By Lucas Wilson
Breathtaking. Bold. Brilliant. These were the words on everyone’s lips at Anfield on Saturday 12th September when the clock reached half-time, and the match wasn’t even over yet.
One would be forgiven for thinking that these were the adjectives used to describe Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side considering the extent to which they dominated the Premier League last season, but they’d be wrong.
All eyes were on their opponents Leeds United, who, despite going into the break trailing 3-2, and ultimately narrowly losing the match 4-3, effectively stole the spotlight from the match’s victors. The precedent to the start of Leeds’ season was set.
Their penchant for troubling the traditional ‘top six’ of the Premier League did not stop there however, as coming off of back-to-back wins against Fulham and Sheffield United they were to take on Manchester City; a team that will undoubtedly have its sights set on title glory this season.
After a shaky start which resulted in Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling scoring an early goal for his side, Leeds gradually grew into the game, even dictating the play in places to a team whose total squad market value was more than ten times their own.
This domination eventually led to a Leeds goal and the game ended 1-1, with many pundits saying that City were the lucky ones to escape with a draw. It was safe to say that the long-awaited return of Leeds United to the Premier League, after 16 years out of it, had shaken the whole competition to its core. ‘Dirty Leeds’ were back.
The strong start which Leeds have made in the top flight can only really be attributed to one man: Marcelo Bielsa. Since his arrival at the club in 2018, Bielsa has changed everything.
The Argentine has breathed new life into a team and indeed a city which seemed to have accepted perennial Championship mid-table mediocrity. He has restored hope, faith and most importantly joy in the hearts of Leeds supporters everywhere through his dogged conviction in his own brand of football, aptly named ‘Bielsaball’.
Bielsaball is a style of play which can be defined by one principle: attack. This manifests itself on the pitch through Leeds’ relentless high-press style, with emphasis being placed on committing as many bodies forward during an attack as is humanly possible.
This dedication to offense is exemplified through Bielsa’s defensive formation of choice, which often employs the use of wingbacks to overload opposition defences. In fact, in a Bielsa squad, it is not uncommon to see one of the centre-backs storming forward, leading the charge into enemy territory themselves.
Of course, this presents the risk of leaving space open at the back for opposition teams to exploit and while it is true that teams employing Bielsian tactics are susceptible to the counter-attack, this can be mitigated slightly through one factor: defensive workload.
Bielsa is infamous for being extremely physically demanding on his players, and this current Leeds squad is no different. If a player is unable to cope with the demands of a high-press game for the full 90 minutes, or is merely unwilling to track back and aid the team defensively, then as far as Bielsa is concerned, there is no place in the side for them.
This ruthlessness and absolute commitment to his own core philosophy and values has seemingly transmitted to the players he manages, who play exactly the same way no matter the calibre of the opposition they are facing.
Leeds would utilise the same system against Liverpool as they would against Leyton Orient, and it is this consistency and shared understanding of a universal system that has driven the team to Premier League status in such a short space of time. For Bielsa, if plan A doesn’t work, the only solution for him is to do plan A better.
One of the most impressive things about the side which has so far locked horns with Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League is the fact that the core of the squad from when Bielsa assumed the mantle of Leeds United football club has been kept relatively intact.
This is not to say that Leeds’ chairman Andrea Radrizzani is reluctant to spend to strengthen the squad, however. In the recent transfer window, the club’s board of directors ensured that any gaps in the current squad were filled.
The arrival of Brazilian winger Raphinha and the international Spanish striker Rodrigo Moreno bolstered the attack whilst things were shored up at the back through acquiring centre-backs Robin Koch and Diego Llorente from SC Freiburg and Real Sociedad respectively.
Spending a cumulative total of approximately £95.2 million on the first team (with £27 million of this being spent on Rodrigo alone), it is obvious that those in charge of the club are not afraid of some serious investment. They believe that Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds can compete in the top flight as well as anyone, and that they are here to stay.
Playing a fast-paced, energetic brand of football is all well and good but the question on everyone’s lips is this: will they be able to keep up the intensity of their play for the entirety of the season?
Anyone who is even somewhat aware of Leeds’ previous two seasons in the Championship under Bielsa as well as the brutal training regimes Bielsa forces on his players will be able to answer this question with a resounding yes.
The Championship season is in fact longer than the Premier League one (38 games compared to a whopping 46) and no Premier League game can even come close to topping the physical demands of ‘murderball’ – an infamous training session Bielsa instates at all the clubs he manages – in which players take part in 30 minutes of intense football without any breaks: no throw-ins, no corners, no rest.
This immense match fitness massively assists the relentless intensity of the football which they play, as it ensures that the players on the pitch can keep following Bielsa’s attacking philosophy for the full 90 minutes, and ultimately, the entire season.
No matter what happens, no matter what position they finish in the league table, it is clear that Leeds United are here to change the Premier League for the better. They have the quality in their squad, as well as the determination and utmost conviction in the attacking philosophy of their manager Marcelo Bielsa, to play without fear and truly damage teams, even those in the top six.
At the very least, Leeds have entertained fans, pundits and neutrals alike, a trend which I’m sure will continue in their next fixture, when they take on Wolverhampton Wanderers at their home ground Elland Road. 17th October cannot come soon enough.
Image: Mathieu Lauron via Creative Commons