Leeds United got their promotion push back on track with an emphatic thumping of promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion. A primetime game, the nation turned in to see whether Bielsa, sat on his upturned bucket, could revitalise Leeds United and get their performance levels back to those they managed earlier in the season.
Bielsa sent his team out unchanged from their previous outing and in their usual 4-1-4-1 starting shape. This meant Phillips had to provide the screen to the back four and try to manage the counter spaces.
Moore made two changes to his WBA side. The Baggies were looking to bounce back from their loss against promotion hopefuls Sheffield United. Adarabioyo and Robson-Kanu came in for this big game in the place of Phillips and Gibbs.
When kickoffs go wrong…
As starts go, this one will go down in history as one of the worst. WBA got the game underway by looking to overload their right-hand side.
With nine players occupying the right-hand side of the field, the plan seemed obvious. Play the ball into the desired zone and win the first or second ball. Moore would have felt they could handle either winning possession and building an attack or counter-pressing the ball is lost. Whilst on paper the plan was good, in reality, it fell apart.
As you can see in the above picture, WBA split the field vertically, but also horizontally in terms of attack and defences. Leeds won the aerial duel and it fell to a Leeds player in the left wing space, unopposed. From here through the speed of the counter-attack, Leeds found themselves in a five vs five situation.
The verticality of Leeds players runs during the counter-attack caused WBA huge issues in coping with the counter-attack. Due to the Leeds forwards staying in their channels whilst attacking, it forces WBA defenders to shift horizontally. The need to apply pressure on the ball means that WBA found themselves leaving ‘zone 14‘ open. One of the issues that compounded the problems for WBA was Adarabioyo playing out of position.
More of a natural centre-back than left-back, Adarabioyo found his positioning suspect for the goal. His natural instinct was to close the central space and he got drawn into supporting his central defender. This left Hernandez in all sorts of space during the attack. Hernandez positioned himself inside the ‘golden zone’, zone 14, and fired a fantastic right-footed shot into the top corner of Johnstone’s net. One nil, 16 seconds gone.
Bielsa ball at Elland Road
The Leeds second goal was outstanding from an analytical point of view. Over a minute’s worth of possession, positional play concepts galore and a clinical finish when needed.
As you can see in the above photo, Leeds have possession and are not being pressured by the opposition. They have found their receiving lines, and are now looking to be able to cause disorganisation within the defensive structure of the Baggies.
The Leeds backline have created depth on the field by retreating well into their own half. The aim is to create vertical and horizontal spaces for their teammates. They can look to achieve this by first creating a numerical overload. In this picture, you can see a clear four vs one situation.
West Brom showed good concentration and did not get pulled out of their defensive shape. This forced Leeds to look to try and break the Baggies’ defensive lines through putting receivers at different lengths of the pass. In the above image, you can see a midfielder coming to receive the ball from the backline. This triggers movements from others in midfield five. One shows to feet and one looks to receive the ball in between lines.
Another key to this is the other Leeds players abilities to rationally occupy space in the rest of the field. By doing so they ‘pin’ defenders into zones. This creates more space and time for their teammates to receive the ball.
Once the ball had been received between lines, the WBA players have to change their body orientation. In this image, you can see eight of the nine players in view retreating towards their own goal. This creates limited fields of vision for the defending team. As such Leeds are able to create a free man and find him with a full field switch.
As the switch is played, it acts as a trigger to the rest of the Leeds team. They now have to look to re-organise their positioning as the point of attack had been changed. You can see in the above image, that once again this means looking to find receivers at different lengths of pass.
Another layer of this is being able to keep good relational distances between players. When a player is in possession then need their teammates to provide width, depth and height off of the ball. It is important to create support all around the ball so that the team can move together up the field without jeopardising the passing lanes.
For Bielsa, you cannot be too close together or too far apart. If the first happens, then there is an accumulation of opposition players and very little space to advance the ball whilst maintaining possession. If the latter takes place then if you are unfortunate enough to lose the ball, you are too poorly positioned to put pressure on to win it back.
Leeds re-organise their shape following the switch and use Alioski’s ability on the ball to attract defenders towards the ball. This ability to beat a defender is key and enables Leeds to maintain their attacking structure. It also provides WBA with an issue in terms of players being added from other lines. As you can see in the above image, they no longer hold numerical superiority.
Alioski has added himself to the midfield line meaning they are five vs five again. You can also see in the above image that the forward line is constantly looking to manipulate and disorganise the Baggies backline. By making runs both towards and away from the ball, they cause the backline to become horizontally disorganised.
Once Alioski beats his man by dribbling from the half-space into the wing space a Leeds teammate automatically goes into the wing space to maintain team shape. The forward two then look to stay connected so that combination play is possible in terms of chance creation.
Having positioning himself openside of Dawson, to begin with, Bamford now looks to make a run blindside of his defender. Through a simple third-man concept, Leeds are able to find Bamford blindside of Dawson.
The young Englishman steadies himself and slots away Leeds’ second of the night. A truly fantastic example of Bielsa ball in full flow.
The half finished in a similar theme with Leeds pressing perhaps harder than they had all season. Combined with their aggression when looking for the third goal and the Baggies were lucky to find themselves only two down at the break.
Being two goals up is widely considered one of the most dangerous scorelines in football. Although tough to quantifiably measure, the idea of momentum and how it impacts games almost always comes to the forefront when one team is two goals up.
Bielsa once said that if the game were played by robots, he would win every game. This was the task that faced him in the second 45 minutes of this game. How to get his players to maintain focus? How to get them to continue to perform actions? What can be done to keep the tempo high?
One of the ways that Bielsa loves to try is through his 12 pressing triggers. All objective and all laid out to each of his players. This is an actionable way for Bielsa to hold all 11 players accountable for their actions.
During the opening 20 minutes of the second half, it was clear that maintaining high pressure was the Leeds gameplan.
On, around & away from the ball
One of the keys in being able to press effectively as a team is layering the approach. Leeds do this fantastically well. In football, there are many names for defensive pressures, shapes and techniques. Without being directly involved within Leeds United it is impossible to say what they use. From the outside however it can be easily described as a three-layered approach to winning the ball back.
Firstly there is the direct pressure on the ball. Once the ball is lost, the two closest players put direct pressure on the ball carrier. This is unless one of the two defenders is tracking a goal-bound run. These two players look to shape their runs to that they force the ball carrier away from support. Once the runs have shaped the direction of play, they look to split their roles. One puts direct physical pressure on the opposition. The other looks to win the ball back through either a poke tackle or ball securing move.
The second layer or pressure comes in terms of around the ball. This is a coordinated effort from the teammates to remove easy passing options. By removing the easiest passing options, the pressing team look to force the opposition into long balls. The benefit of this is that the long ball has a much lower percentage completion rate than shorter passes.
Due to the shape that Leeds utilise and their ability to provide constant support to the ball carrier, pressing is natural. They already have a number of players well positioned to either press the ball carrier or look to cut out opposition passes. This was clear throughout the match and led to WBA becoming increasingly frustrated at their lack of build opportunities.
Lastly is the ability to control the space away from the ball. Leeds dominated WBA in this regard for 90 minutes. Cooper and Jansson bullied Rodriguez, Gayle and Robson-Kanu away from the ball. Due to the supporting shape that Bielsa’s men held, it was then easy for Phillips to pick up the second ball and play out of pressure.
Once the ball was won and repossessed, Leeds then look to play out of pressure by connecting two quick passes. Through the connection of these two passes they were able to play out of any immediate pressure the Baggies attempted to put on them.
Bamford at the double
Patrick Bamford has had to wait his turn this season for Leeds. With Kemar Roofe being Bielsa’s preferred option until his unfortunate injury, Bamford has had to wait patiently. If this game is anything to go by however, Bamford is more than ready to step up in Roofe’s place.
He led the line well throughout the game. The talent that he has shown in periods throughout his career was clear to all. Having taken his goal very well in the first half, it was Bamford that stepped up to put the game out of reach for WBA.
Having won the ball in the middle of the field through great on the ball pressure, Leeds sprung forwards yet again. Similarly to the first half, they made quick vertical runs to put the Baggies defenders under immediate pressure.
Having isolated himself one vs one against a defender, Roberts once again dynamically led the attack. Driving directly as, and then past Livermore, it was now up to Bamford to create space for the pass.
As you can see in the above photo, Bamford has angled his run away from pressure and opened up his body to be able to receive the ball. Roberts then plays the ball into the striker’s path and after a quick shift back onto his right, Bamford, via a little deflection, put the game beyond doubt.
In what was billed as a clash of the Titans at the top of ‘The Championship’ Leeds set down a marker to those around. Bielsa set out his team to put this game beyond doubt with a dominating performance on live T. The fluidity in possession and the constant changing of their shape from the 4-1-4-1 to the 3-3-1-3 was a joy to behold. Leeds pressed for the full 90 minutes. They transitioned better than they have done for weeks and each and every player took it upon themselves to play for the fans, the club and the badge. It was a resounding 4-0 win and fully deserved.
Darren Moore has a bigger issue to attend to. In the past two weeks, he has led his side against two of his promotion rivals and has been out thought on both occasions. WBA can feel a little aggrieved about the smash and grab job handed to them by Sheffield United. They can’t feel anything other than outplayed in this instance, however. From minute one, they were out thought, outplayed and outworked by their counterparts. The midfield three were completely overrun by the Leeds midfield and the fullbacks struggled all game long to deal with their wide players and the overlapping Leeds fullbacks.
With a slightly easier run of games coming up, Moore will want to reset expectations and regroup after what has been a tricky fortnight.
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