Marcelo Bielsa is one of the most fascinating managers in the world of football and is currently tearing it up in the Premier League with Leeds United. After earning promotion from the Championship to the top flight last season, Bielsa’s side sit only 14th in the table. But the performances have been far better than the results and his side have achieved impressive performances and results against the likes of Arsenal, Man City and Aston Villa so far this season. Either way, the football that Leeds play can be described as genius, and simultaneously as one of our readers described it – madness. With that, here is a Tactical Analysis of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and the impressive exploits his team have pulled off in the 2020-21 Premier League season.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-1-4-1
Leeds have remained with a relatively consistent eleven to the one that got them promoted to the Premier League. The only major differences are Illan Meslier who has now fully replaced Kiko Casilla, Rodrigo coming into the team as an attacking midfielder instead of Pablo Hernandez, and Robin Koch in place of the fantastic Ben White. By making such minimal changes, Leeds have been able to play exactly the same way they did in the Championship, just against better opponents.
Kalvin Phillips anchors the midfield and screens the back-four, allowing Mateusz Klich and Rodrigo to surge forward in attack more often. The flanks are occupied by new signing Rahpina and Manchester City loanee Jack Harrison, who invert regularly and spent a lot of time in central areas. Up top, Patrick Bamford has been one of the Premier League’s surprising performers so far, scoring 14 goals in 22 games.
Another consistency of Bielsa’s Championship side is his reliance on the 4-1-4-1 formation. Bielsa has experimented with a 3-1-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, and what was probably more 3-4-3 than the 3-3-1-3 that is so commonly associated with Bielsa. But the 4-1-4-1 formation remains his preferred choice. Most frequently, this system will adapt and change over the course of the match, particularly to a 3-3-3-1 in attack and several midfield runners sprinting onto the end of crosses from wide areas. But the defensive shape holds true most of the time in a 4-1-4-1, in which the high pressing system that Leeds engage in is excellently balanced with loads of midfield presence.
Last season, the formation changes within the 4-1-4-1 were, at times, a bit outrageous (see the 2019-20 Edition for more details). For now, things are a little bit less tactically complex by Leeds’ high standards and the formation’s changes in shape mostly occur out of the lung-bursting energy provided by their players to adopt positions in either attack or defense that appear rather unexpected but actually are very normal. This is less systematic, and more shifting of positions or intelligent reading of the game from their players based on a teammate who has become out-of-position. The most frequent engine in the team to explore different areas of the midfield is in fact, Mateusz Klich. The 30-year old Polish international is both a progressive passer and mobile runner, who often looks to get beyond or in and around his striker. Rodrigo often exhibits the same behaviours and is typically better at picking out an incisive forward pass. Beyond that, it is quite shocking how often their shape, build-up and positional play reads like a 2-5-3 or 2-3-4-1. But at the same time, considering how similar a 4-1-4-1 and a 2-3-4-1 will look on the field, it’s unsurprising why no one’s really talking about this.
With all of their fascinating tactics, it could be argued that Leeds United have underperformed this season. I genuinely believe Leeds’ principles of play are working and that everything they do to win football matches will soon pay greater dividends. They need to clean up in front of goal and not rely so heavily on Patrick Bamford to score, but Bielsa has his team playing in such a fantastic way with loads of shots and chances created that it really should not be too great of an issue. Once they get their feet on the ground, Leeds United really could take off in the next Premier League season and stumble upon something far greater than what newly promoted sides normally achieves. For now, they sit 10th in the table. Be sure to check out the FULL Tactical Analysis HERE and share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @mastermindsite and follow RDF at @RdfTactics. Thanks for reading and see you soon!