Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: The Wonder of Marcelo Bielsa
Since falling from the Premier League in 2004, 16 different individuals had held the managerial tag at Elland Road. Leeds had turned every which way, swinging in all directions in search of their ticket home, their desperation summed up by the contrasting profiles of their manager targets: Promotion veterans in the form of Neil Warnock and Brian McDermott, promising upstarts like Garry Monk and Uwe Rösler, foreign fliers in Darko Milanič and Thomas Christiansen – all of them were ensnared within Leeds’ overwhelming desire for a top-flight return.
After returning to the Championship in 2010 following three seasons in the third tier, the Whites had recovered from their lowest ebb, but in turn found a reality just as torturous: suspended in the no man’s land of the Championship. The Premier League hung on the horizon, closer than it had once been, and yet still appeared so crushingly unattainable.
In 2018, chairman Andrea Radrizzani and sporting director Victor Orta were in a car headed for Leeds on the M1. Without knowing the realism with which his question was proposed, Radrizzani asked his colleague who his dream manager of the club would be. Orta’s response – which was fanciful by his own admission – would be the first known record of Marcelo Bielsa’s relation with Leeds United, and although they didn’t know it then, the moment when everything changed.
After a pre-season in which Leeds supporters had been drawn by the mystique of Bielsa – a coach who the unfamiliar were told was a leading figure in the game yet had a rocky recent history and very few honours to his name – the opening day of the 2018-19 season at least brought a heavy sense of intrigue, if not abundant hope. Elsewhere, sections of the media and rival fans had greeted Bielsa’s arrival with amusement, delighting in the fact that his esoteric nature would surely only lead him in one direction: straight onto Leeds’ managerial scrapheap, in possibly the best crash and burn yet.
On Aug. 5, 2018, Bielsa’s Leeds kicked down the doors of the Championship and announced that this was no gimmick. Hosting Stoke City at Elland Road – a team freshly relegated from the top flight and armed with one of the second tier’s best squads, Leeds made their case not by the weight of the 3-1 scoreline but for the way in which they had played. From the team who had finished 13th the previous season, this version was unrecognisable in its redeeming features. Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1 system was characterised by its vibrancy in possession and ferocity without it; an attacking style that was unique in the Championship, and far beyond the consensus capabilities of the squad that he had inherited.
Perhaps the most seductive aspect of Leeds’ victory was the fact that only one player in the starting XI against Stoke had been signed under Bielsa. That was left back Barry Douglas. Besides the Scot, the other 10 players had all spanned at least two previous managers at the club. And then there was the array of positional changes: Pablo Hernández moved to an inverted wide role, Mateusz Klich switched from a deep-lying midfielder to an attacking No. 8, Kemar Roofe was suddenly a hard-pressing centre forward, and Kalvin Phillips — a player whose seven league goals in 2017-18 were surpassed by only two teammates – was sent in the opposite direction to become a defensive midfielder.
Between the personnel and existing style, it was a remarkable transformation within the space of a few summer months: the type that most managers would have been allowed the rope to instil over the course of multiple years, never mind a single pre-season. As the weeks turned to months, with their evolution continuing to roll, Leeds’ new project looked like it could at last be the defining one.
After being nudged out of the automatic promotion places by the consistent pairing of Norwich and Sheffield United in 2018-19, Leeds eventually came undone in a chaotic play-off tie against Derby. The Whites had dominated Frank Lampard’s side in their previous three meetings of the season, winning all three and scoring seven goals to Derby’s one.
Leeds scored first in the second leg to make it 2-0 on aggregate too, while Mateusz Klich rattled the crossbar shortly after. And yet such is the nature of the Football League play-offs: Not much more than half an hour of play reduced their 48-game campaign to nothing. Derby went on to score with four of their five shots on target in the tie and after being second-best to Leeds all season long, recorded an improbable turnaround at Elland Road.
The anguish of the result was super-charged by immediate doubts on whether Marcelo Bielsa would continue. His short tenures at previous clubs were well documented, while the 46-game seasons in the Championship would demand another huge commitment given the intensity with which Bielsa and his staff work. For almost a fortnight after the play-offs, the city of Leeds was suspended in time. Even if the Whites returned at exactly the same level in 2019-20, the Premier League would have been well in sight again. But only with Bielsa could they have that guarantee.
On May 28, 2019, the journey began again. Leeds United announced the option for a second season had been exercised and Bielsa had only returned for one thing: promotion. Before agreeing to return, the Argentine had met with the club’s senior figures to provide his analysis of the season and what he felt Leeds had to do differently to find their desired resolution. In between the finer details – in which the club’s agonising conversion rate (9.2%) in front of goal had been a main topic – Bielsa was reported to have said that his side simply could not be as unlucky as they had been again. If even he, the meticulous analyst who had pored over their season in exacting fashion, believed in that, then the rest would follow.
Thirteen months after the announcement of their manager’s return, Bielsa held the Championship trophy aloft under the lights at Elland Road. When all was said and done, in a season that faced an unimaginable suspension due to events across the globe, Leeds had returned with a vengeance for their Premier League dream and taken the trophy with them. There was little to be said for luck this time. Leeds won a club-record 28 league games in 2019-20, including 12 of their final 14 of the season to finally punch their ticket home.
For a coach who is revered worldwide for his football contribution, perhaps the Championship title isn’t the most representative honour for Bielsa on the surface. Indeed, when he was shortlisted for the FIFA Men’s Coach of the Year in 2020, critics and voices within the game weren’t particularly warm to his case for the honour. Winning the second tier of English league football wasn’t enough to match the feats of Jürgen Klopp, for example, while many put forth the question of why none of the other Championship-winning managers had received such credit in the past.
Whatever the arguments against Bielsa making the shortlist were – and the mere fact acted only as a sounding board for the global review of his achievements — the debate did shine a light on a wider failure to acknowledge his work beyond ‘promotion from the Championship’ in its most basic sense. The truth was Leeds hadn’t merely been promoted. Relative to the competition, Bielsa had constructed a juggernaut from what was previously a dormant outfit, led by the overwhelming transformation of many players he hadn’t signed.
Since 2014-15 – as far back as Stats Perform have expected goals data from the Championship – the two best seasons by a team for expected goal difference per game are the two seasons in which Marcelo Bielsa managed Leeds in the competition.
When it came to creating goal-scoring chances and limiting them at the other end, the Whites were in a league of their own in terms of superiority on the pitch. This was achieved from the position of complete control with Leeds having more possession than their opponents in 90 of their 94 Championship games under Bielsa. Overall, their average possession figures in those two campaigns – 64.5% in 2018-19 and 64.3% in 2019-20 — are the two highest season averages in the Championship since such data was first recorded in 2013-14.
Of course, Leeds were heavily impeded by their poor conversion rate in 2018-19 – one which was typified by Patrick Bamford and Kemar Roofe converting just 34% of the big chances between them (16/47) – but Bielsa himself could hardly be culpable in the finishing of his team’s creation. For the factors that a manager could realistically control, his side were a machine who built a sustainable platform for domination, one that was presented in August 2018 and persisted right up until their 94th and final Championship game in the summer of 2020.
Back to Where They Once Belonged
On their return to the Premier League, the calendar was kind enough to welcome Leeds back with a nice, soft landing: away to the reigning champions Liverpool.
Jürgen Klopp’s side had taken 76 of their last 78 available league points at Anfield, and unfortunately for the visitors were also able to roll out their star-studded XI which hadn’t yet been rocked by injuries. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool won. But Leeds had played to win and fallen marginally short in an environment where many teams don’t even attempt to.
In their eventual 4-3 defeat, Leeds had edged the possession in both halves and come from behind on three separate occasions before Mohamed Salah’s 88th-minute penalty. Pundits had wondered if Bielsa would modify his side’s approach. The answer was an emphatic no.
Leeds maintained all the parts of their play that many suspend in the face of such opposition quality – playing from the back, taking risks in possession, pressing aggressively with a high defensive line — and fuelled it through their full gas physical effort.
“I congratulated everyone of their team, what a team they are. Unbelievable,” Klopp told Sky Sports after the game. “I will watch them quite often during the season. What a game, what an opponent, what a performance from both teams. A proper spectacle, I loved that.”
With Bielsa unflinching in his Premier League arrival, the scene was set for one of the most unique seasons by a promoted side in the competition’s history. It was enchanting to begin, turbulent in patches, and nothing short of remarkable by the end.
When it comes to grading Leeds against other promoted teams historically, their results speak for themselves. But the granular data of their season doesn’t come close to telling the entire story. Leeds may have outdone most of their promoted contemporaries in victories and points won, however they’ve also achieved it in truly distinct fashion.
Bielsa’s side ranked fourth in average possession in the Premier League this season, behind only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Indeed, since 2003-04, only one promoted team have ever averaged more in a Premier League season; Brendan Rodgers’ Swansea team in 2011-12 averaged 58%, only slightly more than Leeds’s 57.8% this term. Again, this doesn’t quite tell the story though.
Leeds’ style of high possession is not the orthodox version that has grown in prominence since the late 2000s – the methodical, chess-like version that the likes of Pep Guardiola have used to exert total control. Under Bielsa, Leeds do adopt many of the traditional build-up techniques and circulation of the ball, but their priority is always to attack as directly as their handle of the game allows. When possession changes hands, their new priority is to recover it as quickly as possible through aggressive pressure.
Using PPDA (passes per defensive action) — which is calculated by how many opposition passes are allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions made — Leeds stand out as the great disrupters of the Premier League season by the way of their off-ball aggression. Their PPDA season average of 9.3 is, in fact, the lowest by a team in a Premier League season since Manchester City’s first league title win under Pep Guardiola in 2017-18 (8.3).
This combination of swift attacking and off-ball hunting means Leeds’ possession is much more fragmented than other sides with similarly high rates. Bielsa’s side averaged 156 sequences of play per game in Premier League this season — marginally behind Liverpool as the most – and over 20 more than the likes of Manchester City and Arsenal at the other end of the spectrum. It is an unavoidable product of the two attitudes with and without the ball, and although it means that they are more prone to leaving advantageous spaces for the opposition, it is also by design. Leeds are built to thrive in this transition realm.
Only Spurs (12) have scored more Premier League goals than Leeds (nine) from direct attacks this season, while their 74 direct attacks was also the second highest in the division. The Yorkshire side don’t hang on to possession for long, but they’ll win it back and be coming for another bite before you know it.
Alongside the choreography of these sharp transitions and willingness to commit multiple runners, their not-so-secret ingredient is in their physicality. Call it ripe for future burnout, call it unnecessary exertion, but whatever the view, Bielsa’s Leeds care little for the noise. Their style of play when combined with such energy often makes them, at best, an uncomfortable appointment. Many opponents have felt the worst of it this season.
Unsurprisingly, Leeds covered more distance and made more sprints per game than any other team in the Premier League this term. They outran their opponents in total distance covered in 37 of their 38 league games, with the only exception being in their 2-1 win away at Manchester City – a game in which they had 10 men for the whole second half. Even then, the margin was less than a kilometre between the sides.
The most pleasing aspect for Marcelo Bielsa will be the way in which Leeds have carried their hunger all the way to the line. Even in the closing months of the season, with relegation worries long gone, his side remained firmly on the accelerator, belying any and all doubts about whether their physical efforts would become an issue. Even with all realistic goals achieved, Leeds kicked again in March to finish the season as one of the Premier League’s top-performing sides. Only Liverpool (26) accumulated more points through their closing 11 league games than Leeds (24).
Their final game of the season – a 3-1 victory versus West Brom – was Marcelo Bielsa’s 140th game in charge of Leeds United. In England and now the Premier League, the place where many felt his methods would be subjected to their toughest tests yet, Bielsa has continued his managerial renaissance by taking Leeds above and beyond their immediate goals once again. In doing so, he has further disrupted the status quo and entrenched beliefs about how a promoted team should operate in the Premier League.
“A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph,” Bielsa once said. With the passing of another successful season, he’s beginning to look overwhelmingly normal.
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