'Sincerely it’s not difficult' - Marcelo Bielsa says issue that hurt Liverpool hasn't hampered Leeds United as problem that could crops up
There’s no denying it, Liverpool have had it bad.
Being able to consistently pair two players at the heart of his defence is important to Jurgen Klopp, so racking up 18 different partnerships is seen as one of the less-than-ideal factors in the champions’ struggles. They’re eighth and a win percentage that sat at 72 per cent last season has dropped to just under 50.
Having to play elite midfielder Fabinho in defence, alongside no fewer than six different partners, has given them the look of a different team altogether.
‘It’s really important that the boys in the last line are used to each other, and the more games they can play together the better,” Klopp said recently.
Sheffield United, too, have had their issues with injury and availability and rattled through a raft of options at centre-half in a campaign that appears to worsen by the day.
Bottom of the table, without their departed talismanic leader Chris Wilder, they looked a wounded animal longing for a swift and merciful end in Sunday’s capitulation to Leicester City.
Interim manager Paul Heckingbottom struggled to hide the grimace as the Foxes played around his defenders like they were training cones.
But what of Leeds United and the serious injury problems they have faced in the central defensive unit?
Surpassing expectations as a newly promoted side and wowing pundits with the football that lit up and tore apart the Championship for two seasons does not tend to lend itself to the same level of scrutiny when it comes to the problems they’re facing. Knee surgery took Robin Koch out of action for three months, Diego Llorente has only just got his Whites career going in earnest and the illness that kept Liam Cooper out against Chelsea was the fourth different problem he’s been unable to play through since he missed the season opener at Liverpool.
At times this season Leeds have had a right-back filling in next to 21-year-old Pascal Struijk, who barely played any Championship football before taking on the elite. On Saturday, Bielsa used his 13th different pairing in the middle of the back four, Struijk partnering Diego Llorente.
Leeds have struggled to keep the ball out of their net since promotion, only four other sides have shipped more goals. All that chopping and changing must have made life difficult, defensively. Musn’t it?
“Sincerely it’s not difficult,” said Bielsa after the 0-0 draw with Chelsea. “The defensive line in particular the centre of it, those players have been the ones that have played at the highest level for us up until now in the season.”
So, if the problems don’t lie with personnel at the heart of his defence, they’re to be found elsewhere.
“Strangely enough we’re one of the teams who concede the most goals, which puts into manifest there’s some things with the organisation I’ve yet to resolve,” said Bielsa.
Set-pieces are an obvious source of pain for the Argentine.
Losing the ball cheaply while committing bodies forward and being hit on the break, is another. A third, that he did manage to fix during a recent game, was a lack of anticipation against West Ham. For a half-hour spell, the Hammers’ attackers were able to turn, beat their marker and create chances with quick passes and one-twos because Leeds either didn’t read the opposition intentions or didn’t react quickly enough. When they did, it was a different game. Marking, man to man as Leeds do, is a tricky task in the Premier League and, when the system falls down high up the pitch, as it has this season much more than last, it’s perhaps a less obvious place to point a finger when a goal is conceded.
Games are won and lost in both boxes, but danger can begin far from Illan Meslier’s goal.
When it works, Leeds stop teams from playing out, they win the ball high up the pitch and can quickly hurt teams. Patrick Bamford pointed out earlier in the campaign that the press starts from the front and, if he or another makes a mistake, a domino effect drags others out of position.
That's why opposition managers in the Championship would talk about selecting ball carrying players when they faced Leeds, players who could beat their man and expose space to exploit Bielsa's defensive system. It's why the press has to be right and it has to be intense. It's why Leeds' players run so much out of possession and why you'll see Luke Ayling track a man all the way across to the left side of the pitch. If they don't stay close and their man gets free, it can quickly spell trouble.
It happened on Saturday against Chelsea. One sequence of play saw Jack Harrison haring after Edouard Mendy, only for the keeper to spot that Andreas Christensen was far enough away from Rodrigo to receive the ball and turn. He did so, went the opposite way to the one Rodrigo predicted and was able to play forward. Five simple passes later, Chelsea were away down their right to create their best chance of the game. Bamford was off injured, Rodrigo was exerting himself more than his body should have allowed him to in his first top-flight game since injury and, although Harrison and Tyler Roberts defended aggressively, Leeds’ press looked worse for the absence of the number nine.
A glut of injuries at centre-half might not have given Bielsa defensive difficulties, but losing his centre-forward could. In the absence of Bamford, Roberts, on the performance he produced on Saturday, deserves a chance in the role of the lone striker, but asking Rodrigo to press as he would need to against Fulham for 90 minutes as a number 10 might currently be too much of an ask. A job share with Mateusz Klich is an option, although he still appears to be playing through the pain barrier and has had his struggles with form. Pablo Hernandez, a player Bielsa once said co-ordinates the press, is having injury issues of his own.
Beyond the first team, Sam Greenwood and Joe Gelhardt lie in wait, aching for an opportunity to show they can do at senior level what they do so well for the Under 23s, throwing themselves into defensive work with youthful exuberance.
The ideal scenario is, of course for Bamford to recover quickly and sufficiently to play. If not, the Leeds defence could face a busier Friday night at Craven Cottage than they would like.
In the Premier League the problems and challenges might not always be obvious but they’re never-ending. Leeds have also had it bad this season, which shows just how good they've been.