Marcelo Bielsa is finally a Premier League manager, and quite frankly nobody can predict how this maverick genius will fare. His tactical system remains revolutionary – and uncompromising.
Whereas Jurgen Klopp tamed his wild high-pressing system as Liverpool manager, Bielsa, who has been hugely influential on his opponent this weekend, stubbornly refuses to make concessions, believing in the absolute purity of the philosophy.
He is an idealist entering a division that rewards pragmatism. And so Leeds United could enjoy one of the most spectacular seasons of any newly promoted club, or they could fail spectacularly.
Bielsa versus Klopp
Bielsa and Klopp both believe in counter-pressing and verticality in possession, playing at a blistering speed to overwhelm the opposition but doing so with intricately structured attacking moves that are practiced again and again in training. That is no coincidence: the ‘heavy metal’ football that defined Klopp throughout his tenure at Dortmund, and which remains to some extent at Liverpool, essentially began with the Leeds manager’s innovations in Argentina in the early 1990s.
There are noteworthy differences between them, however, not least in that Klopp has become more conservative in his pressing and in how Liverpool use the ball, retaining possession and maintaining a rigid structure where once he favoured a more chaotic approach. Bielsa, of course, never changes, and indeed his Leeds – though organised and defensively strong – often look like the prototype Liverpool team of Klopp’s first year. They will hustle and harass for 90 minutes, bursting forward from counter-pressing scenarios wherever possible.
But even during calmer periods of the match, the patterns of play differ significantly between Bielsa and Klopp. The Leeds manager favours attacking down the flanks, creating overloads in the wide areas, achieved by shifting into his famous 3-3-1-3 formation (which creates triangles in each third of the pitch). By contrast, Liverpool build narrowly, squeezing the pitch inwards to free up space for their marauding full-backs.
There are differences off the ball, too. Leeds press by man-marking their opponents to limit their passing options, while Liverpool’s press is more about surrounding the ball and cutting off the passing lines. Essentially this means Klopp’s side maintain their shape without leaving their posts too much, whereas Leeds’ players are happy to burst out of position and follow the man. Again, it is a more chaotic, high-risk approach.
How Leeds will approach this game
Not that Bielsa will see the risks. This is a man who has never yielded to demands that he ease off, that he try something a little more conservative. It is why his career shows a tactical purist and not a champion, his teams regularly collapsing with exhaustion towards the end of the season. But perhaps even Bielsa can admit that 2020/21, with its compressed fixture list, poses a unique challenge to player fitness.
And perhaps even Bielsa can admit that playing in the Premier League requires tempering some of his idealism.
There are clearly two paths for Leeds at Anfield. The most sensible option is to accept that the hosts will dominate possession and act accordingly, holding a deeper line and pressing with far less regularity than throughout the Championship season. It will be fascinating to see if Bielsa is willing to do this – or is even capable of coaching anything other than lung-busting high pressing, a system that yields mixed results at the highest level.
It is worth noting that Bielsa has never managed a team so low rated in their division, with the likes of Lille, Marseille, Lazio, and Athletic Bilbao all starting from a higher point; we simply do not know if he can inspire dominant high-pressing football with a team in Leeds’ position, or if he is willing to accept dropping back and looking for opportunities on the counter-attack.
It seems likely there will be goals. Either Leeds will go out all guns blazing and make themselves incredibly vulnerable to the Liverpool attack, leading to a heavy beating, or they will show more caution than we are used to – but play with the confidence and tactical sophistication to ensure they threaten the Liverpool goal more than most.
The key battlegrounds
Assuming Bielsa does make Leeds competitive at Anfield, this should be a thoroughly entertaining game thanks to the contrasts in formation shape and favoured battlegrounds. Unlike most contests between two high-pressing, high-line Premier League teams, in which similar formations and approaches lead to tense clashes and butting heads, Liverpool’s 4-3-3 and Leeds’ 3-3-1-3 has very little positional overlap.
For starters, Liverpool’s attempts to make the pitch narrow (Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane stay infield to draw the opposition away from the wings) could prove problematic for Leeds given Bielsa’s desire to empty central midfield when they have the ball. On the counter-attack, Liverpool may find the spaces they need to surge through the middle of the park.
However, the reverse is also true: If Liverpool are happy to leave the flanks open for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, then after a turnover Leeds can overwhelm their opponents out wide.
Liverpool’s experience, and ability to calm the tempo of the game with their controlling possession, probably means it won’t stay wild for too long should an end-to-end pattern emerge. In fact, the most likely tactical pattern is for Leeds to attempt to play high up the pitch and challenge Liverpool territorially, only for Klopp’s side to ping long balls over the top (an increasingly prevalent strategy in 2019/20) to force Bielsa’s defensive line into retreat. From here, Liverpool will look to gradually wear Leeds down, as well as counter-counter at lightning speed should a Leeds breakaway be foiled.
Whatever the outcome, it should be a fascinating match. Rarely is the tactical make-up of a Premier League game this hard to predict, but that’s no surprise: never before has the division welcomed someone like Bielsa. How he approaches this opening game will teach us a lot about what to expect from Leeds this season. The smart money is on a stubborn refusal to compromise, and consequently a frantic and explosive 90 minutes at Anfield.
Source: Alex Keble| Columnist