Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United tactical analysis

Macelo Bielsa

Marcelo alberto bielsa caldero nicknamed in the soccer world as ‘EL Loco’ was born in Rosario Argentina on the 21st July 1955.

Bielsa played as a defender in Newell’s Old Boys’ First Division team, but retired when he was 25 to focus on coaching.Bielsa has managed several football clubs and also the national teams of Argentina and Chile. He developed his career as coach of Newell’s Old Boys, leading that team to several wins in the early 1990s, then moved to Mexico in 1992, briefly coaching Club Atlas and Club América. Bielsa returned to Argentina in 1997 to manage Vélez Sarsfield.

With Chile, he achieved cult status due to the improved results of the national team under his leadership. His personality and gestures during his stint in Chile captured the attention of media and unleashed a series of minor controversies both in sports and politics.

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Managerial statistics

Managerial record by team and tenure
Managerial record by team and tenure

Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching style

Bielsa’s signature formation in his squads – which he made famous and brought to the front of the world’s mainstream football scene during his coaching tenures in with the Argentina and Chile national teams and Marseille – is the 3–3–1–3 formation.

When he took the Argentina job, at the end of his first training session Bielsa handed the players a pencil and a little slip of paper. He wanted them to write down whether they wanted to line up with a back three or a four. He went through all the replies. “Back four, back four, back four… This clearly shows your preference for a line of four. But I’m telling you that from now on we’re going to be playing with a back three. See you tomorrow.” And he won them over, bringing them round to his way of thinking.

BBC South American football correspondent Tim Vickery

For this formation, the players are: three defenders , three midfielders (one central midfielder with two wide players / wing backs), three attacking midfielders (one No.10 and two wingers) and one centre-forward. The 3–3–1–3 allows quick transitions from defending to attacking, as many of the players used in the formation can perform both defensive and attacking tasks.

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Moreover, it establishes superiority in numbers in every part of the field, since with this formation his teams could defend with seven players, attack with six or seven players, or protect a scoreline by overwhelming the midfield with six players. To use 3–3–1–3, all players have to quickly set to attacking positions when the ball is in the team’s possession, and all players have to aggressively press and recover the ball when it is not in possession, so it requires great teamwork and understanding between teammates.

This signature style of Bielsa’s has had so much influence in the football scene that many present coaches – former players under Bielsa’s command – are heavily influenced by the style, such as Gerardo Martino, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone, Matías Almeyda, Eduardo Berizzo, Mauricio Pellegrino, Santiago Solari and Marcelo Gallardo. Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola credited Bielsa as his tactical inspiration and called him the “best manager in the world” in 2012.Jorge Sampaoli, former manager of Argentina, Sevilla FC and Chile, has been described as a “disciple” of Bielsa.

Bielsa is known for watching and collecting numerous football videos to the point of obsession. He edits and analyses each video for each individual player. He also uses statistical software and other technological tools to prepare for games. John Carlin, an English journalist, has stated that Bielsa has “the most learned football library on the planet”.

Bielsa likes to systematise the game. He says that there are 29 distinct formations in football and believes that every young player should be given the opportunity to experience each of them.

The key to Bielsa’s tactics is the movement, rotations and quick combination play. The players must work hard to move the ball to the free player and create available passing lanes to play forward. At times when Bielsa has not had defenders with a high technical level at his disposal, he has used midfield players in defence to make sure that his team is fully capable of playing out from the back under pressure.

Marcelo Bielsa is famous for his playing philosophy which is based on building up from the back, even when playing against a team which presses high up the pitch. For a team to be a successful by building up play from the goalkeeper, skilful defenders are needed.

When building up from the back, Marcelo Bielsa’s first aim is to provide an available passing option to the goalkeeper. In order for this to be achieved against a high pressing team with 2 forwards, the formation of his team is changed from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-3-3-1 (attacking option) or the 3-4-3 (more defensive option).

In the 2018–19 season at Leeds United, Bielsa introduced a 4–1–4–1 formation with Kalvin Phillips converted from a box-to-box or attacking midfielder into the deepest-lying midfielder. When facing a team who played with two central strikers, Bielsa would switch to the 3–3–1–3, with Phillips dropping further back into the defensive line as a centre-back or “sweeper.”

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The 4-1-4-1 soccer formation

The 4-1-4-1 is a relatively recent organic development and actually stems from either the 4-3-3 formation or from the 4-2-3-1 formation. In many ways, it is the formation’s next tactical evolution in an era defined by a paradigm of soccer stressing possession as a defensive strategy.

Most notably Spain used this in the final of Euro 2008 to great effect in containing a powerful German side, while since that date Germany has dabbled in the formation to both great delight and great sorrow at times.

The formation itself is predicated on maintaining the all-important midfield triangle that is so key in both the 4-2-3-1 and in the 4-3-3. From the 4-2-3-1, the formation comes about by pushing a holding midfielder into an advanced position, while in the 4-3-3 it requires the wide players to be true 2-way players rather than the wingers.

The true power in this formation is tactical flexibility in that with single swaps of players, the 4-1-4-1 can immediately transition into either of the other two formations or even into a 4-4-2 formation if needed. This allows the team to react quickly and effectively to changes made by opposition sides.

This soccer formation almost look like an easily breakable formation seeing that lonely midfielder that can be easily overpowered in counters. That’s why before opting for it the coach should be aware of its requirement.

Leeds united under Bielsa’s management are labelled one of the most entertaining teams in the 2020-2021 Premier league season. Outstanding performances, games full of goals and a tremendous and generous effort by the players. But you can expect nothing short from a team that believes in its manager.

Before going any further I recommend you take a look at the basics of the 4-1-4-1 formation before getting down to business with that leeds united tactical analysis.

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Leeds united’s system of play

Leeds United primarily play in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Although being known for tactical flexibility and unconventional creations like the 3-3-1-3 and 3-3-3-1, this shape has remained relatively consistent over the course of both of Bielsa’s seasons so far, even if adapted during build-up phases.

Other than in-game changes, Bielsa has also utilized variations of a 3-4-3 (even at times looking more like a 3-3-3-1) this season. The most common time for Bielsa to change to a back-three occurs when his team come up against two-striker systems. This is unsurprising, considering what I will mention next about their build-up. But Leeds are very comfortable going up against one-striker systems when they have their triangle at the back of White, Cooper and Phillips always in place. Against two-strikers, that extra centre-back allows Phillips to maintain a defensive midfield position, while keeping the opposition strikers occupied

Leeds united's line-up
Leeds united’s line-up

it is important to note why it is generally agreed upon by everyone that Leeds operate in a 4-1-4-1 formation. It might be because this is actually their most common defensive shape, rather than their attacking shape. Which is true. It might also be because the footballing world is not ready to admit that Leeds play a 2-1-6-1 or 3-1-3-3 in attack, because that would simply just be absurd and unheard of.

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Leeds united defensive style

The defensive pressing system is based on two expected outcomes- winning the ball back from their opponents and creating a counter-attack or to force the opponents to play long balls up the field. This type of pressing means that everyone from the striker to the centre-backs must be involved in getting the ball back from the opponents. A key element of this pressing is how close the players are when getting to press their opposition. The picture below against Birmingham illustrates the point better:

Leeds pressing
Leeds pressing

The second option that Leeds aim for is to force a long ball from their opponents. This is relatively straightforward, as the Leeds centre-backs, Koch and Liam Cooper, are strong aerially and are good at controlling the ball. By pressing the opponent, they sometimes have no option but to hit the ball up the pitch.

Unsurprisingly, Bielsa asks his team to press high up the pitch at speed and win the ball back immediately after losing it. The 4-1-4-1 shape allows Bielsa to press high and easily keep a diamond shape when pressing, with the striker, near-sided winger, and the two attacking midfielders linking up to win the ball back. The high press isn’t just a reality, but a necessity. Without it, Leeds would be caught on the break far more often than they are. This is in part due to the team’s desire to attack in numbers. Without a high pressing system in place there simply would not be enough transition time to get bodies back in numbers.

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Leeds united attacking style

While talking about Bielsa’s attacking style, it is impossible to forget his famous 3-3-1-3 formation that he employs when transitioning from defence to attack after winning the ball back after pressing the opponents. It looks like below. There may be a lot to process here, so it will be broken down step by step to understand Bielsa’s attacking formation. We shall split it into stages to understand the process better.

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Full-backs bombing up

Bielsa prefers attacking full-backs that bomb up the pitch and create width for the side. The full-backs go so advanced up the pitch that they are in line with the midfielders. This allows them to make line-breaking passes forward to the wingers. As these full-backs need to go up quickly, they must be fast and good at ball progression. In case of any counter-attacks, the full-backs must trackback quickly and defend as well. In some cases, this is not possible, and we shall see how Bielsa covers for it below:

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Kalvin Phillips dropping back

To cover for the players up front, the two centre-backs, Koch and Liam Cooper move wide, while Kalvin Phillips slots in the gap to form three at the back. This only happens when Leeds are building out from the back and not during counter-attacks. This stops attacking from the wide areas as the centre-backs cover for those areas until the full-backs arrive. The presence of Kalvin Phillips, who is strong defensively, covers the central areas and leads to minimal goals conceded by Leeds. 

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marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Enganche moving forward and deep-lying playmaker dropping behind

The next movement noted here is the movement of one of the central two midfielders transitioning from Central Midfielder to Central Attacking Midfielder. This can be either Rodrygo or Mateusz Klich but in this example, Rodrygo will be moving forwards. The midfielder moves into the hole between the midfield and attack, and his role is to make the killer passes into the box or to dribble past the opponents and create goalscoring opportunities that way. This is known as the ‘Enganche’ and involves player mobility, good vision and tactical awareness. To Bielsa, the Enganche is important as he dictates the play: Where the ball moves towards and who gets the ball. 

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Wingers cutting inside the box

Finally, the wingers- Jack Harrison and Helder Costa. Throughout most of the attacking play, they provide sufficient width to create more passing opportunities throughout the pitch. But, towards the higher parts of the pitch, the wingers cut inside to pass to the target man, Bamford, or to shoot on target.

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Thus, the 3-3-1-3 takes its shape. The final results of this can be seen below.

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
The 3-3-1-3

Bielsa’s side has a preference for playing short passes as well. This means that they build up from the back and pass the ball around in diamonds, from all over the pitch. There are three main diamonds that can be formed, and have been shown below:

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Back-four diamond (Goalkeeper, central defenders and central defensive midfielder)

This is the first diamond that forms and involves the goalkeeper, the two centre-backs that are wide and the pivot – Phillips. Playing in the middle between the defensive and midfield lines gives him the freedom to pass around and dictate play with his great passing vision and his ball-winning ability.

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The other two centre-backs have options to pass to Phillips, who transitions the ball to the next diamond, or directly to the full-backs, which takes us to the next diamond:

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Central Diamond (Full-backs, central midfielder and Enganche)

This diamond involves the two full-backs, the Enganche and the central midfielder. The full-backs movements here are important as they decide the position of the diamond formation. If the right-back moves narrowly, the entire diamond moves towards the centre of the pitch. If the right-back moves leftwards, the diamond moves into the left-half space while the left-back moves into the centre of the pitch. The ability of the full-backs to play the entire width of the pitch is an important element of Bielsa’s ball progression. Then, the ball falls to the Enganche, whose role we detailed earlier in the analysis. This then transitions to the final diamond in front of the opponent’s goal.

marcelo-bielsa-at-leeds-united-201920-tactical-analysis-tactics
Front-four diamond (Enganche, Wingers and Striker)

When the attacking midfielder gets the ball, he has two options. He can play a through ball to the striker who shoots on goal, or he can pass to any of the wide players. Here, they cut inside to go for a shot or to pass to Bamford. 

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Conclusion

Leeds united is proving in the first games of the season that it has the proper tools to fight for a place high up in the table. Offering entertaining games and scoring goals week in and week out they are the sensation of this premier league campaign without a doubt.

We are mostly excited to see their standing at the end of the season and hoping that the myth about Bielsa’s team bottling it up at the end of every season due to fatigue won’t prove to be right for this beautiful experience.

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