Prior to the incarnation of the Premier League, and even throughout the formative years of the league’s inception, Leeds United were a dominant force of the domestic game. The Yorkshire club reigned victorious in the final Division One season, and as a new era was ushered throughout English football, the proposition of this illustrious side falling from grace appeared farcical.
Coinciding with this period of modernisation, an Argentinian began his conquest of innovation which would radically transform the landscape of global football tactics to this very day. His name was Marcelo Bielsa.
Although, it’s likely Bielsa didn’t come to most English fans attention until his stint in charge of the Argentinian national team; prior to this the tactician was attempting to both pioneer and perfect a ferociously intense press, that also covered space across the pitch in a way few, if any, tactical systems could match.
Meanwhile, just as Leeds began to adapt to the Premier League’s demands, supported by a cast of prosperous prodigies who, if given time, could have propelled the club back to the summit of domestic football; financial turmoil finally caught up with them.
Thus, commenced a clear out of biblical proportions, stripping the team to the bare bones in an attempt to balance the books. The most notable transfer came via Rio Ferdinand’s departure to Manchester United in 2002 for a figure in excess of 30 million pounds.
Inevitably the squad overhaul subsequently led to relegation, and the former stalwart of English football gone by has yet to return to the top flight in the 14 years that’s elapsed since.
During that period, Bielsa forged a unique career; his apparent tactical dexterity has consistently increased the optimism surrounding his sides, yet perpetually culminating in disappointment. Although his legacy up to this point can’t, and shouldn’t, be measured by silverware, instead it should be interpreted through relentless innovation and inspiration.
Such is the way of modern football though, trophies are a manager’s currency, and aside from international management, the Argentine is yet to lay claim to silverware outside his homeland.
Consequently, a lack of success, coupled with a string of disastrously brief tenures, left the tactical genius with a tarnished reputation amongst football’s elite. Leeds found themselves in an all too similar position.
Albeit potentially out of desperation due to both parties need for reconciliation, this made Bielsa’s appointment at Elland Road during the summer an inspired one.
Despite influencing the most highly regarded crop of current Premier League managers, Bielsa had never previously taken charge of an English club. The prospect of Leeds United in the Argentines mould confronting one of his many top-flight disciples should leave any football fan salivating.
Though the brutality of the Argentine’s tenacity shouldn’t be underestimated, both opposition and his own players should fear the consequences caused by the style of play he implements. Maintaining rigid faith to his tactical beliefs has often been Bielsa’s downfall, failing to react to the accumulative fatigue his systems can cause to his squads.
Although his ideologies will not change, it finally appears he has learnt to adapt.
Previously when in charge of Argentina, after his first training session he asked every single player to vote on whether they would prefer to play in a three or four-man defence. The squad unanimously decided in favour of four defenders, in response Bielsa then detailed why exactly he would be using just three. He claimed it was a better system for covering space across a football pitch, in theory, he is correct. In practice, however, this exerts an enormous physical demand on both wing-backs, regularly leaving either flank exposed to the counter. A hallmark of his tenure at Elland Road thus far has been the deviation to a four-man defence, something rarely employed previously.
Both parties have had to adapt though, Leeds new style of play is inherently different from their previous methods and their pass accuracy this season is amongst the best in the league this season; more impressively there isn’t a single player who significantly varies from the 79% average. The entire squad has evolved, not just a few individuals.
Five defenders or defensive midfielders have averaged over 50 passes per game so far, in a classic example of Bielsa’s side attempting to rotate possession amongst the defensive triangles, waiting for opportunities to explosively transition play forward with width, creating overloads in the wide spaces opposition cannot contain. Once the overloads are created the ball is often passed centrally to the periphery of the area instead of the traditional method of crossing, attempting to minimise the risk of losing possession.
Former Swansea player Pablo Hernandez has been the primary benefactor of the managerial switch, leading Bielsa to proclaim, “He is one of the best players in his position I have worked with in my career, there is a great lucidity about his play”.
Pep Guardiola was lauded by pundits last season when he mastered overloading the channels with Manchester City and rightfully so; however the Spaniard takes influence from his Argentine counterpart who is the true innovator of this approach.
Leeds have an engineered elegance about their play, the likes of which have never previously been seen by the Elland Road faithful; on average 83% of their successful passes per game are played short, and the confidence this has instilled means that 87% of their goals thus far have come from open play.
Couple a mesmerising style of play with an innate ability to develop his squad and Bielsa is a threat few can match; Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Javi Martinez, to name a few, all progressed at a stratospheric rate under the Argentines tutelage. Any current followers of the Championship will recognise Kemar Roofe is currently undergoing the same augmentation process and was scarcely recognisable from his former self until recently picking up an injury.
Improvements can still be made though, over committing going forward remains an exploitable error in Bielsa’s system, and Leeds can be left incredibly exposed to counter attacks. It’s a dreadful shame central midfielder Ronaldo Viera was sold to Sampdoria during the summer as his industry may have provided more adequate protection; although Kalvin Phillips has excelled in Viera’s absence.
Due to Bielsa’s inherent attacking philosophy, mystique and Leeds United’s ardent following, they would perhaps be the most welcome re-addition from the entirety of The Championship. Currently, both club and manager harbour tarnished reputations; they’ve mutually been presented with an opportunity to rectify this. History suggests one party will spoil the prospect of a Premier League reunion, but Bielsa’s Leeds resurrection would be an achievement to marvel upon if they finally return to the promised land.