This FM21 tactic is my interpretation of Marcelo Bielsa's tactics at Leeds United.
By this point, we all have an idea of who Bielsa is, and the unique, but principled style he plays. To some, he is the lord and saviour of football. To others, he’s a pretentious academic who has barely won anything in his career. Whatever you may think of Bielsa, it’s hard to say he’s not genuine.
The Man. The Myth
The short, red faced, coffee drinking phenomenon that is El Loco was born in Rosario, to a family of lawyers and politicians. He faced a lot of pressure as a young man from an affluent family to follow them into their profession. However, he rejected this due to his love for football being too great. Thank god he did! He became a player and then manager for Newell's Old Boys. He’s gone on to manage a vast array of teams such as Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Club América, the national sides of Chile and Argentina, and now Leeds United.
There are many coaches, who are managing all over the world who have named Bielsa as an influence on them. This lineage of Bielsa disciples includes Mauricio Pochettino, who was a former player, Jorge Sampaoli, his devoted follower and the purest Bielsista, as well as Marcelo Gallardo, Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone and Gerard ‘Tata’ Martino. Whilst some follow Bielsa’s principles more closely than others, they all tend to encourage their sides to play with the intensity, professionalism, opposition analysis, and high work ethic Marcelo is famed for.
Alongside them are a number of players and journalists too who also like to wax lyrical about our man El Loco. Examples of players who have flourished under Bielsa, and gone on to have very successful careers are: Benjamin Mendy, Javi Martinez, Aymeric Laporte, Fernando Llorente, Ander Herrera, Dimitri Payet and Alexis Sanchez.
Football journalist Jonathan Wilson, a self-confessed follower of the Bielsa way once proclaimed that “no South-American has had such an influence on the way the world played (football), as Bielsa has had in the first decade of the 21st century.” High praise indeed.
Bielsa is a man of extremes. Extremely erratic, and unpredictable, and at times endearing (I’m thinking of the time Bielsa ran on to the pitch at training and hugged Bamford, or the time he sent Leeds out to pick litter to help the community, or the countless other stories.) One of the most endearing things about Marcelo Bielsa is how his teams play, with their hearts in their sleeves. They leave everything on the pitch. Just as Bielsa is a man of extremes, his team is the personification of that. All of Bielsa’s teams consistently play extremely wide, with an extremely high tempo, press extremely aggressively.
Despite his very principled non-negotiable style of play, Bielsa’s sides, however, are flexible in terms of formation. He has played a number of formations over the years such as his famed 3-3-1-3 at Chile, or the 4-2-3-1 at Athletic Bilbao and Marseille. Right now, at Leeds United Bielsa plays a 4-1-4-1.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds defend in a very fluid 4-1-4-1, transition in a 3-3-1-3/-3-3-3-1 and attack with as many players overloading half spaces and flooding the box. Below you can see and example of the 3-3-1-3 where Kalvin Phillips will drop between the CB’s to collect the ball, the full backs will join Klich (#43) and Rodrigo (#20) and the wingers will sit behind Bamford up top.
In the next picture you can see how Leeds defend in a compact 4-1-4-1, compressing the pitch and staying close to each other in order to progress with quick interchanges up the pitch once the ball has been won. The team will shift from side to side, waiting for the pressing trigger, in this case on the right. Bamford has closed off the easy pass back, whilst Rafinha, Klich and Rodrigo are ready to pounce.
Implementing the tactic in game
The formation to start with is a slightly asymmetric, very fluid 4-1-1-3-1. The CM (S) is very much the shuttler and workhorse of the team, his movement creates the 4-1-4-1 in certain phases of the game. Much like many of the roles in Bielsa’s tactics the CM has a lot of very specific instructions such as: “get further forward” and “move into channels” in order to join the attack in the half-spaces. Klich is also instructed to man mark the DM in the press to stop them from escaping the press of the front four. Other key roles that are representative of Bielsa’s Leeds are Rodrigo, ordinarily a striker playing as an AM who joins the midfield at times, as well bringing the ball down and taking shots, or running into space in the box. Dallas is the classic IWB converted midfielder who has the intelligence to aid with build up play under pressure. The final and post important role is Kalvin Phillips. Against a team that plays 1 striker you should play Phillips at DLP (s). With “distribute to playmaker”, he will drop deep to aid the CB’s at times, but mostly move into positions in front of the defence, aiding them in build up. Against two strikers you should change Phillips role to HB (d). This means he more frequently drop between the CB’s as you saw in images above.
In possession, Leeds play extremely wide, to try and stretch the team and open up opportunities for vertical passes. Playing out of defence and hitting the flanks using short passing triangles is key to Bielsa’s style. The passing range is "standard", in combination with PI's to certain players to pass short. These instructions help to create a range of passing, and "verticality" which is the hallmark of Bielsa’s tactics
Short kicks and distribute to playmaker are absolutely essential to Bielsa build up play as they encourage possession football that draws the oppositions press in order for Kalvin Phillips to quickly bypass them and start a fluid counter attack.
When out of possession, Leeds will press extremely aggressively with a high line, to encourage the panicked long ball from the opposition straight to Leeds CB’s, or a mistake leading to an interception. A Wide defensive width combined with individual instructions to the wingers to press full backs, will help with the press, and encourage the opposition to try and attack through the middle where they will be tackled hard and aggressively by the midfield and defence.
The final detail to add is that I've always been appreciative of the way Bielsa's teams man mark almost every player on the pitch. It can be risky at times, or extremely impressive. I have not gone man for man for the sake of producing a tactic that doesn't descend into total chaos, but I have instructed the forwards, attacking midfielder, central midfielder and defensive midfielder to man mark, and mark tightly, leaving a back 4 to stay more in a rigid position for some safety.
Below are the results, I tested this tactic with Leeds, Celtic and RB Leipzig. Both with base squads, no transfers at all.