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How to beat Bielsa: Why Leeds United's biggest weakness lies in their 'spare man' system

Marcelo Bielsa
(Image credit: Getty)

Virgil van Dijk is Liverpool’s outstanding centre-back in most respects, but not all. Perhaps it is a consequence of his time in midfield in Germany but Joel Matip has long been their best ball carrier from the heart of the defence.

That assurance in possession attracted rather more attention on Sunday when Matip strolled forward from the half-way line, exchanging passes with Mohamed Salah, to reach the edge of the Leeds penalty area. It led to the Egyptian’s opening goal. The defender did not get the assist, but he was a catalyst. 

If it was an illustration of the range of threats Liverpool possess, it highlighted a potential problem for Leeds. Marcelo Bielsa’s policy of man-marking all over the pitch is defiantly different, too difficult and dangerous for most others to adopt, too idiosyncratic for many opponents to be used to facing. Aided by an ability to outrun everyone, it helped propel Leeds to promotion and then ninth place.

But no strategy is perfect and even Bielsa makes one concession to caution in his high-risk approach. And so, while most Leeds players are instructed to shadow someone, he keeps a spare man at the back, using two central defenders against one striker, or three against two. It is facilitated by asking the workaholic Patrick Bamford to look after two defenders. Which, as it is physically impossible to be with both all the time, relies on the theory that the duo in question are unlikely to advance too far.

So far, so normal, perhaps. But in most sides a centre-back running forward, besides leaving a gap in defence, would not get too far without encountering any opposition. In any remotely zonal system, a midfielder would pick them up. But when Leeds take man-marking to its logical extremes, their midfielders are too busy serving as a designated bodyguard to switch and track another instead. 

The runner from deep can find open space in front of him until he encounters Leeds’ one free player: one of their central defenders. Bielsa likes to talk about Leeds “unbalancing” the opposition, but they can be unbalanced by a centre-back loose in their final third.

That prospect of a clear run to the edge of the box ought to encourage those who are more than stoppers to show an adventurous streak and surge forward. Liverpool were not alone in capitalising. One of Leeds’ poorest performances last season was in January’s home defeat to Brighton. Bielsa admitted they did not defend as well as they could. That was in part because of two who are defenders by trade: Adam Webster, used on the right of Graham Potter’s back three, and Ben White, who was anchoring the midfield, broke forward from their own half on a series of solo runs and discovered that, because Leeds do not have a conventional midfield, they had licence to carry on.

And when man-marking breaks down high up the field, there is no cover until the spare centre-back. A way to defeat Leeds is to have a defensive midfielder or full-back with the running power and ambition so that, when they beat or escape their man, they can take advantage of the room ahead of them. Scott McTominay’s three-minute brace at Old Trafford in Manchester United’s 6-2 win in December was a case in point; then, Mateusz Klich was found wanting, though Rodrigo’s defensive deficiencies can also be apparent when he loses supposedly holding midfielders. Jack Harrison is Leeds’ running machine on the flanks but he finds Trent Alexander-Arnold elusive and the most prolific creator from the full-back roles in the league has assists on his last two trips to Elland Road, both earned some 100 yards from his own goal.

If the fundamental gamble in man-marking in the Premier League is creating one-on-one duels with some superior players – and Junior Firpo probably did not enjoy an afternoon with Salah on Sunday – the second is that everyone on sentry duty will succeed in staying in close proximity with his chosen victim for 90 minutes, when one lapse can come at a considerable cost. 

But the third is that the opposition central defenders do not stray beyond the halfway line and do a Matip. And perhaps more will be encouraged to try.

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