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Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United met Frank Lampard’s Derby County for the second time this season. Both teams share similarities with the brand of football they endorse and the amalgam of youth with experience. It wasn’t a surprise to spot Aidy Boothroyd, England U21 head coach seated alongside Gareth Southgate in attendance. Along with the tactical analysis, I attempt to shed light on the psychological and emotional aspects of this game.
A comprehension of this tactical analysis would be incomplete without taking into perspective the circumstances leading up to this fixture. A couple of hours before the fixture, news of a spy caught at Derby’s training the previous day flooded the internet. This spying incident has clearly tarnished Bielsa’s image of an obsessive ‘football Miyagi’ with darker shades.
Tactics: Bielsa’s gamble pays, Lampard’s fails
Leeds usually feature a 4-1-4-1 with a midfield quartet of Jack Harrison, Mateusz Klich, Pablo Hernandez and Ezgjan Aliosksi. The 18-year-old Jack Clarke replaces Harrison at half-time, with Bielsa claiming both to have varied but necessary attributes. Clarke’s recent impressive performances earned him a spot on the starting 11 for this game. Yet, to retain the quartet playing the intro to Bielsa’s symphony, Bielsa started Alioski as a left-back.
It isn’t unusual for Bielsa to play midfielders in the defensive back line. Javi Martinez at Athletic Bilbao and Arturo Vidal with Chile, and Leeds’ very own Kalvin Phillips are apt examples. Alioski started his career playing left back for BSC Young Boys, so it wasn’t much of a defensive compromise either. But, in return for this gamble, Bielsa could rely on Alioksi’s attacking prowess in offensive build up.
Derby, like Leeds, prefer to build up from the back and create offensive chances. After conceding early on, Lampard replaced his right-back Andre Wisdom with a forward David Nugent. Derby switched to a high-pressing 4-4-2 with midfielder Dwayne Holmes moving to right back to make way for Nugent. As Derby lacked a conventional defender against an attacking duo of Alioksi and Harrison, Leeds immediately capitalised, scoring their second.
The teenager Clarke, a product of Leeds’ youth academy, has been a phenomenal Bielsa discovery. Scoring twice already against Aston Villa and Nottingham forest, Clarke played a substantial role in both the goals Leeds scored.
Clarke’s confidence seems to grow with every touch in a first-team fixture. His biggest strength is his dribbling. But, playing alongside experienced Leeds veterans adds more dimensions to his game.
The Macedonian number 10, Alioski provides a good role model in his position to help Clarke mature as a player. Alioski’s ability to be present where he can impact the game most, and occasionally ruffle opponent’s feathers to break their composure are tricks Clarke would need to pick up to perform in a demanding league like the Championship.
Return of the heavy artillery
Liam Cooper donned the captain’s armband for the first time since 1 December 2018 to a jubilant Elland Road. He was proud of the victory, though having to play catch up with the team’s intensity having had a break.
Adam Forshaw, unfortunate with defensive errors in the last few fixtures, displayed a textbook midfielder performance: A remarkable 90% pass accuracy, 4/6 tackles won and every one of his six longballs reaching their intended target.
Kemar Roofe was rested during the FA Cup elimination against Queens Park Rangers, but returned to start against Derby. His opening goal off Clarke’s assist proves why he is currently the best goal poacher in the Championship. However, his goal scoring record shadows his significant defensive work rate, which goes unnoticed.
The controversy and the mind games
The spying incident left Lampard justifiably disappointed. Many along with Lampard found it unfair and conniving. Bielsa was humble in assuming responsibility and respectfully admitting his folly. He claimed to have been using it since working with Argentina’s World Cup qualification more than 20 years ago. However, Derby have taken offence. This was enough for him to plead guilty admitting he must abide by English ethics of fair play.
There is a clear cultural dichotomy between the two footballing nations. The practice is commonplace to the culture of the game back in Argentina from the days of Bilardo. Hence, for a personality like Bielsa, his attitude to the incident, albeit respectful and apologetic, seems like a routine application of the 13th and final chapter in Sun Tsu’s Art of war: Using Spies.
Lampard’s biggest challenge was to prevent the scandal affecting his players mentally during the game. Unfortunately, it was quite visible. Derby County, unlike the tenacious side we have seen all season, looked exposed and defeated from the whistle. Lampard himself admitted:
“We were below standards, the better team won. There are no excuses to our performance.”
Leeds, on the contrary, were unperturbed in their mentality and confidence. They grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and showed no dearth of resolution.
12th Man effect
To add to the strength of the hosts, the emotions at Elland Road were beyond euphoric. For the passionate Leeds supporters, it is overwhelming enough to witness this incredulous rise to the top of the table. But the thrilling, nerve-wracking football that Leeds have exhibited this season has mesmerised all eyes.
The resonating ‘ole’s’ at every pass that Leeds orchestrated continued throughout the second half. That feeling of hope at Camp Nou watching Barcelona’s historic 2008 rise bears a faint, but uncanny resemblance. The result of the game was indeed influenced by more than just tactical variables.
Conclusion and consequences
This incident, having come into the limelight is bound for extensive scrutiny and debate. England and Argentina have shared a tumultuous history on and off the pitch. After Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ against England in the 1986 World Cup, the Argentinian Bielsa ironically finds himself at the helm of controversy. The whites of Elland road, who have hitherto enjoyed a ‘Cinderella story’ this season, risk being tainted with it.
Bielsa’s remains quiet in the transfer window for lack of quality replacements to his current squad. This would imply half a season of more extensive toil for his existing players. Does Isoroku Yamamoto’s kamikaze episode of Pearl harbour ring a bell? But, Leeds United have thoroughly bought into Bielsa’s ways and are on a mission: A mission to the top of the table, promotion and all glory that follows. They are at war, and surrounded by the love of Elland Road and Bielsistas, ‘all is fair’ in Leeds’ Shakespearean folklore.
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