Should Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds compromise on their style of play?


After losing 6-2 to your biggest rivals in your first top-flight meeting for 16 years, and having arguably played right into their hands, the question was inevitable. “Did this make you think at all about your approach, about the way you go about games?” asked Patrick Davison, Sky Sports reporter at Old Trafford.

But after three decades spent ploughing a lonely furrow in the world of football management, employing tactics that many admire but few are brave enough to follow, and having stuck by those principles despite winning very little silverware of note, Marcelo Bielsa’s one-word answer was inevitable too. “No.”

You do not need to have followed Bielsa’s nomadic career closely to know that El Loco is not for turning. In fact, he fielded a similar question in the build-up to Sunday’s humbling defeat at the hands of Manchester United, again from Sky, on whether he had considered adapting his style for the Premier League upon promotion last season. Again, the answer was essentially ‘no’.

In that interview, Bielsa described the concept of having a ‘Plan B’ as an “anxiolytic” – a drug used to relieve anxiety, something which is never too far away in football. Right now, even those at Elland Road who worship the ground Bielsa walks on could be forgiven for looking at the Premier League table, seeing Leeds perched seven points above the relegation zone and starting to feel a little anxious themselves.

But Bielsa’s point was that while a ‘Plan B’ may help you feel better prepared for different opponents, perfecting a style of play is hard enough without deviating from it. “If someone stops thinking the way they think and starts doing the opposite, then that is difficult to make work in football,” he argued. “To give up on your convictions is not a good way to move a project forward.”

Bielsa knows this stubbornness of his is a flaw. “I don’t compromise,” he has admitted in the past, “and I don’t say that as a virtue, it’s a defect.” In a way, it makes things easier for opposition managers like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. As Bielsa is unlikely to radically alter his system from game to game, they know largely what to expect. He may even be so generous as to give them his starting line-up in a pre-match press conference.

But what Leeds do is so unlike anything that opponents will otherwise prepare for or face on any other weekend in any given season that it can still be brilliantly effective. In order to work, it requires every player to understand their role, have the capacity and willingness to fulfill it and – most importantly of all – to perform on the day. Some days, they do. Some days, they don’t. Sunday most definitely fell into the latter category.

Independent Football Newsletter

Get the latest football headlines direct to your inbox twice a week

Read our full mailing list consent terms here

Independent Football Newsletter

Get the latest football headlines direct to your inbox twice a week

Read our full mailing list consent terms here

Leeds’ style is unique, with fast and fluid transitions when in possession and man-to-man marking rather than a solid defensive structure when out of it, and this was not the first time this season that it has looked vulnerable in the extreme. For the sixth time in just 14 Premier League games, they conceded three goals or more. No team has let in as many goals, only two have allowed more shots, only one has conceded more xG.

At the same time, this style of play has produced five wins. There have been clean sheets against Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa as well as Sheffield United. Leeds’ total of 22 goals is competitive with those fighting for Champions League qualification. Only Liverpool have a superior xG. With 17 points after 14 games, they are on course to comfortably finish above the 40-point mark in a season when they are unlikely to need that many to stay up.

There is no right or wrong way to play football but as other clubs seek the closest thing to a sure bet for survival, there is something endearing about Bielsa’s outright rejection of pragmatism in favour of his principles. “We will correct what was bad and try to keep the good things but we will not abandon the way we play,” he eventually told Davison, elaborating on his initial answer after a gentle push.

There will be tweaks and adjustments here and there but no retreat. Whether they win 5-2 as they did against Newcastle on Wednesday or lose 6-2 as they did at Old Trafford four days later, Bielsa will not compromise on the style which has made Leeds the most interesting team to watch this season and the Premier League will be a much better place for it.

Source: Read Full Article