Can Bielsa Get Leeds United Promoted?


Twenty years ago, Leeds United were a genuine force in domestic and continental football. The Yorkshire club, proudly sporting the white rose on their crest, had reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and Champions League in consecutive seasons. This was a team that seemed destined for greatness and on the pitch, everything seemed rosy.

However, behind the scenes, chairman Peter Ridsdale had gambled the future of the club on potential success, banking on the team repeating their continental adventures on a consistent basis. When they failed to even qualify for the Champions League for two successive seasons, loans couldn’t be repaid, and the financial situation spiralled out of control.

What followed was an absolute mess. David O’Leary was sacked, highly critical of Ridsdale following the sale of Rio Ferdinand, yet that was just the beginning of a spectacular fall from grace. Several failed managerial appointments and a fire sale of player departures later, the inevitable happened. Concluding the 2003-04 season 19th in the Premier League, Leeds United were relegated just three years after almost reaching the Champions League final.

The Bielsa Revolution

Fifteen long and agonising years away from rubbing shoulders with the elite, including three seasons in the third tier as the lowest ebb for such a historic club, fans are still waiting and dreaming of returning to the Premier League. However, the wait almost came to an end last season, thanks to the unlikely appointment of an Argentine coach. One who nobody ever expected to accept the challenge of a club slumming it in the second tier.

When Leeds United announced the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa, it certainly caught everyone in the football world by surprise. After all, this is the man lauded by Pep Guardiola as a tactical genius who greatly influenced his own coaching career. Someone widely praised by former pupils such as Diego Simeone, Gerardo Martino, Mauricio Pochettino and Marcelo Gallardo; all of whom have become very successful managers in their own right.

24 games into his tenure, the reinvention of Leeds United looked destined to end in promotion, with only 3 defeats blotting the Bielsa revolution. Quality football thrilled the fans and it all seemed too good to be true. In the end, it was, as Leeds struggled during the second half of the 2018-19 campaign. Injuries and inconsistency saw them finish third, missing out on automatic promotion. The final blow was defeat against Derby County in the playoffs.

Bielsa’s Second Season Challenge

While some avid followers of Bielsa’s career might have expected him to depart in disappointment, the Argentine coach remained at Elland Road. The ink barely dry on a revised contract, the 64-year-old began shaping the Leeds side more to his liking. A host of profitable departures were accompanied by numerous exciting transfers and loan signings, all carefully studied by their new coach, of course.

Starting the 2019-20 season with a bang, Leeds quickly topped the Championship table with 4 wins from their opening 5 games, drawing the other against Nottingham Forest. However, following the EFL Cup defeat against Stoke City, inconsistency has also reared its ugly head again. Still, after 14 games Bielsa’s men sit third in the table with 7 wins, 4 draws and 3 defeats, suggesting that another push for promotion beckons.

This is a view shared by the sportsbook operators; the latest soccer odds place Leeds United among the favourites to win the Championship, followed by current leaders West Bromwich Albion. Nevertheless, this division remains as fiercely competitive as ever, and anything is possible as the season unfolds. Bielsa will undoubtedly need to draw on all his tactical guile and man-management ability, every detail of his studious analysis will count.

Defiant Defence, Ailing Attack

Despite the profoundness of his tactical knowledge, dutiful reading of statistical data, analytical study of opponents, and detailed provision of instructions to his players, Bielsa finds himself in somewhat of a surprising dilemma. One his meticulous mind is currently trying to resolve as quickly as possible.

Although they boast the tightest defence in the Championship, having conceded just 7 goals in 12 games, including 6 clean sheets, Leeds appear to be struggling when it comes to scoring enough goals at the other end. They’ve scored 16 in 12 games and while that’s fairly respectable amongst teams in the division, according to statistics, Leeds also create an average of 16.5 shots per game and that’s the highest in the Championship.

What makes this conundrum even more interesting, as one would expect from a team managed by Bielsa, this Leeds team is amongst the best in the Championship when it comes to possession and passing accuracy. Ever the perfectionist, the Argentine coach believes his team must do better when it comes to converting their chances.

The question that Bielsa is trying to answer is one of efficiency. Using his preferred 4-1-4-1 shape with Patrick Bamford as the sole striker, sometimes morphing into his signature 3-3-3-1 formation, Leeds typically dominate play and create lots of chances, yet they aren’t putting enough of them away. His concern is that while he could play two strikers, with Eddie Nketiah alongside Bamford, sacrificing a midfielder would also reduce the number of chances created by the team.

Finding the Right Solutions

If there’s one certainty, it’s that Bielsa will keep poring over every bit of data from every game, studying the numbers, carefully looking at how he can improve team performances. Interestingly, while they still created 15 shots during the recent 1-0 win against Birmingham City at Elland Road, it was the first time this season Leeds have created less chances than their opponent. What makes this statistical anecdote even more amusing, was that Bielsa deployed a 3-4-3 diamond system for the first time during this campaign.

Perhaps while pondering and calculating the efficiency of his tactical options, of which there are many in his spotless mind, perhaps Bielsa has finally decided that playing with more attackers will lead to greater efficiency converting chances. Then again, he might also decide never to deploy the 3-4-3 diamond formation again this season, opting for entirely different strategies in coming games. Such is the mercurial nature of this unique managerial mastermind.