If we rewind back to the end of fall in 2017, Marcelo Bielsa was in a tough situation as a manager. The initial excitement of his hiring at Lille had dissipated within a couple of months and the club was residing near the bottom of the table in Ligue 1. Lille were bad enough under his watch that it led to a suspension and his eventual sacking in December. Bielsa was out of a job and what had looked to be one of the more intriguing projects in European football was now a relegation scrap. While his legacy remained strong thanks to the famous managerial disciples that have followed him and his time with the Chile national team and parts of his tenures at Athletic Bilbao and Marseille, the idea of hiring Bielsa in 2018 looked fairly risky. Add to it that he was going to Leeds, a team that’s recent history has featured its fair share of dysfunction, and you could see why many people were skeptical and even outright snarky about the appointment.
That said, while it’s very early to make concrete projections, Leeds being as good as they’ve been so far this season is a welcome sign. There are things to quibble about when solely looking at their first 6 matches, including a sky high shot conversion rate that’s helped boost their goal total, but Leeds have markedly improved their performances from last season.
With Bielsa led sides in the past, verticality has been a major part of the gameplan in attack. The simple idea is that the ball should get into advanced areas as quickly as possible. Already this is coming into play at Leeds. At times, they have had as many as five outfield players in the final third (striker, wide players, advanced CMs) with the goal being that once they recover possession of the ball through second balls or layoffs, they can strike up quick combination plays and create shots in the penalty box. That being said, it should be noted that Leeds rank near the bottom in the Championship in open play long passes originated from their own third. There is more than one way to be direct. What’s there in addition to their moments of going direct is a team that’s shown the ability to attract pressure from the opponent and progress the ball from overloads and quick combination plays. When the opportunity arises once the goalkeeper is in possession of the ball, they’ll use a common tactic of spreading their CBs apart and bringing a midfielder inwards to create a numerical advantage deep to find a passing outlet.
Leeds have shown frailties during buildup play, and those frailties were most obvious in their two draws against Swansea and Middlesbrough. Leeds tend to leave a gap between the defensive midfielder (Kelvin Phillips) and the two advanced midfielders (Mateusz Klich + Samuel Saiz) when creating attacks. While this is largely by design, it does mean that being disciplined in regards to blocking passing lanes to the defensive midfielder can make it hard for Leeds to access the middle while in their own third. Leeds could not access the middle when Middlesbrough were in a set defense, relegated to ball circulation among the back line or going long from their own third. Britt Assombalonga did a good job for most of the match in positioning his body to make sure there was no pass available to Phillips. It would be one thing if the Middlesbrough match was an isolated incident because teams managed by Tony Pulis in the Championship are well drilled defensively, but similar things happened for long periods of time in their match against Swansea. It makes you wonder whether this will become more of a common occurrence as more games occur and Bielsa’s style is more understood.
Once the ball is progressed further up the field, Leeds are most prolific when attacking on the left side because of the presence of Barry Douglas, one of the prolific chance creators from the fullback position in the league. While it’ll be hard to see him replicate the assist totals he had last season, there’s no doubt that he’s a good passer. No Leeds player has had more deep progressions (passes + dribbles + carries into final third) per 90 minutes than Douglas at 7.16. When he’s off the ball, Leeds will try to get him sprinting into the wide areas near the penalty box while a couple of runners go into the heart of the box to create potential cutback opportunities.
Leeds can also attack from the right wing via Pablo Hernandez as he is really good both in directly creating chances for others or just simply generating passes into the box, but they’ve leaned more towards favoring the left side. When all else fails, Leeds have been very able to create opportunities via transitions or broken plays when the opposition don’t have a set defense. This might be their best method of creating chances because they do a good job of supporting the man on the ball. With the presence of Hernandez and Sáiz, Leeds have the requisite passing quality to find runners making off ball runs and create chances from these scenarios.
Along with above average play in set pieces, Leeds have managed the best goal differential in the league this season at +10, and place second in goals scored at 14. On the surface, these are good indicators for their performance, but peek behind the curtains and you’ll see some concerns with their attack. While shot volume hasn’t been a problem in open play, their average quality per shot at just under 10% has not been the greatest and it’s been aided by the level of variance that isn’t sustainable long term.
Being a team that has above average open play shot volume but pretty average with their shot locations isn’t exactly the type of profile you want from your attack unless you’re lucky to have multiple players who have shown to be above average finishers. The goal is to take as many shots as possible from good areas and in absence of being able to marry shot generation + locations that in open play, you’re better off taking fewer shots that are higher quality chances versus taking a lot of inefficient shots and relying on variance going your way. This hasn’t mattered so much so far because Leeds have had the variance bounce through six games, but you get into dangerous territory when you’re relying on that to prop up an attack to the degree that’s it’s gone for Leeds so far. This isn’t to necessarily say that Leeds are going to automatically regress back to break even because variance doesn’t quite work in such a linear way within a season, but the odds of them continuing to out lap their expected goal output to this degree are next to none. It would be in their best interest to look to improve their shot locations to withstand a possible downturn in fortune moving forward.
While Leeds attack has more questions than perhaps their goal totals would suggest, it can’t be denied that their defense has been quite good even beyond their strong defensive record of four goals through six games. They’ve been able to combine both the ability to suppress shots by only giving up 11 shots per game and not allowing teams to create good chances from those shots, only giving up an average xG/shot of just over 8% in open play. Leeds have basically been what you would expect from a Bielsa led side at their best: junk up the middle by having everyone guard their own marker, and not be afraid for the game to turn into chaos ball.
On the whole, this has worked well but one problem with such a heavy man-marking scheme is that it can be susceptible to individual dribbling because you’re not guarding space but rather where the man is at the time. In particular, opponents have had success here and there when using their center back to carry the ball from deep and provoke a Leeds player to try and match up with him, opening passing lanes around him and creating chain reactions that leads to dangerous opportunities. Kemar Roofe will be on his own up front trying to disrupt the two center backs, which means one will have the pathway to carry the ball into the middle third and possibly even further. Ball carrying from the center back position is something that I think will become more prominent in the years to come as another way of destabilizing a team’s defensive setup, a way to add even more attacking value for a central defender on top of passing duties.
It would be risky to suggest strong opinions about Leeds’ future prospects for the rest of the season as we’re only 13% of the way through, even though it would be fun if this side finished as one of the three promoted sides and finally made their way back to the Premier League. As much as it’s a cliche to say, the Championship in the 46 game season format it’s in makes it a grind, and Bielsa’s teams in the past have had their problems with pacing themselves through the season. Even if you’re someone who’s skeptical towards the idea that teams coached by Bielsa actually suffer the level of burnout that’s been suggested, there are things to be slightly concerned about with their approach.
But it can’t be denied that on the whole Leeds have been fun so far, and the fact that they’ve so seamlessly become a proactive side that has shown the ability to blitz teams in doses is a credit on some level to Bielsa. He’s a genius, one with perhaps a short shelf life, but a genius nonetheless and it is nice to see him return to being a relevant name within European football. Even if this season ends in Leeds finishing just outside a playoff spot but having these peaks of exciting football, it’s a massive step up from basically every season Leeds have had over the past decade or so.
On the aggregate, Leeds have been good through six games. It could be argued that their performance level makes them closer to the 2nd/3rd best team in the league than one with the best goal differential and tied for most points, but they wouldn’t be the first team to have their position in the table get some sort of positive bump. They have created a solid defense with an attack that’s been fine but not necessarily better than that. As it’s come to be with Bielsa over the years, all possible scenarios are on the table in regards to what happens with Leeds moving forward, but so far so good.