What does a Good Goalkeeper Look Like in a Marcelo Bielsa System?

In this article, Liam Tharme looks at what goalkeepers are expected to do in a Marcelo Bielsa system…

It is little secret that Marcelo Bielsa is utterly unique within the world of football coaching. However, whilst both the media and analytics community are rightfully united in their obsession with how Bielsa’s patterns and pressing occur on a pitch, little attention is given to how he has his goalkeepers operate.

From an off-the-field perspective, Bielsa clearly has an immense amount of trust in his keepers, which may stem from his playing days as a defender.

At Leeds, Bielsa has rather controversially kept Kiko Casilla in the squad, despite the Spaniard being found guilty of racially abusing Charlton’s Jonathon Leko. Ultimately, thought, Casilla’s suspension has paved the way for Illan Meslier, who kept 7 clean sheets in his 10 domestic appearances last season, conceding just 4 and making 22 saves.

The Frenchman is the youngest goalkeeper in the Premier League this season and the first Millennium born shot-stopper to feature in the division, further emphasising Bielsa’s level of trust.

Given Meslier has made the most touches (321) of any goalkeeper in the Premier League this season, the following question deserves some form of answering: what does a goalkeeper look like in a Marcelo Bielsa system?

A Shot Stopper

Despite his unique approach to football, Bielsa does accept that keepers are primarily there to prevent goals — ‘a goalkeeper’s main function is to make saves’ (quoted in the Yorkshire Evening Post, September 27th 2020).

Leeds’ aggressive press and possession-centric play style means the goalkeeper typically faces shots from a less conventional perspective. After 8 games this season, Leeds had conceded two-thirds of their shots inside the 18-yard box, the highest proportion of any side. Naturally, their 28% of shots conceded from outside the box was the lowest in the league.

It will come as no surprise then, that Meslier faces — on average — the third hardest shots on target of any Premier League goalkeeper (0.38xGA per shot on target). Leeds rank 7th for most shots on target conceded this season (32), but sit in second for total xG of shots on target faced (15.5).

Whilst it may seem straightforward, this enhances the demand for Meslier to keep the ball out of the net. But consider this, not all saves are equal; goalkeepers may hold a shot, parry it out for a corner or parry it out into open play with the possibility of conceding a rebound shot. It goes without saying that those actions sit in that order in the desirability of goalkeeper actions.

Prior to the loss at Crystal Palace, Meslier was one of just three goalkeepers to be overachieving their Expected Goals conceded — albeit marginally — having allowed 13 goals from 13.7xG worth of shots on target. Analysing the 27 saves that Wyscout consider Meslier to have made this season, he has held 15 and parried 12; though of the 12 parries, 7 have been pushed out for corners and 3 parries have been pounced on. New Order Analytics determined Premier League goalkeepers to typically shots 3% more than they hold them and so, whilst Meslier may seem average from an overall shot-stopping perspective, his greater frequency of holds this season deserves praise.

In Transition

Albeit a small sample size, Meslier is clearly capable of ending attacks through shot-stopping, considering two-thirds of his saves ended with the ball in his hands. Such ability is critical for a goalkeeper under Bielsa, given the value he places on direct transitions.

Last season, no Championship team bettered Leeds’ 112 direct attacks — open play sequences starting inside the team’s half which end with a shot/touch in the opposition box, providing that at least 50% of movement has been forward. Whilst StatsPerform’s definition may be jargonistic, it serves a purpose for measuring team’s counter-attacking threats. As of the start of June, an Athletic article noted they ranked top in the Championship for goals from fast breaks — scoring 6 of their 56 from such attacks.

Kiko Casilla demonstrated just how the goalkeepers can be fundamental in these attacks for Leeds; against Hull, his save from Tom Eaves’ header dropped to Kalvin Phillips’ feet, who launched a counter that had Leeds inside the opponent’s box inside 14 seconds. Moments later, Alioski had slid the ball into the Hull net to round off the scoring.

Though not in such extreme goal-scoring fashion, Meslier has done similar this season; against Aston Villa, he launched a counter within three seconds of claiming Grealish’s cross, bypassing the Englishman and five other Villa outfielders with an underarm roll into Jamie Shackleton.

However, although many people value cross-claiming keepers, Bielsa’s system does not demand this within open play at least. By now, everyone knows — or should know — that Leeds press as a team: 26 final third tackles, 1,354 pressures and 456 successful pressures are all the highest of any Premier League side this season.

Defensively, what this means is that Leeds infrequently defend with all their players behind the ball in a block formation — crosses are often a primary source of breaking deep-lying sides down. As such, Leeds have only conceded 64 open play crosses this season, the second-lowest in the division.

Big Lad

Physically, Meslier looks like he should be a dominant ‘keeper in defending aerial balls into the box; standing at around 1.96m (6 foot, 4 inches) in height, the 20-year-old ranks among the top five tallest between the sticks in the Premier League.

More importantly, two-thirds of Meslier’s exits when dealing with crosses have been from set pieces. This is demanded for two reasons: firstly, Leeds defend with a high line when defending set pieces, attempting to catch opponents offside. As the screenshot below — from the home fixture against Leicester — shows, this leaves considerable space closer to goal, thus if opponents are able to generate a shot from the situation, it will be high quality since there will likely be no defenders between the ball and goal.

Bielsa’s use of an aggressive, sweeping goalkeeper can be seen here. Let’s use Meslier in the Wolves home fixture as the example.

There’s around 18 yards of space between Meslier and the defensive line as Pedro Neto strikes the ball. The Frenchman is brave, exiting to around 10 yards from his goal and opting to punch given the pressure he is under, drawing a free-kick in the process.

Secondly, Leeds aren’t great at preventing goals from set pieces, which makes an aerially competent keeper — more required in these situations — irrelevant. Last season, 38% of Leeds’ xGA came from set pieces, the highest proportion of any Championship side. This season, the Whites have conceded 8 of their 17 goals for set piece scenarios, albeit half of those eight being penalties.

It was clear on opening day at Liverpool, however, that this could be an Achilles Heel for Bielsa’s boys, who conceded two penalties, a header direct from a corner and a volley from a set-piece second ball. Whilst hybrid man-to-man and zonal marking systems are typical defensive corner set-ups, Leeds may lie a bit closer to the man-to-man end of the continuum, as the screenshot below shows:

More man-to-man markers means fewer zonal ones, thus increasing the demand for the goalkeeper to defend the 6-yard box zone and actually prevent a shot occurring. Whilst their underlying defensive set piece metrics suggest they have conceded goals at an unexpected rate — 8 goals from 4.82 xGA — it is clear that stopping shots occurring may be a more viable method of set piece defending for Bielsa.

In the 3–0 win at Villa, only Bamford was zonally marking in the box for Leeds. Grealish’s corner on 38 minutes was punched by Meslier with the Frenchman then claiming the second ball in and proceeding to launch a counter through an overarm through which bypassed 8 Villa outfielders.

Aggression and pressing is not just an outfield requirement at Leeds, it’s also a goalkeeping one. Kiko Casilla has a 2 minute 25 Sky Sports video dedicated to his ‘sweeper keeping’ and risk-taking when in-possession; the Spaniard coming 30 yards out of goal on multiple occasions to recover and clear the ball. His heatmap from the game shows just how much he operated outside the area:

Whilst understandably less extreme, Illan Meslier has kept up the ‘sweeper keeper’ role for Leeds this season; only five keepers have bettered Meslier’s five defensive actions outside the penalty area.

In similar fashion to his counter-attack launch against Villa, Meslier broke down an disorganised Wolves block, launching an attack which led to a final third entry.

Statistically, Leeds have netted twice from six fast attacks this season, an impressive rate of conversion. Meslier’s 56 throws are the most of any goalkeeper in the division this season by 9, with the 20-year-old also leading the GK pack for involvements in build-up play sequences leading to goals (3) as well as total xG of possessions involved in (2.24).

Build-Up Play

Whilst such statistical supremacy is immense from an analytical perspective, it may be that Bielsa is not actually bothered as to his goalkeeper's numerical outputs; the Argentine stated that many are “judging using stats that we don’t take into consideration, that I don’t think are correct”. Instead, Bielsa pointed out that he considers a goalkeeper’s ability to build from the back as demonstrative of their confidence.

Fortunately, Meslier is competent here too. Only Bernd Leno (227) has bettered Meslier’s 168 defensive third passes with the Frenchman also ranking second for launched pass completion rate (51.7%). The left-footers ability to build attacks by finding centre-backs, wide players or even forwards makes him a dangerous asset in attack creation.

Against Fulham, Meslier proved this. He initially played the ball to Robin Koch, with the German returning possession, prompting Meslier to punch a diagonal ball to Jack Harrison, positioned wide left. The rest can be seen in the graphic below:

In the same fixture, Meslier became 1 of 3 keepers this season to directly create a chance; his through pass to Jack Harrison bypassed all 10 Fulham outfielders:

Though he can break teams down through launched passes, Meslier — and any keeper under Bielsa for that matter — is primarily required to support the centre backs in build-up play, especially considering Leeds have had 30% of match action in their own third, a total no Premier League side has exceeded.

Bielsa normally has the side — on paper — operate with a 4–1–4–1, though have been known to utilise back threes and midfield threes. The reality is that Leeds are a fundamentally fluid side whom utilise rotations in order to progress the ball. Though they typically attack down the channels, with only 23% of their attacks coming through the middle of the pitch, a percentage only lowered by Palace and West Brom. Wide players Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling, Jack Harrison and Helda Costa all rank among Leeds’ top 5 for progressive yards passed and/or dribbled; Ayling is Leeds’ top performer in both, dribbling the ball 1,882 progressive yards and passing it 4,124 progressive yards.

No side has attempted more through balls than Leeds this season (13) which is testament to their desire to penetrate opposition defensive structures. Ayling leads the pack here too, attempting three through passes. The goalkeeper aids the back line by creating an overload, acting as a pivot player through which Leeds can switch play. Backwards passes typically draw a press from opponents too with football being an invasion game and a backward pass reducing a team’s yardage.

Taking a sample size of Leeds’ games against Leicester, Villa, Manchester City, Sheffield United, Fulham and Liverpool, Leeds created 66 goal-scoring opportunities. Meslier was involved in a whopping 13 of these; on seven occasions he played short to a player in the back-line, part of the drawing a press process. Twice he received the ball back, demonstrative of players utilising Meslier in the build-up phase.

Interestingly, on six occasions he played riskier passes, beyond the first line of opposition pressure rather than behind it, though it is worth noting there is value to doing both. Bielsa’s use of rotations often requires slow build-up play to bide time for players to move and create passing angles and overloads.

Breaking down those riskier passes, three times he played diagonals out to either flank, useful considering Leeds’ preference to attack through this part of the pitch. Twice he broke the first line of pressure centrally, playing into either Mateusz Klich or Kalvin Phillips, two players who are central to Leeds’ build-up play.

Meslier fed the latter of the two against Liverpool, bypassing Firmino and Mane with a ball that allowed Phillips to play on the half-turn, ping a diagonal to Jack Harrison, who slalomed past Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez before firing home.

It is clear that both Meslier’s decision-making and pass execution are good, given his rate of long pass completion is so high and he is involved in such a high volume of possessions leading to shots/goalscoring opportunities. Bielsa’s requirement for his goalkeepers to be able to play both short and long is no better demonstrated than through Leeds’ goal-kick map from last season:

Meslier’s distribution patterns this season indicate that Bielsa is understandably sticking to his play style from goal-kicks. Leeds primarily play short, launching only 21 of their 60 goal-kicks taken. Channel balls are still a big outlet, like in open play; 16 of Leeds’ 43 goal-kicks ending outside the box have been targeted into wide left or wide right areas.

Conclusion

To conclude, then, a Bielsa goalkeeper is a little different to a keeper in another setup. In effect, they operate as the deepest playmaker, having to launch counters in addition to building up play, which they must do both through the back line and through riskier passes targeting more advanced teammates.

Dominating the box is considerably more desirable from a set piece perspective, given Leeds’ threat on the counters and defensive set piece struggles. High lines defensively enhance this, which also suit the likes of Meslier and Casilla whom can comfortably operate outside the box.

You can follow Liam Tharme on Twitter @LiamTharmeCoach.

All the data from this piece is from Wyscout.

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