Examining the Defensive Midfield Role at Bielsa’s Leeds United
In this article, Martin Riley scrutinizes the defensive midfield role within Marcelo Bielsa’s system…
With Kalvin Phillips injured, attention has turned to the defensive midfield position that he plays.
When Phillips is out, there is little question that Leeds suffer. Their squad is small as it is without them losing one of their best players.
But is it the case that no one else can adequately deputise for him? Or do the problems come from having to shuffle the pack to make things work?
In some ways, part of the problem we have in answering this question comes from the fact that the defensive midfield role at Leeds is unlike any other defensive midfield role across elite football.
Leeds, as we know, play a form of man marking out of possession. And in possession, they play a specific type of build-up play (“salida” as it is called in South America) which requires the defensive midfielder to play as a pivot.
Let’s begin by looking at the impact of the man-marking system:
Zonal vs Man Marking
In a zonal-marking system, each player is responsible for an area of the pitch.
As you can see from this screenshot of Leeds’ game against Manchester City, City have taken up a zonal structure off the ball with a back four covered by a three-man midfield:
The players are spread evenly to give themselves the best coverage and each player is responsible for the zone they’re in.
Contrast this with Leeds’ out-of-possession structure:
Here, the Leeds players aren’t oriented to zones but to the opposition player they’re marking.
The Leeds players will follow their man wherever they move. Notice how Phillips is vacating his spot in the middle to follow Phil Foden.
Contrast this with Manchester City’s off-ball approach:
The yellow arrows on the picture above indicate what these players would be doing in a Bielsa system. Benjamin Mendy would be much closer to Helder Costa. Rodri would be marking Tyler Roberts, who has picked up a very good position should the ball get played through.
There is one exception to the man-marking rule for Bielsa — the “free man”:
Here’s another screenshot of from the Manchester City game, you can see all of the Leeds players close by or on, in Liam Cooper’s case, on top of their man.
The one exception is Robin Koch, labeled with a star. This is because he is the free man. The free man will look to double up on any threats to help out where it is needed.
This is the way Bielsa operates in defence: he uses a one-man superiority in defence to increase their advantage. This man has to come from somewhere so he is removed from the forward line (who now have a one-man inferiority).
The defensive midfielder’s main responsibility in defensive transitions is to mark their man. However, sometimes this man will change if there is a more immediate threat to goal.
The players will communicate that between them during the match but most of the time they will sit stick to the man they have been assigned.
The main responsibility of the defensive midfielder in the build-up phase is to help facilitate transition.
He will do this by offering himself as an option for a pass to his teammates or by moving opponents around to create space for central midfielders to drop into.
When looking for the ball, the defensive midfielder can drop in between the centre backs to help create a superiority in build-up (an extra man against the opponent's press) or you might see him dropping into the space left by a full back who has advanced up the field.
In the clip below, you can see Phillips in his normal central position. Moving the ball, you can see him moving into the space left by Stuart Dallas at left back, making himself open for a pass.
When the attack doesn’t progress as required, he is able to pick up the ball and recycle it so the build-up can start over again:
In the next clip, we can see Phillips dropping into a central area to give Meslier an option.
With an opposition player tracking him, Phillips is also creating space behind him for his teammates. Although Meslier doesn’t pass to him, Phillips’ movement makes the mid-length pass more workable:
The job of the defensive midfielder in build-up may look quite simple, but it does require a lot of positional awareness of where he should be and when he should be there. He acts as a pivot in deep possession and offers an outlet when an attack doesn’t progress in the way it should.
The importance of the pivot in build-up shows up when opponents target him. In Leeds’ game against Manchester United, Manchester United identified Phillips as key to Leeds build-up.
Using Bruno Fernandes as a man marker during Leeds’ build-up phases, Phillips struggled. He was brought off at halftime with only 374 yards of passing distance — of which only 68 yards were progressive — a figure much lower than his season average of 458 yards of passing per half of which 231 is usually progressive. On top of this, he only completed 5 long balls and only managed 1 pass in their final third.
When teams do give him space, though, as Everton did at Goodison Park, Phillips had what was probably his best game in the Premier League. He played numerous diagonal balls to wide areas and was able to do so because non of Everton’s players were picking him up with any regularity. In the end, he made 11 progressive passes at a total distance of 447 yards, completed 27 long passes, made 18 final third passes — the most on the pitch by a large margin — and picked up a total passing yardage of 2038 yards.
In the return fixture, Everton went much closer to a man-marking system and, as a result, did a much better job of covering Phillips. Changing formation from a 3–4–3 formation to a 4–2–3–1, they pressed Leeds much higher up the pitch. They also benched one of their best attacking players in James Rodriguez, favouring Gylfi Sigurdsson who is better at pressing.
This time around, Phillips only completed 2 progressive passes, 8 long passes and 5 final third passes: a large reduction in progressive output. His passing yardage was down to 913 yard of which only 198 were progressive.
Struijk at DM
Since Phillips has been out injured, there has been a large amount of chatter on social media regarding Pascal Struijk playing as a defensive midfielder. For many fans, this “doesn’t work”.
We haven’t seen many games with Stuijk as a defensive midfielder. He’s only played in 3.5 full 90s in this position over five appearances. In a number of these games, the opposition had identified the defensive midfield role as being important in build-up and teams prevented Struijk from getting involved as much as he might. Brighton and Arsenal both pressed him fairly aggressively in their games.
In other games, though, Struijk looked competent in the defensive midfield role. At Crystal Palace away, Struijk had a pretty strong performance. Fans might point out that the game was lost by a significant margin but StatsBomb has the xG scoreline at 0.9 xG to Palace and 0.8 xG to Leeds. None of the goals were the fault of Struijk and a number of the goals were somewhat lucky.
Here, we see a good example of progression from Struijk. Looking up, he plays an inch-perfect pass to Jack Harrison who brings it down with his usual pillow-footed technique:
Next, we have an example of Struijk playing another nice long pass, this time to Alioski. When he can’t find a decent target to progress the attack, he passes it back to Struijk, who takes a slightly heavy touch but recovers well and recycles the possession back to our backline:
This is such an important thing for the defensive midfielder to be able to do: not just the initial pass but keeping hold of the ball and allowing Leeds to retain the possession.
In the game against Palace, there was some effort to contain Struijk but it dwindled as the game progressed and Palace sat back more. This was probably his best game in terms of his involvement with our build-up progression at defensive midfield.
He finished this game with 5 progressive passes, 7 completed long passes and 4 final third passes. In the game, he went for 871 yards per 90 minutes in passing length and 132 yards of progressive yardage per 90 minutes — not quite as impressive as Phillips but still good enough to pass muster. It’s also worth noting here that this was his first time as a defensive midfielder in the Premier League and only his tenth senior appearance.
If the Crystal Palace game was relatively comfortable, though, the Arsenal game was much more tricky for Struijk to navigate.
In part, Leeds’ build-up problems were a result of Illan Meslier’s lack of comfort in possession. With Arsenal going man-for-man against Leeds centre backs and the defensive midfielder, the superiority in build-up had to come from the goalkeeper. Meslier struggled though, and so after the first goal, Bielsa got Struijk to drop in between the centre backs to offer that superiority:
As you can see, Struijk drops deep, pulling Odegaard with him, creating space in behind which can be filled by the central midfielders.
In this next clip, you can see Struijk under pressure. Being closely marked by Odegaard, he manages to bring the ball down, nods it forward a little when Dani Ceballos comes to close him down, then plays the ball forward to Bamford launching this attack into a good position. He shows good strength and awareness in this clip:
Next, we have a great example of man marking by Struijk. He’s close by his man Odegaard, spots the danger straight away and gets close so he can block the shot and stops the danger straight away. The resulting shot is nowhere near the goal but Odegaard’s effort would have been much more dangerous should he not have noticed the danger:
Struijk is more than a capable passer, something he has showcased many times when he plays in central defence. In his time at centre back in the Premier League, he has averaged 1.95 progressive passes per 90 minutes with a high coming against Everton when he played 6 progressive passes. His long passing stands at a completion rate of 75.9% which is our best completion rate for a centre back.
Struijk also shines when it comes to his defensive ability as you can see from his FBREF defensive scouting report:
Perhaps his biggest strength is interceptions, something that indicates a level of positional awareness. Struijk and Cooper both have the same output at 1.74 per 90 minutes. This is the best in the team, barring players who have played fewer than five games.
Shuffling the Pack
The other side to playing Pascal Struijk at defensive midfield is that it removes Luke Ayling from right back.
Ayling is one of the best in the league for progression with both carries and passing with 6.3 Progressive Passes per 90 minutes (5th in the Premier League) and 6.68 progressive carries per 90 minutes (10th in Premier League)
It is understandable on this evidence why people might not like to see Struijk in the defensive midfield slot but, as Bielsa has already stated, he doesn’t see any other players capable of playing role. No doubt this problem will be solved when either Diego Llorente or Robin Koch are fit, as it allows Bielsa to play Struijk at DM when Phillips is unable to and at the same time keep Ayling in his preferred position.
The defensive midfield position has been described by Bielsa as the “third defender”. He clearly sees it as a primarily defensive position which requires a level of mobility above what is expected of a centre back. We saw Kalvin Phillips dropping back from a centre midfield position but, of the defensive players behind Phillips in the pecking order, Bielsa clearly sees Struijk as the next best suited to the role
So in Bielsa’s eyes, playing Struijk is the right option when Phillips is out of the team. Of course, this is only a temporary solution. Struijk seems to be the natural successor for Liam Cooper. So far he is showing he has all the makings of a talented Premier League centre back as well as a capable defensive midfielder.