For every coach like Marcelo Bielsa, playing high on the scale of risk-versus-reward, there is another with a more conservative outlook. Bielsa is careful not to allow his thoughts on the intricacies of football to stray into the grounds of snobbery. “For each of my affirmations there is an opposite possibility,” he said before Leeds United’s win over Stoke City. “And it is completely valid.”
Risk-versus-reward is where Bielsa seeks an advantage, though, and one moment in Sunday’s takedown of Stoke captured the way in which United’s head coach profits from high-stakes tactics. The opening goal, finished off by Mateusz Klich, was an eight-pass move in 22 seconds beginning with a throw-in deep in United’s half which Luke Ayling took and Leeds worked around three Stoke players, opening up the middle of the pitch.
Liam Cooper’s pass into the centre-circle was dangerous but Gjanni Alioski reached it first, toeing the ball to Klich who led Leeds over halfway. Less accuracy would have invited Stoke’s midfield onto a thin defence.
“This was a dynamic team, an offensive team and a team that dares to play,” Bielsa said afterwards. “My team took risks when they were moving the ball.”
Statistically, the extent to which Leeds were willing to expose themselves in possession was telling. Over the course of 90 minutes, 85 per cent of United’s 404 passes were made to feet and all but two of the outfield players who started the game finished it with pass completion rates of 70 per cent or above. In spite of that, Bielsa’s side were dispossessed 17 times by Stoke, gambling constantly with the ball in the way that the 63-year-old wanted them to. The risk, by full-time, was well worth the reward.
The best of the distribution came from Barry Douglas, the left-back whose curling corner laid on Cooper’s header for the third and killer goal.
Leeds were at sea on the left side of defence last season, sorely lacking a player with specialist attributes, but Douglas misplaced only one pass in 35 and, despite fouling Tom Ince for Stoke’s penalty, nullified Ince completely down the right. Heat maps of the game show a complete lack of penetration on Ince’s side of the field and a consistent failure by James McClean to get beyond the 18-yard line on the other.
Leeds, in contrast, worked the flanks well and peppered Jack Butland with 19 crosses. Their 12 key passes were more than twice Stoke’s five, a reflection of greater ambition where it mattered.
In the middle of the pitch, and with Stoke on the back foot, Joe Allen lost possession repeatedly and was forced into seven tackles, compared to Kalvin Phillips’ one. Afobe, a proficient Championship striker, touched the ball 18 times before Gary Rowett substituted him in the second half and Peter Crouch, now into his 38th year, won twice as many headers as Afobe in 14 minutes.
If periods of the game felt overwhelming for Stoke, the numbers say that they were.
Intensity and pressing is what allows Bielsa to maximise the reward: by combining open, attacking football with a level of aggression which negates the threat of blows landing on his players in return.
There was one brief moment in the first half, when Berardi lost his footing and let the ball slip to McClean, where United were wide open and at the mercy of a better inside pass from McClean to Afobe, but Rowett made no excuses when asked if Stoke had deserved more. “No I don’t think we did,” he said.
Bielsa said before the game that he had not devoted much time to studying Stoke forensically – “the rival is interesting for me but I don’t consider details as a priority” – but his chosen team, missing Patrick Bamford and Pontus Jansson, matched up perfectly to Rowett’s.
“I try to adapt to the needs of the game,” Bielsa said. “In one period, in one moment, Bamford could have played but I thought about the precise need of the game. The productivity of the players was pretty high and our offensive actions were very good in some moments.”
His only gripe was with the closing stages, when Rowett threw on the tall frame of Crouch and control of the game began to ebb and flow. Bailey Peacock-Farrell pulled off two good saves from Crouch and Bruno Martins Indi, though Stuart Dallas and Jack Harrison could both have scored a fourth goal for Leeds in injury-time.
Bielsa had no argument with his side pressing forward with the game already won but made a note of the way in which they began to be more direct.
“We lacked a little bit of experience at the end of the game,” he said. “Our team has to get better.
“At the end of the game we didn’t try to link defence and attack playing on the ground. We didn’t move the ball as well as we wanted and we couldn’t get the ball back in the rivals’ half.”
It left some scope for improvement at the end of a match where the ideas Bielsa drummed into his squad all summer dropped nicely into place.
On Saturday, against Derby, he is likely to encounter the same formation as Stoke used at Elland Road, a standard 4-3-3 with Tom Lawrence and Harry Wilson running the flanks. Leeds, for years, were happy to take whatever they could get from Pride Park. Bielsa, with guns already blazing, is unlikely to take any heed of that record.