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Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds United, 2018–

It was the iconic Marcelo Bielsa who, when Leeds were pursuing a successor to Paul Heckingbottom and the latest manager tasked with ending what was then their 14-year absence from the Premier League, the club turned to in June 2018. His appointment made him their 11th manager in six years since 2012.

Argentina’s Bielsa, also known as “El Loco”, led his country at the 2002 World Cup, and Chile at the same competition in 2010. He continues to be admired as a tactical innovator, to the extent that Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone all credit him with having a significant influence on their careers.  He had previously managed clubs in Spain, France and Italy, won Olympic gold with Argentina in 2004 and inspired a fine Athletic Bilbao team to the Europa League final in 2013.

“My admiration for Marcelo Bielsa is huge,” said Guardiola, who observed his methods in 2006, before becoming Barcelona’s manager. “He makes the players much, much better and he helped me a lot with his advice.”

Playing style
Rotations from a midfield three – when attacking from a high-tempo, 4-3-3 formation – are a regular feature of Bielsa’s teams. Many opponents attempt to defend conservatively against them, and then to retreat into a mid-or-lower block; in a similar way to the team he oversaw at Bilbao, the rehearsed movements Bielsa encourages create passing lanes with depth, in an attempt to draw opponents out.

Those movements invite individuals to receive possession on the blindside of opposing players – common for strikers, but not for central midfielders in the Championship – but, if forward passes remain difficult, the ball will be circulated in defence and with the single pivot at the base of midfield until an opportunity appears. Central defenders also occasionally advance into midfield, in an attempt to draw an opponent out of position and free up a teammate.

Midfielders will also rotate into defensive midfield spaces, particularly against opponents employing a tight, man-marking system. Similar applies in more advanced central territory, where Bielsa’s runners move to overcome the efforts of an opposing single or double pivot.

A further consistent feature of Bielsa’s teams is their use of a third-man runner (below) – something that became common while he was Bilbao’s manager – against teams defending with a narrow shape. When trying to penetrate into the attacking half, subtle movements away from the ball carrier and a further run from a wide position beyond the opposing defence are the mode of attack. Possession-based teams regularly favour runs in central territory; one of Bielsa’s teams is likely to offer a run from an overlapping full-back while a 3-3-1-3 shape is temporarily adopted.

Through wingers drifting into the inside channels, spaces are created for full-backs to advance into. The defensive midfielder – at Leeds, often Kalvin Phillips – withdraws to a position between the two central defenders while two further central midfielders and the two wingers rotate to offer passing options in front of the new back three. Bielsa’s preference for multiple passing options between the lines is complemented by overlapping full-backs – forcing opponents into applying a narrower press.

It is the timing of these impressively-orchestrated attacking patterns, perhaps beyond anything else, that demonstrate the influence of Bielsa’s training methods and his understanding of the game. Guardiola’s Manchester City have been known to offer similar movements, particularly when attempting to create combinations in wide areas against a lower block.

The two wingers join the striker while two attacking central midfielders mean that those attacking from wide areas have several potential targets. The striker can remain advanced because of the four rotating around him.

When the striker is required to withdraw to either link play or to receive possession in the inside channels – essentially offering a further option when even those rotating are struggling to break down a resilient lower block – Leeds’ midfielders Pablo Hernández, Mateusz Klich, Jack Harrison and Hélder Costa all provide runs in the inside channels around Patrick Bamford to add to their goalscoring threat (below).

Ezgjan Alioski, Luke Ayling, and Stuart Dallas have also made similar contributions after attacking from wider positions. The reality, regardless, remains that the preference for having several players positioned to finish an attack, instead of the more traditional method of relying on a potent goalscorer to do so, may be costing them goals.

Pressing and defending
Bielsa prefers his teams to defend and press high, and to apply a press that encourages them to regain possession, instead of one that attempts to delay opponents via more routine pressure. Though it often succeeds, it also demands particularly impressive conditioning which, over the course of a season, has eventually proved difficult for his teams to maintain.

Leeds typically press with a 4-1-4-1 which comfortably shifts from, and into, their 4-3-3; the numbers they are prepared to defend with provide cover against opponents playing directly. If possession is lost in the attacking half the numbers that have been committed to those attacks mean that they are in a position to press instead of needing to retreat into a deeper block.

Perhaps the hallmark of Bielsa’s management is the intensity of Leeds’ press, which is similar to that applied by Bilbao while he remained in La Liga. His players’ commitment to it – their willingness to hunt for possession, and to recover a position that contributes to denying an opposing counter-attack, particularly impresses. Intensity alone will rarely succeed, particularly against more complete opponents, so the intelligence to block passing lanes while pressing is also essential and can often involve preparing a trap that leads to a passing lane being intercepted.

Marcelo Bielsa

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