Bielsa’s Athletic: A Prototype for Leeds?

With the Championship season on indefinite pause amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I needed a bit of inspiration in order to write. A few of the followers of our Twitter account suggested a comparison of the current Leeds United team and Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao side, who took the Europa League by storm in the 11/12 season, humbling Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 5–3 on aggregate in the process.

Bielsa was already a cult figure at this stage, having just transformed the Chilean national team from South American also-rans to a side that would go onto win the Copa America soon after he left. But he was still not largely known outside of those who took a particular interest in football tactics.

For the average English football fan, this Europa League run — particularly the Manchester United tie — was their first true taste of Bielsa. It’s fair to say that it was a shock. The 5–3 scoreline actually flattered Manchester United as Bilbao outshot them 46 to 18 across the two games. Leeds fans might recognise that level of dominance compared to efficiency.

Whilst we’ve all got a little bit more time on our hands during our time in isolation, I haven’t quite got the time to go back and watch all the Athletic games under Bielsa’s tenure. But I have watched back both legs of the Manchester United tie. Even in those two games, the similarities between Bielsa’s Athletic and his Leeds side are clear to see.

Formation

As Manchester United lined up with one centre forward in both games, Bielsa set up his side in the 4–1–4–1 formation with which Leeds fans will be very familiar. Similarly to Leeds, this is how they set up defensively. With the ball, though, they morphed into the classic 3–3–1–3 in attack.

It’s notable that Athletic’s midfield did not feature the ‘enganche’ that Bielsa was so well known for in South America. Óscar de Marcos and Ander Herrera essentially operated as twin ‘eights’ with Herrera the more advanced of the two. De Marcos made runs into the box to support Fernando Llorente. He scored in both legs of the tie in this manner.

In the first half of 2018/19 season, Bielsa had Mateusz Klich operating like this, with Samuel Saiz as the more advanced of the two ‘eights’, drawing defenders to him, creating space for Klich to run into to score.

After Saiz moved back to Spain, Klich became the more advanced of the midfielders, coupled with Adam Forshaw as a link-man. Leeds’ most common lineup this season has seen Pablo Hernandez in the advanced role. We haven’t seen Klich bursting into the box as often as he did in 18/19.

Ander Iturraspe and Javi Martinez were fairly interchangeable in the defensive-midfield role and right-sided centre back position. Martinez would bring the ball out from the back, whilst Itturaspe would drop in to cover him. Should Martinez lose the ball in doing so, he’d go into the defensive-midfield position until the ball was won back or out of play. Leeds fans will have seen this lots of times with Ben White driving forwards with the ball and Kalvin Phillips covering.

Bilbao’s full-backs were also extremely aggressively positioned just as Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas often are. This pinned Manchester United back, meaning they were open to attack on the flanks if Ferguson’s men could fashion counter attacks. For the most part, they couldn’t.

In goal, Gorka Iraizoz didn’t feature in the passing out from the back in the same way that Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Kiko Casilla and Illan Meslier have done. Perhaps that is due to the fact that goalkeepers have developed greatly in terms of skill with the ball at their feet in the last few years, thus Bielsa has incorporated them into the build-up phase.

Pressing

Wherever Marcelo Bielsa has gone as a coach, his key defensive strategy has been the high press. He sees winning the ball back as quickly as possible as the best way to keep the opponent away from his team’s goal.

In the clip above, Athletic swarm all over Manchester United, making it hard work for them to even cross the half-way line. On this occasion, it ended with Wayne Rooney being fouled but often it would end with the Premier League side being forced to go long and turning the ball over.

Bilbao’s pressing was so relentless in the first half of the opening leg that Manchester United were only able to retain 38.9% of possession. This was a remarkably low number for the reigning Champions of England at that time, particularly considering they were the home team.

In that game, they featured Phil Jones and Ryan Giggs in central midfield. They simply weren’t good enough as a pairing to overcome the press from Bielsa’s men. Jones, in particular, was not a midfielder comfortable with the ball at his feet at the best of times, let alone when he had De Marcos and Herrera all over him.

In the away leg, Ferguson decided to bring Michael Carrick into the starting lineup to attempt to control the game a little better. Whilst they improved at retaining possession — with the second leg being pretty much equal in those terms — they still couldn’t get a grip on the game in terms of creating chances. In the end, they only had four shots in the whole game compared to 21 for Bilbao.

There were also similarities to Leeds’ weaknesses in their man-to-man pressing system and their high line could be exploited.

The clip above shows how one pass over the top could take out their entire defence. They were fortunate that Javier Hernandez wasn’t able to bring it under control or they could have gone behind.

Athletic also struggled to defend against players carrying the ball through the middle. Manchester United took the lead through Wayne Rooney after Giggs received a quickly taken free-kick and dribbled to the edge of the penalty area, causing havoc in the Athletic defence. They were unable to stop Hernandez from taking the first shot, which though it was saved, was turned in by an unmarked Rooney.

Again, this is another trait of Bielsa’s Leeds as they have struggled the most with players who run with the ball through the middle of the pitch. Cast your mind back to Bright Osayi-Samuel and Eberechi Eze causing carnage in the first-half of QPR v Leeds at Loftus Road if you need examples.

Unfortunately, I can’t compare numbers using Wyscout’s pressing metric PPDA (passes per defensive action) as the data doesn’t go as far back as 11/12. Leeds have been the highest pressing team in the Championship under Bielsa’s tenure. During his time at Bilbao, Pep Guardiola was manager of Barcelona and pressing and possession play was very much in vogue in La Liga, so Athletic might not have been the top pressers in the league. However, considering Bielsa had been practicing the high press well before it became fashionable, one would imagine they’d have been right up there.

Patrick Bamford — the Championship’s Fernando Llorente?

Had I been writing this article last season, I don’t think I’d have seen many similarities with Leeds’ centre forwards and Fernando Llorente. Kemar Roofe’s pressing would have been comparable to Llorente’s and possibly have been better considering Roofe is the more mobile of the two. But when Leeds had possession, he operated largely by running into the channels and dragging defenders out of position.

In his first season at the club, Patrick Bamford looked — to my eye at least — the lesser of the two options at centre forward as his movement in behind was not up to the same level of Roofe. He didn’t seem to have the strength and balance to be an effective hold up man. The difference between the two in the Play Off Semi-Finals when Roofe played the first leg and Bamford the second, was stark.

Llorente on the other hand, engaged defenders physically, held the ball up and was very comfortable playing with his back to goal. That’s not to say that he wasn’t comfortable going in behind though, as this brilliant goal from the second leg of the tie showed.

This was all about getting on the blindside of Rio Ferdinand though, rather than being about his pace.

With Kemar Roofe being sold this summer and Patrick Bamford becoming Marcelo Bielsa’s clear choice for the lone striker role, we have seen him become a different player, one who bears a lot of similarities with Bilbao’s former number 9.

Bamford now plays confidently with his back to goal, battling with centre backs and linking with the midfield.

Having a full pre-season under Bielsa has clearly helped him and he seems physically much stronger in his second season at Leeds. Two standout performances of his came against Leeds’ main rivals in the division this season, West Bromwich Albion, where he gave Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi a torrid evening. In 18/19, centre backs of the size and strength of those two would have dominated the former Middlesbrough striker. But this season, he was beating them in ground and aerial duels, winning fouls, pressing them and in the away game at the Hawthorns, forcing an own goal to tie the game.

Watching Llorente, his primary role in progressing his team up the field was stepping in front of centre backs and either holding the ball whilst his teammates came up to support or in playing one-touch passes of to runs from De Marcos or the wingers.

In this move, Llorente started by occupying Rio Ferdinand, but as Iturraspe looked forwards, he quickly left Ferdinand behind, who was now occupied by the run of Susaeta and got himself in front of Jonny Evans. A clever first-touch pass allowed Muniain a great chance to score and Susaeta still won’t understand why he didn’t score the rebound. Note the rotations from the Athletic attacking players. Leeds make movements similar to this all the time. It’s classic Bielsa.

Moves like this from Llorente immediately reminded me of Patrick Bamford and I had to dig out this clip from the 3–2 win against Millwall.

The build-up obviously wasn’t the same, but Bamford got himself in front of the Millwall centre backs and played a first-time ball in behind for a runner, in this case, Stuart Dallas, to take a shot on goal.

We have seen Patrick Bamford running in behind defences this season, but not in the same way that Kemar Roofe did last season. His movement in build-up has been more lateral or in coming short for the ball, allowing Helder Costa or Jack Harrison to run in behind him. However, as we have said so many times, he has got himself in excellent goalscoring positions, racking up 19.34 non-penalty xG and returning 13 goals. Bamford has been elite in terms of getting on the end of chances, but not elite in terms of finishing.

Llorente was an all-round centre forward but also a strong finisher. I don’t have xG data from 11/12 but we can look at shot conversion rates. These don’t help us in terms of knowing the quality of chances he was getting, but we can at least compare Marcelo’s current and former number 9s in this metric.

As you can see, Bamford takes more shots than Llorente did in 11/12, though this might be due to differences in league quality. Llorente’s goals per 90 and conversion percentage were considerably better than Bamford’s this season. For reference, the average conversion rate for Championship strikers with at least 1000 minutes played is 16.04.

In the clip above, Llorente showed his ability as an all-round frontman. Holding the ball up on the edge of the box, fighting off defenders, before springing into action after releasing the ball and finding space in the box, before crucially, finishing clinically.

Bamford might not quite have the quality of Llorente, but it’s quite clear to see that Bielsa prefers to have a striker play as the fulcrum of attacks in this way. The improvement in their attacking process is illustrated by the fact that Leeds are now generating 1.85xG per 90, compared to last season’s 1.68 per 90.

Iker Muniain

Another standout member of this Athletic team was Iker Muniain on the left wing. The obvious comparison to make is with Jack Harrison as he plays on the left for Leeds now and there are lots of similarities to be made.

Firstly his ball-carrying ability, which Harrison has greatly improved in his second season under Bielsa’s tutelage. Muniain and Harrison are both capable of dribbling down the line, or making diagonal runs towards the edge of the penalty area, as the Basque did in the above clip of Llorente’s goal.

There are also similarities in their energy which we know is vital in Bielsa’s system. Muniain was an excellent presser, as is Harrison, but their willingness to make runs in behind, coupled with great pace gives fullbacks major headaches.

I couldn’t think of a better example of Muniain pace and desire not to give up any lost causes than him scoring the third goal in the opening leg of the tie. He came from so far back and at such great pace that Rafael, playing at right back didn’t even realise he was coming. By the time he did, it was far too late.

Muniain can’t be said to be playing the same role that Harrison does though as Harrison is more of a pure winger. He does carry the ball inside. But he almost exclusively holds his position wide on the left in receiving the ball, whereas Muniain received the ball centrally a lot more often. He could be described as a hybrid between Harrison and Pablo Hernandez when he has played on the wing, though not as much of a playmaker as Leeds’ Spaniard.

Build-up in attack

Anybody who has paid any attention at all to Leeds United over Bielsa’s time as manager will recognise that the key to their attacking process is repetition and it involves lots of pattern play. Fulham’s manager, Scott Parker, even went as far calling it ‘scripted’.

It’s well known that Leeds have repetitive moves going forward, but it’s another thing trying to stop them. Manchester United found the same problems with Athletic. This clip from the second leg is a prime example of this:

Watching this move unfold, I could picture Bielsa’s Leeds doing the exact same thing.

Progressing the ball down the wing, moving centrally to create more space on the wing again before cutting back for a clear chance in the penalty area.

Note how aggressive the left wing-back is and again how players rotate positions to manipulate Manchester United’s defence. Rafael is pulled from his right-back position by Muniain coming inside, which allows Herrera and Auternexte a two-on-one situation on the edge of the penalty areas. It even has a very similar ending to lots of Leeds moves!

See for yourself!

There’s so much more I could say about this team and their similarities to Bielsa’s Leeds.This piece has been very long already, though, so I’ll stop there. I’d encourage you to go and watch these two games, which are available here.

I’d love to read some of your thoughts about similarities. Do you think I’ve missed anything?

One thing is for sure, Marcelo Bielsa has built his philosophy on football over many years and he’s not likely to be swayed from his way of playing. His achievement of getting Championship quality players playing such a similar style of football to a side competing at the top end of La Liga and in Europe should never be underestimated.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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