Marcelo Bielsa on exhaustive search for set-piece solution and vital lesson Leeds United must learn

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If set-pieces continue to be a problem for Leeds United, as they have been to some degree for two and a half years, it will not be for the want of trying.

And even if Marcelo Bielsa makes sudden and significant headway in his quest to solidify the Whites’ defending of corners and free-kicks, goals may still go in because, as he pointed out this week, a game of football involves two teams.

The subject of set-pieces has cropped up on a number of occasions throughout Bielsa’s tenure at Elland Road, although any inefficiency did little harm to last season’s promotion bid.

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A visit to Stamford Bridge put the issue front and centre again, Bielsa admitting: “We failed to neutralise them in this aspect,” after Kurt Zouma headed home from a corner in the Blues’ 3-1 win.

But, as Thursday’s press conference proved, defending set-pieces wasn’t the only thing on his mind after that loss in London.

Errors playing out from the back and a misfiring press that allowed Chelsea to attack too freely through their full-backs, centre-half Thiago Silva and midfielder N’Golo Kante, formed part of a lengthy and detailed explanation from Bielsa of what Leeds needed to improve.

Set-pieces were in there too.

“In the game against Chelsea we had a big difficulty defending the set-pieces, usually we don’t have the height as a team that the opponents do and this also means we need to add things to our game which are difficult to add,” he said.

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PROBLEM AREA - Kurt Zouma headed in from a corner for Chelsea against Leeds United last weekend. Pic: GettyPROBLEM AREA - Kurt Zouma headed in from a corner for Chelsea against Leeds United last weekend. Pic: Getty
PROBLEM AREA - Kurt Zouma headed in from a corner for Chelsea against Leeds United last weekend. Pic: Getty

Compensating for a lack of height when the ball is delivered aerially into the Leeds area is always going to be a challenge – “we are small,” Mateusz Klich once laughed when asked to put a finger on the cause of the issue – but Bielsa says he has been exhaustive in his search for an answer to the dead-ball conundrum.

“What I can tell you is we are trying to improve this aspect in all the ways I can imagine are possible to improve it and, if up until this moment we haven’t been able to resolve it, it shows I haven’t yet found the tool to prevent this from happening,” he admitted.

There is no quick fix.

In football discussion there is often a lazy assumption that a lack of progress suggests a lack of effort.

No Leeds fan would dare to suggest Bielsa was asleep at the wheel when it came to any facet of football coaching or analysis, yet you will, from time to time, see or hear someone insisting the head coach “must sort set-pieces out”.

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He’s trying, of course, to correct all of what you would call Leeds’ characteristic flaws.

“If you look back at some of the periods in the Championship where we had difficulties defending set-pieces, which is to say for the last two and a half years we have been working on this,” he said.

“The errors whilst playing out from the back are also something we have been working on for the past two and a half years.”

What must not be forgotten, however, especially now that Leeds can call themselves a Premier League club, is that Leeds’ strengths and weaknesses are viewed through the filter of the actions of top-class opposition. It may be that Leeds improve their defending of corners and yet still see the ball flash past them into the back of the net, because a striker with world-class movement or a 6ft 4ins defender with an elite-level leap has beaten his marker in the air.

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As captain and centre-half Liam Cooper found at Stamford Bridge, to his chagrin, sometimes the mass of moving bodies in and around the six-yard area cause accidental obstructions that take you out of the play completely and your pleas to the referee fall on deaf ears as he signals a goal.

Whether or not the Scotland international could have prevented the goal is up in the air, because Zouma, as his manager Frank Lampard pointed out, the defender is a “real threat” in the opposition box.

His aerial quality and Chelsea’s strengths from set-pieces have to form part of the context for that goal, just as Jamie Vardy’s counter-attacking prowess would for a breakaway goal or Mo Salah’s finishing brilliance would for the instinctive screamer he fired past Illan Meslier at Anfield.

Whatever element of play Leeds struggle with, the opposition must be considered because, as much as Bielsa will work on weaknesses and strive to make his team better than whoever they face, sometimes they’re simply facing very good teams. “We also have to look at our team and how it is affected by the quality of the opponent,” said Bielsa.

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“For example, against Manchester City we weren’t able to touch the ball for 20 minutes as we weren’t able to press them correctly.

“Also, at the start and in the end against Liverpool, we also had this difficulty.

“The problem is not the correction, of course we bear this in mind. But also the quality of the opponents hinders us and can affect how we play.

“The teams they have their virtues and the virtues and strengths of the opponent can affect how your virtues are shown, in a positive light or a more negative one.

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“It’s not easy for us to imagine that when we faced Chelsea we had to be better than them, even if this is what we are looking for.”

None of this symbolises surrender to superiority, nor does it mean Bielsa will settle for vulnerability at set-pieces. Leeds just need to find a way to overcome it.

“What we have to learn is something that is one of the most difficult things to learn in football,” he said.

“The real big, big teams, when everything you do is not enough they do what is necessary. They go above that frontier. When they find out that everything they have done is not enough, they go above and beyond to be able to make that difference.”