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Why Plan A is only option for Leeds United chief Bielsa

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Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa took the blame for the first league defeat of the season against Birmingham City. But as Phil Hay explains, the Argentine stuck firmly to his beliefs during the game.

EVEN before Mike Bassett cast it as the preference of a managerial dinosaur, 4-4-2 was on the way out. Tactical innovation starved it of oxygen as men like Marcelo Bielsa began pondering the constraints of playing two up front.

English football was slower to follow the trend that other countries around the world but there are few Championship clubs who line up so regimentally these days. Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds United’s opponents on Friday, have already been through half of the systems in the book this season: 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1 and a well-judged 3-4-3 which picked off Aston Villa over the weekend.

Against a lone central striker, Bielsa prefers a back four. His tactics are designed primarily to overload the opposition in attacking areas but he has long held faith in outnumbering opposing attackers with an extra centre-back. His initial refusal to do so against Birmingham City on Saturday was the basis of Bielsa’s mea culpa after Leeds’ first defeat of the season.

Birmingham, under Garry Monk, took to the pitch in a flat and identifiable 4-4-2, as Millwall had against United a week earlier. At the New Den, Bielsa asked midfielder Kalvin Phillips to drop in as one of three central defenders and despite a failure to take the game by the throat in Bermondsey, Leeds’ head coach was satisfied with the balance of it until Millwall scored early in the second half. From then on, changes materialised, Bielsa reverted to a back four and his side pinched an 89th-minute equaliser.

On Saturday Bielsa started with a four-man defence, contrary to his usual way of handling a front two. Monk used Che Adams and Lukas Jutkiewicz as strikers and Adams twice found himself in a position to score, beating Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the eighth minute and again in the 29th.

Leeds United's Tyler Roberts takes on Birmingham's Maxime Colin.

Leeds United's Tyler Roberts takes on Birmingham's Maxime Colin.

Bielsa has form for making early substitutions when matches go awry and those two goals brought forth the 3-3-1-3 formation which came to define his unconventional methods of coaching. Phillips paid the price, making way for Stuart Dallas.

In the hour that followed some order was restored. Birmingham were unable to conjure a shot from the 40th minute onwards, in part because of their willingness to sit on a 2-0 lead, and Leeds’ dominance of possession rose to 71 per cent, their second highest share of any game this season. The changes provided a solution without yielding a result, though it took a fine save from Lee Camp in the fifth minute of injury-time to prevent a draw.

Bielsa’s plan had been for Phillips, as a holding midfielder, and Mateusz Klich in a more advanced role to link as they had against Preston five days earlier, a side who Leeds dispatched 3-0. Phillips was instructed to double up as a centre-back when Birmingham won the ball but a lack of understanding in the first half generated errors and space which City were able to exploit.

“Phillips was playing as a centre back when we weren’t in possession,” Bielsa said. “The goal was to have Klich playing number eight. This didn’t work. In the first half hour we didn’t give the impression that we were safe defensively.

At Hillsborough on Friday, the Argentinian is unlikely to be faced by a two-man attack and should be free to use the 4-1-4-1 set-up which has worked spectacularly at its best. What managers in the Championship now know, however, is that United’s boss will take particular notice of the formation they use.

Phil Hay

“When I did the substitution, in the last hour of the game we dominated the opponent; more than dominated the opponent. We didn’t suffer any situations and we created chances to score.”

Leeds’ early problems were compounded by a lack of care in possession and a low level of precision which allowed Birmingham to turnover the ball too easily. It negated the power of Bielsa’s high press. Monk’s players made 16 interceptions before half-time but only four from then on as United tightened up and found the range of their passing. Their dominance is perhaps best shown by the fact that Tyler Roberts, Bielsa’s centre-forward, had more touches than Adams and Jutkiewicz combined. Bielsa’s players worked the flanks but with limited accuracy: two of Gjanni Alioski’s 10 crosses finding a Leeds player and Douglas picking out two from six. Jack Harrison, after a telling display against Preston, was hardly involved.

For perhaps the first time there were signs in the first half of Bielsa’s ideas causing confusion. At Hillsborough on Friday, the Argentinian is unlikely to be faced by a two-man attack and should be free to use the 4-1-4-1 set-up which has worked spectacularly at its best. What managers in the Championship now know, however, is that United’s boss will take particular notice of the formation they use.

Bielsa so far has been ultra-loyal to the players in his starting line-up. With nine games of the league season gone, he is yet to make a single pre-match change for tactical reasons and all of his decisions have been dictated by injury. The absence of Pablo Hernandez, Kemar Roofe and Gaetano Berardi has tied his hands but there are possible changes open to him on Friday.

Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa.

Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa.

Dallas was effective after coming off the bench against Birmingham. Adam Forshaw completed half-an-hour as a substitute and appears to be over a broken foot. After a series of Under-23 outings designed to hone his fitness, he was conspicuous in missing Monday’s development-squad fixture at Bolton and while Bielsa refused to blame Phillips for Saturday’s loss, it was the second time in a month that the 21-year-old had been replaced before the interval.

If the personnel shifts at Hillsborough then Bielsa’s basic attitude will not. Like Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen, using his blind eye to look for the signal of retreat, United’s coach is not given to compromise or pragmatism. It went wrong against Birmingham but the failings merely take Leeds back to the crux of his philosophy: redouble plan A and make it work.

Gjanni Alioski

Gjanni Alioski