Marcelo Bielsa can be both a mystery and an open book. The manager whose secretive quest for knowledge led to ‘Spygate’ will often happily reveal his team 48 hours before kick-off. His teamsheet is no guarantee of a formation and not merely because his players’ formidable fitness levels can take them all over the pitch. Deciphering the shape sometimes only comes after kick-off.
Leeds both look to impose themselves on the opposition and alter system because of them. A key to understanding Bielsa is to recognise the exception to his policy of man-marking all over the pitch lies at the heart of defence, where he wants a spare man. So if Leeds face a team with one striker, they will have a back four, usually in a 4-1-4-1 formation. Encounter a side with two up front, and he will pull Luke Ayling infield or Kalvin Phillips deeper as a third centre-back, sometimes in a 3-3-3-1 shape that few others dare emulate.
The innovation does not end there. Bielsa’s conception of a wing-back involves more of the former than the latter. Leeds have faced Sheffield United and Wolves, purveyors of 3-5-2. Bielsa’s chosen wing-backs have been Jack Harrison and Helder Costa. If the Englishman’s relentless running and diligent tracking back suggests he has the attributes of a wing-back, his background is entirely in midfield. There is technical term for Costa, however, and it is “winger.”
It is all the more intriguing as Bielsa’s squad contains a couple of more natural wing-backs. But Gjanni Alioski played a solitary minute in those two matches. Stuart Dallas played all 180, but in the centre of midfield. The left-back when Leeds play 4-1-4-1 – in itself a consequence of Bielsa’s gift for reinvention – the ultra-versatile Northern Irishman is the player whose role changes most in the switch of system; he tends to adapt seamlessly.
There can be method to Bielsa’s apparent madness. Wing-back can be a hybrid role, but virtually all of its practitioners are more one thing than the other. Sheffield United and Wolves’ wing-backs (George Baldock, Enda Stevens, Romain Saiss and Nelson Semedo) are more defenders than attackers; by using players for whom the opposite applied, Bielsa tried to pin them back. It was another way to play front-foot football.
There is a sense in which Bielsa has operated in his own world, outside the parameters of what others thought were possible. There are comparisons with his own past; Jean Beausejour operated on the left in Bielsa’s 3-3-3-1 for Chile and was subsequently signed as a wing-back by Roberto Martinez, but perhaps no other Premier League manager then would have taken that decision. Pep Guardiola has occasionally selected teams without defensive width; most notably, and unsuccessfully, in Barcelona’s 2012 Champions League semi-final exit to Chelsea. His formation at times against Arsenal on Saturday bordered on 3-3-3-1.
In a way, though, Bielsa is a throwback to an earlier age. He is a vocal admirer of Louis van Gaal’s Ajax, and Euro 96 featured some wing-backs who were not really wing-backs: Pavel Nedved, Ronald de Boer, Darren Anderson and Steve McManaman at times. It was facilitated by a tournament with a surfeit of fine attacking midfielders, but few out-and-out wingers, which reduced the need for full-backs. If such ideas fell out of footballing fashion, by the 2010 World Cup Bielsa felt a man out of time, playing a back three when everyone bar Algeria and New Zealand had a quartet, and did so with Beausejour, a wing-back who wasn’t really a wing-back. A decade on, Costa has that status in Bielsa’s Plan B. It is defiantly different and idiosyncratically original and yet borrowed from Bielsa’s past.
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