Leeds 6-2 loss to Manchester United on Sunday evening was one of the lowest points the club has had over the past 15 months. The newly-promoted side was flat out terrible, and although they still managed to create loads of chances, allowing 2 goals in the first 180 seconds of a match is a farce. Much of this article will discuss why Leeds should continue to play the way they do, but there are still no excuses for their loss on Sunday. After the match, their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, said plainly, “It was hurtful.”
However, the loss did spew many reactionary’s takes towards how Leeds and Bielsa set up tactically. Going into the match, it was clear that if Leeds left United space in the right areas, they would exploit it. United has a squad that is perfect for an end to end football. Bielsa’s tactics do not change, no matter who they are playing, though. The Argentine likes direct attacking football that is played at pace. He will press you into oblivion if he can. He requires his players to have an incredible work rate and to be technically sound. This is how he thinks football should be played, it’s how the game was taught to him, and his mind will not be changed about it.
Bielsa knew that United would be a tough matchup for Leeds stylistically, but he hoped their press would create enough chances to win the game. However, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came out with a lineup that was a perfect deterrent to Leeds’ press. By leaving out Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic, two players who can be prone to taking their time on the ball, OGS took away Leeds’ press threat. United didn’t try to build from the back and instead tried to get to their attackers’ feet as quickly as possible. Scott Mctominay’s ability to spot and make runs from midfield tore apart the Leeds defence. The Red Devils put themselves in the best position to succeed, and Leeds poorly executed their approach.
Leeds do everything they can to set up very favourable situations in every game they play by creating a shit load of chances. They are second in the league for xG (expected goals) and last for xGA (expected goals against). Leeds is not a team set up to “park the bus.” If they did try to sit back, they would drastically lower their percentages of winning each game. Instead, they try to make it a shootout and hope that they will be able to create better chances than the opposition. For them, Losing 6-2 is no different from losing 1-0.
Bielsa isn’t working with a considerable budget; he doesn’t have an array of world-class players at his disposal. Still, if he can create a system that generates enough chances, he knows his team has a great chance of not only staying up but being competitive. The play style not only gets results, but it keeps the fans happy and has made Bielsa a cult hero at the club. The Argentine is building for the future; this is not to do whatever it takes to get 40 points and be happy that you’ve stayed up late. Leeds brought in a man like Bielsa to bring them back to where they once were, and you don’t get to where they want to be by playing PulisBall.
Norwich’s manager, Daniel Farke, talked about the advantages and disadvantages of being a promoted side trying to play expansive football in his year-end interview.
It’s not a very complex concept, but it’s incredible how true it is when looking back on the Premier League’s history specifically. Norwich last season played some lovely football at times. Still, it was clear that their personnel was just not up to the Premier League level, and they got pummeled on numerous occasions due to this. But if Norwich decided to sit back and defend in every game last season, they would’ve ended up with even fewer points!
Now, look at a team like Sheffield United, who, after being promoted, had the joint 4th worst goal scoring record a season ago. Still, they managed to stay up due to their stable defence (4th best in the league) and strong goalkeeping. This season, they have 2 points through 14 games and have scored just 8 goals while conceding 25. You can go back just a couple years to Huddersfield Town, who scored only 28, yes, TWENTY-EIGHT goals in their inaugural top-flight season in 17/18. Somehow, the club still managed to stay up due to a decent enough defensive record and some luck. The next season, they were relegated by February, scoring just 22 goals and allowing 20 more than the year before.
On the other side of the spectrum, a perfect example of a team trying their best to play excellent football and then being rewarded for years is Bournemouth. Eddie Howe’s outfit was the Premier League’s darlings in 15/16 for their exciting, free-flowing football. They managed to score the 11th most in the league and gain survival despite a shaky defensive record. The Cherries managed a 9th and a 12th place finishes in the years after due to their ability to beat up on their sides. They managed to stay in the league for 5 years. Still, poor transfer market dealings, terrible injury luck and the lack of fresh ideas doomed them to relegation. Bournemouth did not make a single good signing for the entirety of their time in the Premier League (other than you, David Brooks, thanks for the memories). Yet still managed to stay up for half a decade because they created chances and scored goals.
Another recent example is Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton. After being promoted to the Premier League for the 2012/2013 season, the Saints had a tough time adjusting and sacked their manager. It brought in Pochettino, who was full of bright ideas. The Argentine has made it well known throughout his managerial career that he admires Bielsa. Wherever he has gone, Pochettino’s tactics and managerial style has always seemed inspired by “El Loco.” The Saints managed to pick up wins against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea in Pochettino’s first 3 months. After a couple years of pragmatic manager Claude Puel and whatever you want to classify Mark Hughes as the Saints have gone back to what made them unique with Ralph Hassenhuttl. Now the club is on a mid-table side almost every year with hopes of European qualification this season.
This history lesson’s point is to show that, although there will be plenty of spankings like the one we saw Sunday along the way, Leeds are in as good a spot as any Premier League team in the bottom half. The club has 3 of the top 10 players in terms of shot-creating actions per 90 minutes. Their starting number 9, Patrick Bamford, has vastly improved in 12 months and already has 9 league goals. They have shown they are capable of making competent signings in Raphina, who is absolutely brilliant and adds a dimension that Leeds were severely lacking. The permanent signing of 20-year-old goalkeeper Illan Meslier has also proved to be a significant success. He has faced the most xG of any keeper in the league and has still looked steady, albeit inconsistent in goal. All of this, and we haven’t even mentioned Kalvin Phillips, the England international who is plain and simply a baller.
Most importantly, for Leeds, they have a plan! They know what their identity is, and it isn’t going to change; continuity is crucial for a newly promoted team. Leeds fans genuinely have so much to look forward to after this season. If Bielsa is backed, he will have the money to get the type of quality players he’s never had in his career. On the other hand, if Bielsa doesn’t get the funds necessary to spend big, he’ll still keep Leeds up every year. At least until he inevitably gets mad about something and quits the club. Either way, Leeds is in the Premier League due to the manager’s tactical brilliance. As long as Marcelo Bielsa keeps being Marcelo Bielsa, they will stay in the Premier League.