After 16 long years, joy erupted at Elland Road when Leeds United were promoted to the Premier League. They went down, 16 years ago, due to financial mismanagement, severe leadership crisis, and many more off the pitch chaos that affected their performances on the pitch.
But Leeds’ fans never stopped believing. After the eyeball grabbing takeover off of Leeds United by Italian business tycoon, Andrea Radrizzani, the process to get back to the top had begun. Radrizzani bought with him not only money but serious business experience and some really effective sports executives to Elland Road.
And when the great tactician from the holy land of Argentina, Marcelo Bielsa, was appointed as the new head coach, the process seemed to have been going in the perfect direction.
After much rustle and tussle and few controversies here and there Marcelo Bielsa’s men have arrived in the Premier League, and with this one of the most tactically interesting sides in the world had entered the most competitive league in the world.
In this tactical analysis in the form of a scout report, we look at the ever-changing defensive line and rotating attacking structures of Leeds United. It will be an analysis of their attacking and defensive tactics.
Bielsa has lined up his men in the Premier League in the same way as he used to do in the Championship. He has used 4-1-4-1 in all the games and that seems to be doing wonders for them.
This 4-1-4-1 has a certain uniqueness to itself because it’s just a base formation; the positional and formational rotations begin almost instantly.
One might think, then, that if Leeds look to rotate and don’t remain stagnant, then why this absurd looking formation, why not something more common as 4-3-3 or 4-4-2? That’s because Bielsa wants his team to occupy very specific half-spaces which won’t be possible in any of the traditional formations.
To explain this properly, observe the position of players at the start of the second half against Liverpool.
In a 4-3-3, the half-spaces that the 3 midfielders occupy are between the three opposition forwards. But in Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1, the midfielders can occupy the spaces in the flanks, by default, and then the half-spaces in the opponent’s backline get exposed, all this, while, also having an anchor, mostly Kalvin Phillip, who can distribute balls, slice defences with dribbles, provide long balls to kick start a fast bout of attack and provide the team with a central hub to rotate around.
Even defensively, this formation gives Leeds United a significant upper hand. The greatest advantage that Leeds gets with this formation, is having a solid mid-block in front of the defence whilst also having a significant number of players to create the initial press.
Below is another instance from the game against Liverpool.
Here you can see Leeds have shifted to a 4-3-3, with the three forwards pressing the Liverpool attackers, whilst having a very solid mid-block in front of the defence covering up all the half-spaces that Liverpool might look to exploit. Seconds after this moment, the defensive line gets changed to initiate a high-intensity zonal trap and the mid-block gets an extra man and becomes a block of 4 and there are two roaming forwards who are free to move anywhere depending upon the situation.
Therefore, this initial shape of 4-1-4-1 is the reason Leeds can rotate so fluently because that formation gives them access to spaces and half-spaces that otherwise in a different formation they wouldn’t have.
The geometry of the defensive line
Leeds United’s gameplay is based on superfluid rotations and high-speed possession. Their possession game is so strong that this season they outclassed Pep Guardiola’s men in terms of possession, no. of passes, passing accuracy, and shots on target. Leeds had 53% of the ball, effected 429 passes with an accuracy of 82% compared to Man City’s 389 passes with an accuracy of 82% as well. Leeds had 7 shots on target, whereas City only had 2 as the game ended in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad.
One reason why Leeds are so effective in maintaining possession is because of their emphasis on short passing, building from the back, and emphasis on geometrical aspects of football.
Leeds’ geometry is sustained by a deep diamond that is formed at the back because of Bielsa’s base formation of 4-1-4-1.
This diamond at the depth ensures that Illan Meslier always has 3 passing options. The diamond isn’t necessarily formed between Robin Koch, Pascal Struijk and Kalvin Phillips. It keeps on changing except Phillips; he always remains at the anchor role at the top edge of the infield diamond.
When Meslier tries to play the ball, the wing-backs keep pushing higher up the pitch to provide width and spaces.
This diamond, though, was most frequently used by them in Championship, not that much in the Premier League because forwards in the Premier League press very high so the diamond needs to be compromised in order to build from deep and instead resort with a flat backline.
Below is the most common style Leeds use to build up. This is an instance from the game against Aston Villa.
Here we see Meslier with the ball and Luke Ayling (in the red circle) and Koch (in the golden circle) providing him the passing option. Also Ezgjan Alioski (in the indigo circle) and Stuart Dallas (in the pink circle) providing Leeds with the necessary width and once the attack starts they’ll run into the wider regions to move forward.
But even after that, the deep diamond does occasionally form. Below is an example of that situation.
Here again, the diamond is formed between Miesler, Ayling, Koch, and Phillips.
This geometrically varying defensive structure also helps Leeds when they don’t have control of the ball.
Leeds play a very high-speed possession game with the ball, so naturally, without the ball they affect a very high intensity zonal press in the flanks. The most unique thing about Leeds’ press is that you can never fully break it down because it’s solely based on squad chemistry. Hence nothing about that press remains constant. The players affecting the press change, the zones change, the shape of the press changes, everything changes. The only thing that doesn’t change is the press.
Here is an example of a typical Leeds United press.
Here is an instance in the game against City. Riyad Mahrez passes the ball to Raheem Sterling. Koch presses Mahrez, forcing him to pass the ball to Sterling. Ayling (in orange circle) closes in on Sterling. Helder Costa (in red circle) stands just in front of Benjamin Mendy (no.22) to cut off a pass to him, and Klich (in indigo circle) occupies an empty space that could have been occupied by a City player for Sterling to have more options, but that doesn’t happen since Klich is present.
Also, Liam Cooper is ready to intercept in any dribbles that Sterling might try as he has a clear eye on him. On the other side of the pitch, two Leeds players are standing close to two City players if Sterling looks to change the flank of the attack. Elsewhere another two Leeds players (in black circles) are covering the space in the midfield to launch an immediate counterattack when Leeds wins the ball back.
That’s how Leeds United effect a high intensity zonal press.
The two Leeds defenders who are standing close to the two City players on the other side of the pitch, are not pressing high so as to avoid exposing zone 14. If in case City are able to get away from the press, a compact defensive line should be present to avoid giving a City a clear chance to shoot.
Here’s an example of how compact and solid backline Leeds form when someone tries to attack centrally.
Here when City tried to attack centrally, Leeds formed a very compact defensive line of Ayling, Koch, Cooper, Dallas and Alioski. Note that Alioski started as a left-winger but tracked back to provide defensive solidity. And then Kalvin Phillips, Helder Costa and Tyler Roberts initiate the zonal press.
So that’s the geometry of the defensive line: Form a diamond while building, zonal trap when defending on the flanks, and solid defensive fortress while defending centrally.
The final third
The final third is all about pace, passing, and shots for Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds always build-up from the centre-backs standing flat to the keeper, receiving balls while the full-backs will push high and the CDM and the CAM will drop in to provide numbers in the final third.
But this when Leeds have a goal kick. When on open play, the infield diamond is what Leeds prefer because of it’s geometry and efficiency. It’s with diamonds that Cruyff’s Netherlands and Ajax dominated world football. And it is with diamonds that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were crowned as the greatest squad ever assembled.
If we look at the pass maps of every game that Leeds have played the deep diamond is very clearly visible. The best diamond, though, was the one that they formed against Liverpool. It has mathematical perfection to its very core.
See, the diamond is very clearly visible between Mesliar (no.1), Robin Koch (no.5), Pascal Struijk (no.21) and Kalvin Phillips (no.23).
The main attacking pattern of Leeds is starting centrally, carry on sideways and then attack centrally once again. This means starting from the centre forming a diamond. Then they move from the flanks using their wing backs and wingers and then cut in centrally to put the ball into the net.
This ensures that the opponent never gets a chance to get compact and erect a defensive wall, because of the super fast movements from Leeds up and down the pitch. This disturbs the initial formation of the opponent as well.
And when Leeds get central in front of the box, this ensures that they’re not too far away from zone 14 and hence have better odds of scoring.
This can be seen in almost all of the goals that Leeds have scored from open play. Below is an example of a typical Leeds goal. This is the first goal Leeds scored in Premier League in 16 years announcing to the world that they’ve come back.
Mesliar plays the ball to Kalvin Phillips.
Kalvin Phillips goes long to the left flank targeting Jack Harrison.
Harrison (in red circle) receives the ball, while Patrick Bamford (in orange circle) looks to enter zone 14 bypassing the Liverpool defence.
Harrison (in black circle) dribbles past Trent Alexander Arnold and gets centrally inside the box. Patrick Bamford (in red circle) tries to get inside the box looking for the cross from Harrison and Helder Costa (in the indigo circle) is also looking to underlap Andy Robertson to be an extra passing option.
Once Harrison enters the box, he can pass the ball to Patrick Bamford or can go backwards and look for Helder Costa or he can shoot. He attempts to shoot and boy did he shoot! He put the ball into the Liverpool net beating Trent Alexander Arnold’s tackle, Virgil van Dijk’s interception, Joe Gomez’s run and Alisson Becker’s outstretched hand.
This is how Leeds United stack up the goals.
That’s the entire tactical story of the ever-changing defensive line and attacking rotating structures of Marcelo Bielsa’s men. That’s the geometry defying movement of a fallen Premier League giant who have rejuvenated themselves under a master tactician.
Johan Cruyff once said, “When you have the ball, you must make the pitch as big as possible and when you don’t have the ball, you must make it as small as possible.”
Leeds United play on the same values of beautiful football. Their orchestrating of attacks from the flanks, when every team in the world does it centrally, and their zonal traps to suffocate the opposition player with the ball, are a testament to not just the tactical brilliance of Marcelo Bielsa but also the character he has transpired through this club with a history many would envy.
You can break Leeds’ gameplay down on paper because all they do is apply simple mathematics and chaotic geometry in their football. But even with all that, it’s very difficult to exploit them on the grass, because not only are their movements too fast to handle but also you can never know which player will make which movement.
You might know their next move but you’ll never be able to know where that movement will be coming from. The formation that Bielsa puts up is just a base. And for Bielsa, it will always remain that only because the player rotations happen almost instantly. The formation is just a mirage.
That’s what makes them unpredictable – rotations and fluidity in every aspect of the game.