Leeds United have merited high praise in the Premier League after strong performances against Liverpool and Manchester City. Consequently, the application of Marcelo Bielsa’s intricate tactics has resurged in relevance and popularity among analysts.
His project at Leeds United has shown some of the most identifiable and fluid styles of football in Europe. After dominating the EFL Championship last season, Leeds are likely to hold their own in the Premier League in 2020/21. We shall illustrate why this may be the case by providing a tactical analysis of Leeds’ midfielders. In particular, his number 8s are pivotal to providing fluidity for the team’s possession chains.
In this scout report, we examine the significance of Leeds’ 8s through the metrics of structural symmetry and space creation. In our analysis, it is clear that their role is essential in controlling the centre of the pitch. This is achieved through overloads, rotation, and breaking lines – the bread and butter of what makes Bielsa’s team tick.
How can a team simultaneously dominate possession and minimise their PPDA?
For the purpose of this analysis, it is noteworthy to provide an overview of Bielsa’s philosophy in terms of fluidity and centre control. Consider Leeds United’s most commonly used formation last season in the following image.
Bielsa claims that all tactics in football can be broadly categorised into 10 set-ups. These systems are furthermore derivative and ductile. Systems with three centre-backs can be derived as mirror images of systems with two centre-backs. In possession, a 4-1-4-1 routinely transforms into a 3-3-1-3. One of the two full-backs joins the midfield, allowing the “enganche” to roam free.
Their versatility can be noticed in the following image.
In their match against Barnsley above, Bielsa’s structural changes, responding to the progression of the game, highlight the fluidity of his formations. That each player knows his respective role holds precedence over traditional positions. For instance, Stuart Dallas, most commonly played as a left-back, is utilised as a winger in the first half and a central midfielder in the second half of the same match.
Bielsa has strict demands from his players. In addition to structural identity, provided by his signature 4-1-4-1 or 3-3-1-3 formation, his system requires well-defined roles from his players. A fundamental trait that Bielsa looks for in his players, then, is versatility. For example, Stuart Dallas, as a left-back, often plays in the midfield alongside Kalvin Phillips. Pablo Hernandez, as an 8, often plays as a winger. Ezgjan Alioski has played as a left-back, left winger, and even as a number 8 at times.
This is crucial to understanding Leeds United’s number 8s. Considering the versatility of the players around them, Bielsa utilises his number 8s, Mateusz Klich in particular, in the opposite manner. Klich’s respective position and role in the system are quite rigid. This serves as a foundational pivot for the rest of their midfielders that are more protean in nature.
On studying Leeds United’s style of play, it is apparent how significant the centre of the pitch is to Bielsa. The implementation of this is seen in an inverse manner. Like a hypermodern chess player, Bielsa’s tactics involve controlling the centre of the pitch from the flanks. This is best explained in the following image that outlines the heatmap of Klich.
While he’s positioned in the centre of the pitch, he is instructed to have his back against the centre-circle and face a respective flank.
Therefore, Leeds try to control the centre by vacating it – permitting them to have extra players in the corners of the pitch. This “+1 rule” is relevant on and off the ball. Off the ball, if the centre is occupied by the opposition, Leeds employ diagonal pressing to navigate the destination of the second balls. On the ball, they create overloads on one side of the pitch.
In the following sections, we explore certain tactics used to apply these concepts.
Klich as a lateral pivot
Bielsa’s full-backs often assume advanced roles. In the build-up phase, they are used as wide midfielders. Leeds almost exclusively build possession chains from the flanks. The ball is then circulated with the formation of distinct diamonds, or rhombuses, in each third of the pitch.
The presence of Leeds’ 8s in the centre of the pitch completes the geometry of these formations. In the following image, the flexibility of the full-backs, in conjunction with Kalvin Phillips (the defensive number 6), form the following shape in the sides of the pitch.
As mentioned before, Leeds players’ absence in the centre of the pitch enables them to have numerical superiority on the flanks. The creation of these rhombuses is structurally essential to creating overloads on one side of the pitch.
Klich, alongside an enganche, plays the role of a lateral pivot. Unlike a traditional pivot who links play vertically, the lateral pivot initiates an overload by moving through half-spaces in the centre. Furthermore, he is responsible for relaying the ball from the centre back to the flanks.
With the ball passed onto the right-hand side, Phillips and Klich complete the rhombus and are potential options for a short pass. Klich’s run is aimed at the far end on the right, wherein he could trigger a rotation with the wide man or the number nine. Conversely, Luke Ayling is a deeper option, who often plays a cross-field long ball to an unmarked Alioski on the far end of the left-hand side.
Therefore, the structural presence of the rhombus creates a 4 v 3 in the middle third. Klich’s rotation with the attacking players poses a difficult question to the opposition regarding whom to mark. Finally, the cross-field long ball is an option to test the opposition with transitions on the other flank.
With Leeds’ number 8s posted on each flank, they tend to identify positions that require an extra man. The following position illustrates how Leeds maintain this rhombus while moving forward through an overload on the right-hand side of the pitch. The possession chain is started by the centre-backs and circulated by Phillips. Klich then dictates the tempo of the possession chain through clever movement and one-twos.
The positioning of the two full-backs here is noteworthy. If Leeds trigger an overload on the right, the left-back assumes a central position, creating a rhombus to cover the gaps in the centre. This is especially important for counter-pressing. If the ball is lost, the outer rhombus is positioned to win second balls.
In the final third, Patrick Bamford tends to drift either deep or wide. With a marker often following the number nine, spaces are freed up for either an overlap by one of the midfielders, or an underlap by one of the wingers.
The above image illustrates rotation not just within the midfield, but also amongst Leeds’ attackers. Klich’s choice to hold his position facilitates Dallas to get forward. This interplay, in conjunction with Bamford’s decoy run, permits Leeds to break lines, as the ball is facilitated further forward.
As the lateral pivot, Klich’s off-the-ball movement is key to maintaining the structural rhombus, as well as dictating the tempo. In the following position, Leeds are centrally pressed in numbers.
Ayling’s forward pass to Phillips breaks the first line of defence. However, Klich’s decoy run is crucial for the second pass in the possession chain. On losing his marker with the decoy run, Klich triggers numerical superiority on the right. Interlay between Helder Costa and Bamford permits Leeds to break Middlesborough’s primary and secondary lines of the press here and circulate the ball into the final third.
The positions of Dallas and Hernandez underline the importance of Leeds’ shape. Their reluctance to present themselves as options in the central free space suggests that they’ve been instructed to remain outside the formation on the flank.
Currently placed at the outer rhombus, they may trigger a counter-press if the ball is lost. Alternatively, if the ball is progressed into the final third, they may be perfectly placed on the shoulder of the opposing defenders to receive a cross inside the box.
Replacing Hernandez as the enganche
With Klich dictating the tempo through off-the-ball movement, Hernandez breaks lines with his movement on the ball. An enganche is a traditional number 10 who is the epicentre of creative play. While Leeds evidently play a complex system with pre-determined tactical requirements from each player, Pablo Hernandez was given license to roam across the pitch. This is corroborated by SmarterScout’s heatmap of the Spaniard from the past two seasons.
The difference in the above heatmaps indicates how Hernandez incorporated the creativity of a number 10 alongside the industriousness of a number 8 across two seasons. In 2019/20, he focused on overloads as well as covering the left-hand side from a rotational capacity. He was undoubtedly a worthy player of the season for Leeds, with nine goals and nine assists. Additionally, he averaged 2.6 smart passes per 90, 0.96 key passes per 90, and an outstanding 10.39 final third passes per 90.
While he improved at better facilitating Leeds’ overloads and possession chains like Klich, his unique role simply lies within his individual ability. In the following position, Hernandez receives the ball in a half-space.
Close control and adept lane-cutting permits Hernandez to display his individual quality. He physically breaks lines by dribbling past two defenders into a position where his cross leads to a chance on goal.
Thus, Klich and Hernandez are starkly different number 8s. However, they synergise well, providing a well-rounded dynamic to Leeds’ system. Hernandez’s age, however, may be ill-equipped to deal with the pace of the Premier League, and Bielsa’s team of analysts have anticipated candidates to replace the 35-year-old when the time comes.
The frontrunner for the same is Leeds’ marquee record signing. Rodrigo’s 30 million euro transfer from Valencia is a quality addition to Bielsa’s side. He played on either side of the wing as well as upfront for Valencia. Despite this versatility, Bielsa plans on utilising him at the centre of the pitch as the enganche alongside Klich. Rodrigo’s impact so far has been quite praiseworthy, especially after his performance against Manchester City. The following image maps the Spaniard’s every touch on the day. Fascinatingly, Rodrigo’s average positions transpose with the heatmaps of Klich and Hernandez from last season. In his cameo against City, he integrated with the system well, created spaces from central positions, and imposed his individual quality that merited an instant impact on the game.
Rodrigo’s addition to the squad will certainly contribute to Leeds’ arsenal. With Klich having the most recoveries in the final third (eight) this season, Rodrigo’s role will be focused on deep completions, dribbles completed, and the overall xG of the team.
In this team analysis, we dismantled the distinct roles of Leeds United’s number 8s through a variety of different tactical ideas at Bielsa’s disposal. They are integral to their structural rhombus formation and ball progression in possession chains. Moreover, they control the centre of the pitch by facilitating overloads on the flanks.
While Bielsa has several versatile players, he has consistently relied on Klich as a lateral pivot and Hernandez as the enganche. Klich’s industriousness and movement are unparalleled, and he will remain the first name on the team sheet for the foreseeable future. Conversely, his counterpart will be rotated this season. Rodrigo’s impact has been instantaneous, and it will be interesting to observe how Bielsa utilises him in the games to come. Alioski and the young Ian Poveda stand to provide competition for the spot with their distinct attributes.
Leeds, as a team that aims to maximize possession and minimize PPDA, will face stronger opponents in 2020/21. Having already impressed in the first four games, the role of the team’s midfield will be tactically essential to the success or failure of a truly unique side.