Bielsa, Leeds and the TeamWork Index

“Continuity in football can be really successful. This is the reason we decided to continue with the great manager we have and we decided to have continuity with the core of the squad we think can be necessary for us. This is our value for the next season: the continuity.”

Victor Orta, Director of Football, Leeds United

In recent years, GAIN LINE Analytics has developed a unique metric, the Team Work Index (TWI®). The metric is used for measuring the quantity and intensity of linkages within a team. The higher the number, the more cohesive the team, the more likely the organisation is to enjoy sustained success in their specific field.

Put simply, the higher a sides Team Work Index and cohesion, the more unified the team, the more likely the club is to enjoy sustained on-field success and off-field stability.

The Team Work Index initially had three measures, ‘Internal Experience’, ‘External Experience’ and ‘Externally shared experience’. Since then, Ben Darwin, the founder, added more measures such as ‘Playing System’, ‘Combinations’ and ‘Skillsets’. This makes for a better and more robust metric.

Different teams find their own edge in different ways. As Orta has stressed over and over again, for Leeds, this edge is continuity.

It is my contention that the Team Work Index explains one of the reasons why Leeds United are one of the best teams in the Championship and have been consistently successful for the last two seasons.

Long-Term Vision

In Bielsa’s first season at Leeds United, everyone was shocked as suddenly Leeds went from 13th place to automatic promotion candidates. This ascendency was achieved without lots of new signings but, a key managerial one, Bielsa.

Bielsa’s appointment was part of Andrea Radrizzani and Victor Orta’s long-term vision. When a club has a set vision and makes signings and changes with those in mind then this will lead to long term stability and success.

How Bielsa Improved Cohesion

As soon as Bielsa came into Thorp Arch in the summer of 2018, the revolution began.

The Argentine oversaw changes to the training ground: a communal area for first-team players and sleeping pods to cope with the three-session days in pre-season, for instance. This allowed players to spend more time at Thorp Arch, increasing the time spent around each other. Creating better relationships and understanding between players and should lead to improved cohesion.

As Ben Lyttleton states in his book, EDGE, another way to build cohesion is by “not changing systems and line-ups all the time”.

Anyone who has watched Leeds United over the last two seasons will tell you that this is the case. Bielsa never wavers when it comes to his system, he lives and dies by it. Line-ups also hardly ever change, unless forced through suspension or injury. This creates a very high level of on the field understanding between the starting players as they are all accustomed to each others’ playing style and skillset. In some cases, Darwin “saw that the levels of understanding between team-mates impacted on performance between 30–40%.”

Players must also fully understand Bielsa’s system before playing.

In the summer of 2018, Pontus Jansson was considered our best player. He went to the world cup with Sweden. This meant he returned to training a week or two after the rest of the squad. When the season started, he was weeks behind the other players in understanding the playing style. So Bielsa started Gaetano Berardi, a considerably worse option, instead of Jansson for the start of the season.

It does not matter how good a player is if they do not have a 100% understanding of Bielsa’s tactics. This is so the whole team can operate effectively and smoothly like a well-oiled machine.

Flash forward to February 2020: Leeds United’s new star striker Jean-Kevin Augustin has been left out of the squad for his first two games. This decision is based on an internal logic: Bielsa’s style of play demands everyone to be on the same page. What movement one player makes directly affects the other.

This is why Augustin is not currently starting. He must understand the whole system as what he does upfront effects the play of every other player on the pitch.

“Signing players of higher quality will increase team quality but will reduce team cohesion”

Dr Bill Gerrard, Professor of Business and Sports Analytics at Leeds University.

Orta’s Recruitment Strategy

At the root of Darwin’s philosophy is the belief that high turnover of players reduces cohesion”

Ben Lyttleton, EDGE.

The data viz below shows the squad turnover of Championship teams between this season and last. On the right is Bielsa’s first summer in charge and on the left is from the summer just been.

As you can see, in Bielsa’s first year, most of the deadwood was gotten rid off and only one key player left. The core squad still remains and continuity was our edge going into the season. Player’s were also brought back on loan like Harrison and Clarke.

This summer, Leeds had the second-lowest squad turnover: Jansson, Kemar Roofe and Bailey Peacock-Farrell the three significant departures. They were only behind Preston, as you can see on the graphic. As a result, Leeds cohesion was barely reduced and Orta’s calls for continuity were answered.

Player Acquisition

“You might be judging talent on the wrong standards if they are coming in from a different system to yours. New people may be indoctrinated into other systems. It’s more important to think about if your new hire is a good person — can they adapt to your system? and remember that the younger they are, the more adaptable they are.”

Ben Darwin, Co-founder, GAIN LINE Analytics

No one else was talking about Ben White before his move to Leeds United on loan. But Victor Orta clearly saw White had the necessary skillset to fit into our playing style. This meant he was able to pick up an undervalued talent on loan where, in other systems, he was not being used at his best.

White came in as an unknown but is now being talked about as arguably the best centre-back in the Championship. This is due to Bielsa’s playing style fitting Ben White’s skillset perfectly and is testimony to Victor Orta’s recruitment menthods.

The Integration Of Academy Players

One of the initial measures of the Team Work Index was internal experience, which could mean in the youth academy.

Carlos Corberan, the head coach of the under-23s, does an impressive job of replicating the first team playing style with the under-23s. This makes their transition into the senior squad seamless. On top of this, the under-23s often train with the first team so they are familiar with the starting players’ style and abilities.

This is key for Leeds as Bielsa operates with a very small squad, relying on the academy players for depth and cover. Bielsa has already handed out eleven first-team debuts including Shackleton and Clarke.

Conclusion

“The Championship is one of the least cohesive competitions we have measured so it sometimes comes down to a skill shoot out. However, it doesn’t take much for a team get above the pack using cohesion.”

Ben Darwin, Co-founder, GAIN LINE Analytics

Looking at all the ways Leeds United, Bielsa and Orta have improved cohesion, it becomes apparent where Leeds have achieved their edge.

The sustained success Leeds have had over the last two seasons — always being in or just under the automatic places — is not solely due to the cohesion of the team. But make no mistake, it is a reason and has had a big impact.

Even though West Brom, Fulham and Brentford may have better players on paper, cohesion makes up for any lack and bridges the skill gap. This is why our players have overperformed. With the right system in place, they have been able to play beyond their means.

Thanks to Ben Lyttleton, whose book, EDGE, gave me the inspiration for this piece.

Thanks to Ben Darwin and Simon Strachan who founded GAIN LINE Analytics. The Team Work Index & TWI® is a GAIN LINE Analytics registered trademark and part of Cohesion Analytics.

Also credit to Ben Mayhew for the squad churn image used.

This piece was written by Ben Hall who can be found on Twitter @young_peacock.

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