The risky business of ‘Bielsa-ball’

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A 4-3 loss to Liverpool on opening day, drawing 1-1 with Manchester City, putting five past Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, the 6-2 thrashing at the hands of Manchester United. It’s safe to say that Leeds United’s return to English football’s summit has been an entertaining watch.

The mad scientist of the managerial world, Marcelo Bielsa, bringing his philosophy of attack-heavy football to the English game. A man revered by the game’s brightest minds, like Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. However, many have begun to question the stability of Bielsa’s tactics. When the second worst defence in the league sit 12th in the table, how necessary is change?

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Based on Leeds’s 3-0 loss against Spurs on Saturday, some tweaking might be needed. Undoubtedly, Leeds play football as it should be played. When on the attack, their free-flowing, one-two-touch play is mesmerising. The end product is not always there. This wouldn’t be too big of an issue if their defence had even a shred of reliability, and on Saturday they faced one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league coupled with the hottest duo possibly in Europe.

Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min blew Leeds away, particularly on the second goal, when Son managed to squeeze in between two Leeds defenders for a cool finish. That is typically the script in Leeds games. The gung-ho approach leaves them completely exposed at the back. It seems as if they have settled for trying to outscore teams, but Bamford’s off day left them scoreless against Spurs.

Making the case

Football purists will tell you that there is nothing wrong with the way Leeds have played this year. It poses the question; do football teams play to entertain fans, or win games? Does one directly correlate to the other? Winning games is ultimately what leaves fans happy. But does it entertain them? Anyone who has ever supported a side managed by José Mourinho will tell you it does not. His tactics are simply an ends to a means.

Similarly with Diego Simeone. Both styles of football have been labelled as “anti-football”, in the past. So by that logic Bielsa’s style should be “pro-football”. Leeds are highly enjoyable to watch and ultimately their fans cannot be too unhappy with how they are being managed. Bielsa finally got them out of the Championship playing this exact brand of football, and they find themselves 12th in the league, 12 points clear of the relegation zone.

There is a strong case to be made that the way Leeds play is serving them well, and perhaps with a few new additions either in January or next summer, granted they stay up this year, they could really push on.

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Tempting fate

For Leeds to progress and return to the powerhouse they once were, they first have to survive in the Premier League this season. They have conceded 33 goals this season. West Brom are the only side to concede more with 39. No matter how entertaining Leeds can be, this is a problem for them. By overloading teams on the attack, they are left wide open at the back. This leaves them vulnerable against teams that love to play on the break like United, Spurs and Liverpool.

So an argument could be made that Bielsa may need to tweak things against the bigger sides. Perhaps not allowing their fullbacks to bomb forward as often as they do. Ezgjan Alioski is phenomenal at getting in behind, making deep runs from the left-back position. However, as we saw against Spurs, Leeds were left terribly vulnerable down his flank and ultimately it led to them conceding.

There is a real sense of naivety, but also loyalty in the way that Leeds play. No matter how much pressure the opposition put them under, they continue to play the ball out from the back. It is commendable but it has its negatives. A misplaced pass led to conceding a penalty in the Spurs game. Sometimes the philosophy needs to be replaced by the safest option, usually found in the form of a long pass thumped up the pitch. And that is the ultimate dilemma for Marcelo Bielsa.

To solidify their place in the Premier League next season, is he willing to swap his style of play for a more reserved and measured approach, or will he persevere with what he knows best in the hope that it will pull through for him once again? Regardless, one thing is for certain. Leeds will continue to be an entertaining watch for the remainder of the season.

The Author

Seán Crosbie

DCU Journalism student and absolute football romantic. Manchester United supporter, focusing mainly on the Premier League but would happily delve into football all around the world.

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