The Principles of Leeds United’s Defensive System under Marcelo Bielsa: A Primer
In this article, Jon Mackenzie covers the four basic principles of Marcelo Bielsa’s defensive system as it has appeared at Leeds United…
Those of you who listen to the podcasts that we put out will know that I am currently undergoing a fascination with Marcelo Bielsa’s defensive system. Having watched Bielsa’s Leeds for two seasons now and still coming to terms with the defensive underpinnings behind the team, I figured it was high time to produce something like a primer of the key principles of Leeds’ defence. So here it is.
Before we get going, I should point out that I have been helped immensely in understanding Leeds’ defensive system through reading Riccardo Marchioli’s report on Leeds’ tactics and having a long conversation with him on our Patreon Bonus podcast. Do check those resources out if you want to go even more in-depth on this topic.
At its most basic form, Leeds’ defensive system can be described in a two-stage process: Leeds press intensely in a ball-oriented manner (they focus on the location of the ball rather than the location of opposition players) in order that non-pressing players can engage in a man-oriented marking system. In this way, Leeds are able to win back the ball quickly, not letting the opponents settle on the ball. On paper, this looks all well and good, but the intensity and choreography of this system are so extreme that you will struggle to find a comparable system anywhere else in world football. More on this later.
Because of this two-tiered defensive system, I’ve split this primer down into the four areas that I think are generally applicable across the broad gamut of Leeds’ defensive approach: intense press, man-oriented marking, -1 in the forward press and +1 in defence. We’ll work through each one with examples.
Although I’m going to talk about the theoretical aspects behind Leeds’ defending, I was also keen to offer some practical examples of how it looks in reality. I watched through a few Leeds games but I decided to just use the final game of the season vs Charlton as an example of what Leeds do.
There were a couple of reasons why I did this: firstly, I figured it would be nice to just see examples from one game so that it didn’t seem like I was just cherry-picking scenarios which suited my narrative. Secondly, Charlton was the culmination of a second season under Bielsa, meaning that this was the last example in a long evolution under the Argentine. And finally, this game was a pressure off game where the team were less hungover than the Derby game… So hopefully we’re getting a no-holds-barred defensive performance!
The Two-Tiered System
Although we’re going to talk about each separately, a word on the two-tiered system. There is a symbiosis between Leeds’ ball-oriented intense press and their man-oriented marking system; the one supports and helps the other.
By pressing intensely upon losing possession, the opportunity is given for the non-pressing players to move into a man-oriented marking system. Once in the man-oriented configuration, the intense press becomes easier across the field.
For a team, like Leeds, who play high possession football which is positionally focused — that is, attempting to generate ‘superiorities’ in forward areas — there is always the possibility that you can get caught out on a counter-attack in the event of a turnover of possession. Bielsa’s defensive model is curated in such a way that allows Leeds to slow down the opposition attack and return to a defensive system as quickly and easily as possible.
The whole system, then, is designed to be able to press effectively across the field without resulting in any defensive weaknesses that can be exploited by opponents.
Marcelo Bielsa’s teams are always held up as “high-intensity pressing teams”. This is largely correct but, given the wider context of Leeds’ broader man-oriented marking system, their “press” is relatively small. You will rarely see more than one or two Leeds players actively pressing in a given situation.
To illustrate this, here’s a passage of play from the Charlton game which gives us a lot of the basics of the system:
Here, Mateusz Klich loses the ball to the opposition centre back (in a back three), Naby Sarr. Immediately, Jack Harrison initiates the press to give time for his teammates to get close to their men in the man-oriented system.
In doing so, Harrison makes sure that he closes off the passing lane to Aiden McGeady who is behind him. The only available outlet is now Sam Field in the middle who is still being closed down by Pablo Hernandez.
With the ball played inside to Field, Hernandez has now arrived and can press him and Mateusz Klich now joins him, taking up a position on Alfie Doughty but making sure he tries to close the passing lane while he does so.
You should also note how the initial press from Harrison has given Pascal Struijk time to mark McGeady and Harrison is now tight on Sarr. Elsewhere, the other Leeds players have tightened on the men they are marking.
The ball does go back to Doughty but immediately Klich is on him, all the immediate teammates in his vicinity are being marked tightly and Bamford is ready to initiate a forward press (note how he is 1v2 — this is the -1 forward press that we have already highlighted).
This whole sequence takes around 6 seconds from Klich losing the ball to Leeds falling into a man-oriented marking structure.
The use of a man-oriented defensive system by Bielsa is relatively unusual. Most other high possession teams would use some sort of zonal system, marrying that with an intense press to allow their defenders to fall into some sort of structure.
As to why Bielsa prefers a man-marking system, it’s hard to say. Intuitively, if each player has a defensive responsibility to mark a specific opponent, you can be sure that there isn’t any confusion as to what your task is. However, the system relies on players being constantly aware of where their respective players are and can lead to opposition players losing their markers and easily finding space in attacking phases.
Leeds’ system is designed to make these transitions to man-marking as painless as possible. Here’s Kalvin Phillips in conversation with Phil Hay talking about the transition phase in the man-oriented marking system:
As a result of this, Leeds in possession have to be hyper-aware of their defensive position. In the example we explored above from the Charlton game, you can see that Leeds are already in their defensive shape roughly which then allows them to tighten the net once the initial press gives them time to find their player.
Here’s a couple of screen grabs that shows this defensive structure from a deep free kick (taken by the goalkeeper). (Excuse the quality of the images — the camera was in movement when the screen grabs were taken):
In the forward area, notice how Patrick Bamford once again has two players around him which he will utilise when he is pressing from the front per the -1 rule (of which more later). Then, everyone else has a play who they are marking in advance.
Defensively, once again, everyone is marking an opponent tightly with the exception of Ben White (in this instance) who is the free defender per the +1 rule (again, more on this later). In this example, Luke Ayling has tracked his man inside and Jack Harrison is covering the right back area. Again, Liam Cooper — the better header of the ball — has marked Macauley Bonne, the Charlton striker.
Two Structural Principles
Lying behind the two-tiered defensive system is a corresponding pair of structural principles. In his system, Bielsa likes to have -1 player in the forward press — so 1v2 or 2vs3 depending on the opposition — and +1 player in the back line — so 2vs1 or 3vs2 depending on the opposition.
Obviously, these two principles are symbiotic too — the one allows the other: one player fewer in the forward area allows one extra player in the defensive area.
-1 Forward Press
When the opposition has the ball in possession at the back, Bielsa wants his teams to press according to the -1 forward press rule. This means he will have two players pressing against a back three or one player pressing against a centre back pairing (so three players pressing against a back four):
Here’s a sequence of play that shows how this forward press operates in principle:
The sequence begins with Mateusz Klich pressing Adam Matthews who is facing back to goal. There is a free man in behind — Jason Pearce — who is found from the pass backwards.
Klich chases the pass, making sure to keep the passing lane between Pearce and Matthews closed. The striker, Tyler Roberts in this case, now presses on the third centre back, Naby Sarr.
This is the -1 forward press principle. Leeds are going 2vs3 against Charlton’s back line.
With Klich pressing one play and blocking the passing lane to another, and Roberts marking the remaining centre back, Jason Pearce is forced to play the ball back to his keeper, Dillon Phillips. This triggers a pressing trap which sees Harrison leave the player he is marking and close down Matthews in the Charlton right back area: the only free player available to Phillips.
Phillips passes the ball to Matthews but Harrison is already well on his way to putting him under pressure. Klich sprints back to close the passing lane to Pearce and Tyler Roberts moves to cover the player that Harrison has left behind, Sam Field.
Adam Matthews finds Field but now all the Charlton players in the vicinity are being marked. Field returns the ball to Matthews who goes down the line and loses the ball.
The -1 forward press principle allows Leeds to manipulate their opponents into areas where Leeds can then initiate a more effective press. Once the opposition are put under pressure, then Leeds finally go man-for-man and each gap left behind is filled by a teammate.
Of course, this is just one example of a forward press. There are countless others. Here’s one of the commonest that you will have seen on numerous occasions:
In this situation, Charlton have passed the ball back to their central centre back, Jason Pearce. Bamford and Hernandez are pressing according to the -1 forward press principle.
With Pearce having played the ball back to Phillips in goal, Bamford takes a quick glance to the side to see Hernandez marking Lockyer, the far-sided centre back.
Taking this into account, he presses the keeper but curves his run to close down the passing lane back to Pearce. Phillips goes long and the ball is turned over.
At the other end of the field, Leeds use the spare man from their forward press as a sweeper behind their other defenders to help out with ball-winning but also to give them a pivot to begin building up the play in the event of a turnover.
As we have already seen, Bielsa likes to use Ben White as the free man through a combination of his on-ball ability and his slightly weaker aerial strength. There is a level of flexibility, though. In this example, White is tracking Macauley Bonne back for a ball over the top and Ayling, the outside centre back, has come across to help:
The rest of the team will take up their men in the man-orientated system behind the run of play here and prevent Bonne from being able to move the ball on if he manages to evade the two centre backs. In this way, the extra man should press and help slow down the play down to allow the man-oriented marking structure time to reconfigure itself.
The -1 and +1 principles, therefore, should be seen as operating within the broader two-tiered system: they allow for an intense press so that time is bought for the man-marking system to kick in.
Hopefully, this primer to Leeds’ defensive system will give you a building block from which to watch future games under Marcelo Bielsa. Once again, a reminder that these are just the basics of what is a very complex system which has various iterations during game play. These four principles, though, form the basic structures of Marcelo Bielsa’s defensive system and should shine through in whatever situation unfolds on the pitch.