-up and style of play
Leeds United were one of the team to watch in the 2018/19 season. Bielsa’s instilled direct, attacking football while regaining possession had them on the brink of promotion to the Premier League. Leeds playing philosophy sees them using width and depth adequately, with many rotations taking place and achieving numerical overloads when needed.
The on the ball formation that is famously associated with the Argentine manager is 3-3-1-3. Usually, it is the defensive midfielder who drops in between the two centre-backs and forms a back three. Both full-backs push forward with a centre-midfielder forming the second line of three. A number ten is usually deployed just in front of the front three. In contrast, when off the ball, Leeds retreat into a 4-1-4-1 shape.
Leeds’ build-up phase
Under Bielsa, Leeds United build-up begins at the back. Nevertheless, there are certain alterations to Leeds’ build-up depending on the opposition’s defensive shape and how they press. Those alterations mainly occur when passing through the first to the second phase of construction.
Before the adjustments take place, it is important to underline a key aspect of Bielsa’s build-up strategy. The Argentine always looks for numerical superiority in his first build-up line. From then on, Leeds are willing to alter their approach to aid the transition from the first to the second phase depending on the opposition’s tactics.
The first alteration happens in the players’ department in terms of rotations. Depending on the number of players in the opposition’s first defensive line, Leeds aim to outnumber them. However, the personnel that creates numerical superiority in the first build-up phase differs from time to time.
As it can be seen below, this time it is Phillips who supports both centre-halves in bringing the ball out from the back. Once the ball gets closer to the middle third, both central defenders together with a defensive midfielder position themselves narrower. In this case, Phillips helped two centre-backs to outnumber Manchester United’s two forwards.
In the other image below, Leeds create an overload once again when playing out from the back. However, this time it is a right centre-back Gaetano Berardi who is positioned in the middle of the three. In this short passage of play Berardi takes up Phillips playing role as a defensive midfielder. Additionally, Leeds’ right-back Luke Ayling occupies Berardi’s right centre-back position by splitting wide with a captain Liam Cooper remaining on the left side.
Another example of Leeds players’ rotations is illustrated below in the same game against Derby County. As can be seen, this time Leeds did not have the numerical advantage against the opposition’s first line of press. In this situation, Cooper was at the heart of the back three with Phillips dropping on the outside of him on the left taking up Leeds captain’s initial position. This time it is Berardi who kept his original position as a right-sided centre-back while Cooper can be seen as a modern-day ‘libero’ who is responsible for distributing the ball.
The second alteration with regards to Leeds’ build-up play is concerned with the area of the pitch used in order to reach phase two or middle third. This depends heavily on how the opposition sets-up defensively. From the observations made, Leeds progress the ball from phase one to phase two either through one of the flanks or half-space area. When the opposition presses high up the pitch Leeds seek to find gaps in their pressing lines by positioning themselves adequately. Contrarily, when the opposition sits deeper, Bielsa’s team looks to overload a wing on one of the sides, thus, underloading the opposite flank.
In the illustration below, two Manchester United forwards are applying high pressure on both Leeds centre-backs. With Berardi and Cooper both cut out from the play and Phillips being heavily pressurised by Juan Mata, Kiko Casilla has two options that involve the same pathway. He can either play the ball to Adam Forshaw or Pablo Hernandez with both being positioned in a half-space. The Spaniard chose the latter that is a good example of how Leeds move the ball to the second phase via a half-space.
Another similar example from the same game can be seen below. Only Marcus Rashford forms Manchester United’s first line of press. Phillips is not pressurised by any of United’s midfielders that allows him to drop deeper. Manchester United’s second line of defence is quite high up the pitch and stretched. Consequently, it allowed Cooper to find Forshaw who positioned himself intelligently in a left half-space behind United’s second line of press.
At times, when Leeds are unable to create a numerical overload against the opposition’s first line of press, their first pass goes to one of the wings. This is how they bypass the first line of press without taking too many risks.
Here we can see how Leeds created a four versus two numerical advantage and completed the first phase of build-up by bypassing Derby’s first line of press.
As it was explained in the previous examples above, Leeds reach the second phase of build-up by either receiving the ball in one of the flanks (right or left) or one of the half-spaces (right or left). It means that Leeds prefer to start the second phase of construction with the ball being closer to one of the sides of the pitch rather than the middle.
Leeds’ second phase of construction continued on the right side once again possessing numerical superiority. It was a combination of overload on the opposite side, right back’s energy to join the attack (Ayling) and Derby missing two players in defensive transition who were cut off after failed pressing.
When Leeds start approaching the final third, their third phase of construction is often a mixture of movement on the wing and down the centre. Bielsa used Patrick Bamford very cleverly on the wing to create space down the middle. The Leeds striker would drag out the opposition’s centre back to the sideline whilst one of the centre midfielders makes a forward run and pulls out the second centre-back out of his position. Consequently, this tactical manoeuvre creates space in the middle of the final third for another centre midfielder or one of the full-backs to exploit.
The last mention regarding Leeds’ build-up play should go to both full-backs. They are instrumental to the way Bielsa wants his side to play and are heavily involved in the build-up phase. In the first image below, Leeds again congest a wing on the side with Bamford close to the sideline. It frees up space in the middle and down the other wing.
Thus, Leeds’ left-back on the day Stuart Dallas joins the third phase of build-up completely unmarked and in acres of space.
Leeds near the penalty box
When Leeds are unable to stretch out the opposition, usually they end up having the ball near the opposition box on the flank. Both full-backs are often present in the penalty box only leaving the centre-halves and a holding midfielder to protect their goal from a potential counterattack. It indicates Bielsa’s preference for an intense attacking style of play.
Low and high crosses are usually delivered into the box trying to make use of the number of players inside the penalty area. Full-backs make overlapping runs at times as well, with players in the box also cutting into an open space trying to move the opposition around.
Leeds in defence
Bielsa has been renowned for using a man-marking system in all the clubs that he managed. Leeds United are no exception in this case. Even though the West Yorkshire club was ranked the third lowest in respect of goals conceded, against better oppositions Argentine’s installed man-marking system looks fragile.
The key weakness of man-marking is that the players who are marking the opponent have to always follow his movement, therefore, losing control of his own. The opponent can drag the pressing player away from important areas to open space for his team to exploit. Additionally, the opponent can switch positions with his teammates which confuses the defending team and disrupts their structure.
All of the above was evident in Leeds’ pre-season friendly against Manchester United. In the first illustration below, Hernandez is man-marking Scott McTominay and Forshaw doing the same with Paul Pogba. Bamford was late on Victor Lindelof who spotted the corridor through the middle. It followed with McTominay’s clever movement off the ball by dragging Hernandez away from the corridor. Forshaw did not want to lose Pogba, therefore, Lindelof was able to progress with the ball unchallenged.
Lindelöf managed to carry the ball for pretty much one-third of the pitch. United’s manipulation of Leeds’ man-marking system enabled Lindelof to play the ball into the path of Rashford whose shot hit the post. Mason Greenwood dragged Leeds’ left-back Douglas all the way from the left flank with Phillips keeping an eye on Juan Mata and unable to interfere the Swede’s run.
Another example can be seen below. Cooper keeps a close eye on Tahith Chong while Angel Gomes pulls out Phillips with himself, thus, creating space for Jesse Lingard to run in behind after Forshaw lost his marker.
This last illustration is another good example of how Leeds’ man-marking system can be manipulated. Forshaw lost track of Pogba while other Leeds players were concerned with their direct opponents, thus, allowing Pogba to exploit an unmarked area.
However, when man-marking is used with intent, in other words – man-oriented pressing, it can work really well. Bielsa is known for wanting his teams to be very intense without the ball. There are occasions, as mentioned above, when his team will sit back and man-mark the opposition passively though. Nevertheless, when Bielsa’s team press high up the pitch, they do it in a ferocious manner.
Once Ashley Young receives the ball near the sideline, Roofe presses him and forces to retrieve back to United’s own third. Every Leeds player involved in the press moved back to press their opponent that left Young trapped in a congested space on the sideline. Even though United had a six versus five numerical advantage, seven if including a goalkeeper, due to Leeds players’ perfect positioning Young could not play it out.
Even though Leeds only conceded a single goal from the opposition counterattacks last season, with both full-backs being very offensive-minded, it can be another area of concern in the new season.
Leeds United have not been the most active club in this summer’s transfer window so far. Excluding the players who have returned after a loan spell elsewhere, there have been only a few arrivals and departures that caught the eye.
Pontus Jansson’s departure to Brentford for just over six million pounds was a surprising one. He started 39 games for Leeds last season and seemed to form a solid partnership with the team’s captain Cooper. In addition, Spanish attacking midfielder Samu Sáiz joined Girona after his loan spell came to an end with the West Yorkshire club.
Up to this point, Hélder Costa has been the biggest name to join Leeds United this summer. As outlined previously, Bielsa prefers a 3-3-1-3 formation when in possession having three players in the front line. The Portuguese can play either as a left or right-forward with four appearances in the centre forward’s position last season as well. Such versatility is exactly what Bielsa is looking for, wanting his players to rotate constantly.
What has to be improved to finally seal an automatic promotion spot?
By now it should be pretty clear that Leeds United are a real threat that should be taken seriously. However, there a few features that were a potential culprit behind Leeds’ failed promotion attempt. Last season Leeds suffered a massive injury crisis at certain stages of the 2018-19 campaign. Bielsa’s fierce training regime and intense style of play put massive physical strains on the players that not everyone seemed to be able to cope with. Leeds lost four out of the last five games last season and fatigue clearly played a major part in that. Thus, managing training loads and getting the periodisation right is key if Bielsa wants to avoid the same scenario this season.
Additionally, Leeds lack of composure in front of the goal must be addressed as well. When we look at the statistical analysis, the West Yorkshire club averaged 17.2 shots per game last season and 12.9 of them coming from open play being ranked first in both departments. However, their shots per goal ratio was less impressive. On average, Leeds needed 10.8 shots to score a goal. In comparison to the three promoted sides, Norwich had a ratio of 7.6, Sheffield United 7.4, and Aston Villa 8.0. This is another key department where Leeds must raise their game.
When Marcelo Bielsa was appointed Leeds United manager, he brought hope to the West Yorkshire. Probably not even the most die-hard Leeds fans thought that the Argentine was going to make their club challenge for automatic promotion. As this season preview explained, narrowly missing out on the promotion spot was a bitter pill to swallow but a great learning curve. However, this time Leeds fans are coming to the new season with only a single thought in their head – to win the Championship. On 17th of October, the club will celebrate its 100th birthday. No doubt that sealing the promotion to the English top-flight would be the best possible gift.
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