In this piece, Dean Hillard looks at how Marcelo Bielsa has changed the way he sees the game…
It’s the 29th of December, 2020. That wonderful time of year when days meld into each other and you’re unsure of what day of the week it is as the Christmas and New Years' festivities blend into one, long, chocolate-filled malaise. It’s 10am in Vancouver and West Brom vs Leeds United is about to kick off.
Big Sam is in charge of his second game with the Baggies (after a decent debut draw with Liverpool). The general narrative in pop culture footballing circles is that he will stabilise, sure up the team, and turn a cavalier West Brom group into a defensive unit capable of saving them from relegation. To stretch this narrative further, the Leeds group are described as naive and unbalanced. “Can Leeds break down this strong, West Brom team?” One popular broadcaster asks.
Yes. Yes, they can.
In one of my favourite bouts of schadenfreude in recent memory, Leeds go on to terrorise Big Sam and the Baggies in a 5–0 mauling. However, what’s increasingly interesting is that I’m quickly able to see the difference in styles and tactics between the two teams. Leeds line up in their traditional 4–1–4–1 and maintain 76% possession with almost five times as many shots as their opponents. Leeds’ man-marking and full press is as aggressive as ever and their overloading of players on the flanks causes WBA increasingly more problems as the game wears on. Outside of that, each time West Brom cautiously bring the ball forward, they’re at the liberty of Leeds and their incredibly swift counter-attack.
How did this all happen?
More pertinent to this story; when did I start to notice this happening?
Let’s go back to the mid-90s somewhere in suburban Surrey, England. I’m obsessed with video games and my parents have purchased our first multimedia PC (complete with Encarta 95). In between learning about Egyptians and how papyrus was made, I become a big collector of PC Games magazines. These magazines would often be adorned with CD Roms or Floppy Discs full of the latest and greatest game demos. This is how I stumbled into the world of Football Management games.
It was these first forays into Premier/Championship/Ultimate/Player Manager that got me excited about watching the football on the weekend. I enjoyed using the real-world analysis from the TV pundits to inform my decisions on the game in my bedroom. A trip to see my local team (Woking FC in the Vauxhall Conference) was made all the more exciting in the hope that I might be able to find a player for my in-game team that I’d not previously known about.
This is a fairly familiar tale to Michael Normanton of The Square Ball. “In my first relationship with football, I was kind of geeky and a bit obsessed with it,” he starts. “I was really interested in tactics and I used to enjoy watching games and being able to see how players spaced out on the pitch”. Michael dabbled and enjoyed Football Manager and similar games but his enjoyment of tactics was established with the actual game on grass and not microchips. “Being able to see how players moved…When we signed Rio Ferdinand and watching him defend was really interesting as well because he seemed to do things in different ways to other centre backs”.
On the flip side, Jon Mackenzie of All Stats Aren’t We was a player first, tactician second. “I was more into playing [football] back then rather than watching it, but by the time Leeds got Yeboah I became much more aware of the whole football fan culture as opposed to the idea that I simply like football and Leeds was the team I liked”. What’s interesting about Jon is that not only did he continue playing football at a high level but he also got an opportunity to coach at a top-level, looking after the St. Andrews University Women’s team and then the Cambridge University Women’s Team. “What’s funny is that we’ll often receive comments on the podcast and website that we’ve obviously never played the game and we simply watch on TV and this couldn’t be further from the truth”.
Tom Woodhead, of various shires including The Square Ball and All Stats Aren’t We, describes himself as somewhat of a late bloomer in football fandom. “I didn’t get into football until I was 15 or 16 just because I was a geek as a kid and sport wasn’t for geeks. I was shit at playing football so it always seemed like it wasn’t for me”. It was around this time that Leeds entered the Champions League during that infamous season in 2000/2001. “Leeds were on ITV every week and because we didn’t have Sky, I had the opportunity of watching them all the time and became a bit obsessed as was my personality at the time”.
Back to my life. Fast forward a decade and I’m in my 20s spending far too much time playing Football Manager. A regular weekend for me was spent in front of the TV with my laptop in hand watching live Premier League games on TV (sans Leeds United after their relegation in 03/04) and playing FM for hours upon hours. I believed that my increased playing time impacted my knowledge of the real game. Being able to use my AI scouts in the game to find a mercurial South American midfielder who would end up playing for Arsenal in real life made me feel like some sort of footballing Cassandra.
Michael went in a different direction. “When Leeds absolutely dropped off a cliff, I was now able to go out drinking, have a girlfriend and all that sort of stuff”.
It must be said that watching Leeds United on TV at this time was difficult. Their games were not often broadcast live and the only real chance of getting to see some game action was the odd few minutes you might get on a summary show. It didn’t help that Leeds were often awful to watch during this period and their highlights were reduced to a 30-second clip of Enoch Showunmi not scoring.
Normanton continues: “My interest in football definitely diminished at this point. My general interest in the sport changed and going to games became more focused — in truth — about going and getting pissed for the weekend. Because it was League One and having a game in Yeovil became more about my social life. At that point, Leeds were not a football team (to me) anymore. We’d become this other thing; a thing that I’d base my social life around that would mean I’d have good weekends away and laughs with mates and then the team itself was playing at this horrible level and the club as a whole was run by horrible people with no real interest in ever making us good. We’d ceased to be a proper good football club.”
Fast forward another 10 years and Leeds have hired Marcelo Bielsa, a manager a few important people I care about seem very excited about. Don’t tell anyone this, but I knew next to nothing about him before hearing he was potentially heading to Leeds. It was then that I dived into his background, former teams, playing style and I suddenly became very excited.
I had always been a big fan of football podcasts. Quickly jumping onto Gabrielle Marcotti and friends and The Times Football Podcast and shortly after that, James Richardson on The Guardian in the late 00s. Both were similar in tone and I really enjoyed being introduced to a deeper, more fulfilling conversation than I was used to after subjecting myself to 606 and Match of the Day for years.
It was during this time that I was introduced to both Michael Cox and Jonathan Wilson. Both held great knowledge of the tactical side of the game that I’d believed I was well versed in from playing my video-games. It was at this time that I started to realise that I really knew very little about the different tactical systems that different managers used or how they instructed their players to play during any given game.
The epiphany I had that my addiction to a series of video games over the past 20 years really had no reflection on my understanding of real-life football came as quite a shock. This was compounded when Bielsa — seemingly overnight — changed the entire philosophy of the football club I’d been following for 25 years from one of nauseating mediocrity to powerful pressing and flowing attacking football.
Was I the only one that felt like this?
I felt quite alone in my understanding of Leeds United. I’d discuss the games or players with my friends and family and when I’d be trying to understand why the team had not scored or what had happened when the opposing team had been allowed to gleefully walk through the middle of the midfield those around me would blame the players for not working hard enough or being good enough. For whatever reason, this argument was never satisfactory to me. I didn’t believe that Patrick Bamford — as an example — was capable of scoring three goals in one game and looking like a world-beater and then suddenly being incapable of doing that in the next game. Bamford being “Shit,” didn’t sit right with me.
It’s serendipitous that I stumbled upon All Stats Aren’t We at this point. Their weekly podcast helped me better understand what had happened during the previous game. The conversation was less focused on the emotion of being disappointed that Leeds didn’t win and instead entered on the reasons why they didn’t win. What actions took place that affected the outcome of the game. In conversation with Jon Mackenzie, he tells me that, “I wanted to create something that reflected the way I enjoyed football”.
ASAW really dive into detail on their various formats. Videos of the previous game highlight positional and formation information that better explain what the team was doing and if it was effective. This has helped me better grasp what is actually happening in front of my eyes when I watch the game live. Let me highlight a really simple example of that:
In a recent Leeds game, the team lined up in their familiar 4–1–4–1 formation. I noticed that Dallas playing in the left back role would move up into the centre of midfield when Leeds had possession and were attacking. This subsequently allowed Ayling to move to right centre back and Leeds had now moved into a back three. If we were playing Football Manager, we’d state that they were now playing something akin to a 3–3–3–1.
It was but a little note in an engrossing game (and season) for Leeds United but it made me spark with joy that I was noticing something I was previously completely unaware of. What’s also important is that there are now multiple areas for me to discuss such topics with other fans who share the same interest as I do.
I’d first become aware of the Expected Goals (xG) metric a number of years ago when one of those podcasts I mentioned previously would start using the term during their weekly discussions. At the time, it felt like a useful tool to add credence to an opinion or conversation. But more recently, it’s been used as a stick to beat perceived underperformance. Now there are multiple levels of conversation across the fandom where a biased bedroom pundit pulls the stats after a game and simply makes a conclusion without any basis or understanding.
This has always rankled me. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m someone who lives emotionally, first and foremost. However, beneath that beating heart, I need to better understand what’s happening. I need to find the pathway back to the beginning and why that emotion happened. This affects me in my relationships, career, friendships, parenting, and most often in football.
I know it’s a curse. But it’s allowed me to really jump headfirst into a team and club I’ve been in love with for 25 years unabashedly. I wouldn’t have it any other way.