Leeds United won brilliantly at Manchester City on Saturday, and it showed one aspect of Marcelo Bielsa’s management that has been often maligned.
Bielsa arrived at Elland Road and had to face huge waves of criticism from pundits doing very little research into his career.
Former Leeds boss Steve Evans was most vocal in his reservations of the appointment, but he hasn’t piped up since.
One of the main criticisms of Bielsa’s first campaign in West Yorkshire was the ‘lack of plan B’ when Leeds’ style wasn’t working.
As Leeds fans, we’ve not really had any complaints about Bielsa. He’s turned us into a mid-table Premier League outfit from a mid-table Championship one.
It hasn’t stopped the pundits coming in with their two cents about how he should run his team, though.
Promotion arrived and the core of Leeds’ squad remained largely untouched. It’s obvious that there’s bound to be a gulf in class between us and the ‘top sides’.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when a star-studded Manchester United side take us to the cleaners.
However, in the face of such a mismatch, Bielsa’s men still imposed themselves on the game and dominated solid portions.
Enter the short-sighted pundits (mainly Paul Merson) who ‘told us so’, and that Bielsa’s attacking style isn’t sustainable.
Justifiably, you can look at the games against Leicester City, Crystal Palace, and Manchester United as reasons for why it’s perhaps naive to go all-out every game.
On the flip side, you have to then take into account Leeds’ outstanding record against the bottom half. We’re winning the games we should be winning, and giving it a go in the games we shouldn’t be winning.
Additonally, Bielsa hasn’t had all four summer signings on the pitch together yet.
Bielsa has never been a manager to pragmatically tinker with his tactics from game-to-game – something he stressed in his first months at Elland Road:
The idea to have alternative plans, which is considered a virtue, I don’t really share this point of view. Our goal is to do better, not to stop what we are doing or change the style.Yorkshire Evening Post
Do we have a Plan B? Not really, we’ve just been doing Plan A better.
Proof of a plan B?
Leeds faced Manchester City this weekend with the mammoth task of halting the Citizens’ march for one of four trophies.
The task was then made even more difficult when Liam Cooper flew in knee-high on Gabriel Jesus and was sent off before half-time.
El Loco responded by bringing off his lone striker, Patrick Bamford, for centre-back Pascal Struijk.
In doing so, Bielsa sacrificed an area of Leeds’ style that has been a foundation of their three-year success under him: controlling possession.
Tyler Roberts was then brought off for Robin Koch with half an hour to play to consolidate this shift in approach.
John Stones maruaded out of defence every time he got the ball, noticing how comfortable Leeds were with him being the spare man.
Instead, Leeds opted for a low-block and cut off Man City’s passing lanes as soon as they approached the final third.
So, what we saw from that colossal defensive performance, actually, is that Leeds can perform with backs to the wall. They just choose not to.
A style of play where you’re expecting to have no possession suits teams expecting to be lower in the table. Conversely, a style heavily centred around possession and creating a high volume of chances indicates the opposite.
The Athletic reported that Bielsa prepared for the eventuality of playing with a man down, and it’s paid off that Bielsa has made such a plan B.
We know that we can shift into such a defensive shape when we’re under pressure, but our flair and movement in the final third never changes.
We’ve now got Liverpool and Manchester United up next, and we’ll be put to the test again.
After beating Man City, these two are even more of a free hit, but there’s now clear proof there of Leeds’ ability to weather the storm.