Why it’s time to carefully consider whether it’s best for Leeds United to continue with Marcelo Bielsa beyond this season
In this piece, Josh Hobbs discusses the future of Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa, and asks whether it will soon be the right time to make a change…
Before I get into the topic of this piece, let me please caveat some things, as I’m aware of the sensitive nature of the topic amongst Leeds United fans:
Marcelo Bielsa is and deserves to be known as a club legend. Talking about him leaving is a painful and difficult thing, given all that he has done for Leeds. Before this season, it’s not something any Leeds fans really wanted to even think about. It was always a question of whether he would want to stay, never a question of whether the club would want him or not.
However, that’s because before this season, it has clearly been a net positive to have Bielsa as coach, despite some of the difficulties that come with him being in charge. This season though, a strong case can be made to argue that he’s no longer a net positive, and that the end of this season would make sense for all parties to thank him for everything and bid him goodbye.
I want to explore this and be clear that I’m thinking about what might be the best for the future of Leeds United, rather than hating on a legendary manager. I’m sure it will be misconstrued by some but I felt I would say this at the start to try and protect myself from the lynching.
With that said, here is why my personal feeling — said with a heavy heart — is that I think the club will need to consider carefully whether they want to continue with Bielsa next season, should he even want to:
In the first three years of the Argentine’s time at Elland Road, the constant narrative was around the idea that Leeds would crash and burn at the end of seasons because it simply wouldn’t be possible for the team to continue at the level of intensity asked of them over the whole season.
Let me be clear that I think that narrative is nonsense. Despite Leeds falling off at the end of 18/19, that was due to frankly horrendous finishing, meaning the Whites were punished at the other end after failing to convert chances when well on top. Although Sheffield United and Norwich finished above Leeds in the table, the underlying numbers had Bielsa’s side finishing comfortably top.
Then Leeds were cruising in the playoffs before the error from Liam Cooper and Kiko Casilla changed the momentum of the tie. What happened there couldn’t be attributed to burnout, in my view.
In 20/21, obviously, Leeds were promoted, winning the Championship by 10 points. There was the break in play due to the Covid shutdown, but everybody should remember Leeds were on a run of five straight wins without conceding a goal before the halt. It’s possible that run of form may have gone on, rather than returning to a 2–0 loss against Cardiff City in the first game after the break. This is speculation, but it’s possible Leeds might have been even more comfortable had the break not happened.
Returning to the Premier League last season, Leeds then set about the top division playing with the intensity they had in the Championship. Rather than dropping their levels in the second half of the season, they were one of the teams with the best form late in the season, securing a ninth place finish and putting up a solidly mid-table performance in terms of expected goal difference.
This season, Leeds haven’t been anywhere near as impressive and currently sit 15th in the table, just one point above 16th and two above 17th and the underlying numbers show their decline as well:
The reason that I have looked at expected goal difference here is that it shows Leeds haven’t simply been unlucky in some results this season, or that they were carried by lethal finishing last season. They fully deserved to be in mid-table last season and they fully deserve to be scraping at the bottom this time around, according to the quality of chances created.
So, what does this have to do with burnout?
Well, there are lots of theories about why Leeds are bad this season. The prevailing one is terrible luck with injuries. My personal feeling is that the injuries Leeds have this season aren’t all down to bad fortune. Of course, luck always plays a role in these things but I think to solely put it down to that misses the point.
Here are all the injuries Leeds have had to first-team players, represented by number of games missed:
Of course, a small number of these are Covid-related rather than injuries but it’s basically impossible to filter for that, unfortunately. Also, some of the U23s players have had other injuries this season, but I have not included those if they came before they made their Premier League debuts as that seemed to be taking it too far. We should also note that Stuart Dallas will almost certainly miss games after going off injured against Everton, whilst Leo Hjelde appeared to twist his knee late in the game and could also be out.
With those things in mind, this is a lot of absences, to put it mildly. In fact, it’s 118 individual absences from match-day squads.
Of those, 56 are made up from the players who have played and trained under Bielsa for almost four seasons now. This is a long time for a player’s body to be pushed as hard as El Loco pushes his players. I would argue that this is a key reason why we’ve seen so many injuries.
Let’s take the example of Patrick Bamford, who has now been out for the longest amount of time this season and doesn’t appear to be returning any time soon, given that the last time we heard from Bielsa about him, Pat wasn’t even jogging.
Bamford originally damaged ankle ligaments against Newcastle United in the fifth game of the season. This appeared to be a challenge, rather than a strain injury. However, such is the intensity of Leeds’ training under Bielsa — which he has played under for four years — he can’t seem to get fit again without reinjuring himself in another way.
Firstly, he returned against Brentford, scored and pulled a hamstring celebrating. Then, he recovered from his hamstring injury and seemed set to be included against West Ham in the FA Cup. When he didn’t make that game, Bielsa said he had another unnamed injury.
Soon after that, Bielsa said that he had ‘recovered’ but now has an injury to his foot which means he can’t run. This could all be ridiculously bad luck, but when considering that Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips both also tore hamstrings against Brentford, it feels like there’s some weight to the theory.
I would also draw your attention to this article that I wrote about the summer transfer window, where I mentioned the amount the core players had played in 20/21. Bamford was right in the danger zone having played an extremely high proportion of minutes. Injuries to players like Luke Ayling, Dallas and Bamford seemed inevitable to me at that time.
As well as injuries, I would argue that burnout could be seen in downturns in form. Ayling has been wildly inconsistent, as well as having an injury, whilst Mateusz Klich has largely been fit but has looked a shadow of his former self at times. These players are aging and have been asked to play in a very demanding way for four seasons. It’s hard for them to keep producing like they have done in the past.
This leads me conveniently to my next point.
Small Squad Policy & Transfer Handling
You may not agree that the injury crisis this season is at least partly of Bielsa’s own making. However, something which is pretty inarguable is that Leeds haven’t had the squad depth to cope with it. This is entirely Bielsa’s own design. He wants to keep the squad small and he always has throughout his time at the club.
In the three previous seasons, Leeds have always been able to cope with injuries. It felt like they’d had a lot of injuries before but it was never down to the bare bones as much as this season, where Bielsa has been practically forced to give eight Premier League debuts to teenagers. Last season, Leeds struggled badly with centre back injuries but they were largely fine in other areas of the pitch.
This season, the squad depth looks like this:
There are 20 players in the ‘senior squad’ section, although perhaps we have been generous putting Crysencio Summerville and Joe Gelhardt in there, given that they still seem to be seen as Under 23s players who are called on less often than the other 18. Hjelde has also emerged as somebody who may get more minutes in the second half of the season, although this might not have been the case without all the injuries.
A key issue that Leeds have under Bielsa is that many players cover multiple positions. In the case of Dallas, he covers midfield as well as both full back options. He ended last season as one of the first-choice midfielders but has barely played there this season due to being required at full back so often. Also, as he is the first choice cover for both sides, there have been occasions where Leeds have needed to utilise centre backs at left back, as full backs on both sides were unavailable and Dallas was unable to cover both at once.
It’s hard to think of another manager who would actively choose this lack of depth. Bielsa often argues that the small depth is supplemented by young players who are ready to compete, but Leeds have struggled badly in midfield this season and Lewis Bate has had only 45 minutes of Premier League action. Meanwhile, Joe Gelhardt has proven himself as the best Bamford backup in the eyes of many, yet Bielsa prefers to start an out-of-position Dan James upfront than use the teenager more.
When it came to the January transfer window, Leeds appeared to only move for Brenden Aaronson and were unable to convince RB Salzburg to sell one of their key starters mid-season. Of course, we don’t know the full picture behind the scenes, but we are led to believe that Aaronson is the one Bielsa was set on, and was not interested in any other target.
This seems particularly strange, given that there were plenty of other players which could have improved the squad situation for Leeds, other than Aaronson. It should be the case that Leeds are going to be safe regardless of whether they bought another midfielder in January, however it doesn’t help the overworked players this season.
It’s made all the more strange when considering that Leeds were strongly linked with Takumi Minamino in the transfer window, but the word came out from prominent journalists that Leeds were only ever interested in him as a replacement for Summerville if he went out on loan. Considering Minamino could have been pursued regardless, given the fact that his quality level is far beyond Summerville at this stage, as well as that he can play in attacking midfield or up front, it seems an odd deal for Leeds not to pursue.
In all of the press conferences leading up to January, Bielsa stated he would be happy to have ‘better players’ if some became available. In this case, it seems there was one but he still didn’t want the player. With Bielsa in charge, there is simply no bending on squad depth.
I will also state that many place the blame for transfer errors on the board, including Victor Orta, rather than on Bielsa. As Orta is responsible for transfers, I can see why this is, but it’s been made clear on several occasions that the manager has been given autonomy on squad size and on the final targets. Once he then picks his first choice player, he doesn’t tend to want to consider other options, even if the first one isn’t available. Some might not buy those stories but I’m taking them at face value.
Time For A Rebuild
With all that in mind, this summer seems to be the time where a rebuild is required, in terms of the squad.
The question is: if Bielsa stays, can that really happen? As Phil Hay has written recently, Leeds need to ‘shed their Championship skin’. It seems to me that the only way that the Whites can successfully do that is to move on from the majority of the players who won promotion. This doesn’t necessarily mean cutting them all loose, but it at least means upgrading from them as starting players.
Depending on whether Dan James or Harrison is the first-choice left winger, Leeds’ first XI when everybody is fit still has seven or eight players in it who played for the club in the Championship. This number has to be reduced significantly next season if the team is going to really kick on in the Premier League.
Of course, players like Illan Meslier, Pascal Struijk, Kalvin Phillips, Bamford (when fit) and to a lesser extent Harrison look like having bright futures at the top level. Forshaw and Dallas have been more than comfortable and can easily continue to contribute as squad players but Bielsa needs to now phase some others out.
There was an opportunity to do more of this last summer and to have only brought in two players for the first team was a huge oversight. Of course, the failed pursuit of Conor Gallagher is well-known but the fact Leeds didn’t bring in anybody else after failing to secure their number one target was an error they’ve paid for ever since, as they’ve struggled so badly in midfield.
It’s important to remember that Bielsa is in uncharted territory with Leeds; he has never managed a club for as long as he’s been at Leeds. It seems as if he’s worked with the majority of the current squad for so long that he finds it difficult to imagine that anybody could perform the roles he asks his players to do, therefore he would rather stick with them rather than overhaul the squad to a level he’s never had to do at any of his previous clubs.
Given that he seems to have been a primary reason for a lack of signings in January, it could be more trouble than it’s worth trying to convince Bielsa to be part of a rebuild in the summer.
The System Isn’t Reaping The Benefits It Once Was
Finally, the way Leeds play simply isn’t bringing the results it brought in the past.
In the Championship, Bielsa’s system transformed the Whites into the dominant force in the division after one pre-season, and in the Premier League, it opened them up to some heavy losses from top teams but meant they largely dominated against the bottom half of the table.
The system features man-marking all over the pitch, apart from the striker marking two centre backs, leaving one of Leeds’ centre backs as the covering man (explained in proper depth by Jon, here), coupled with ‘verticality’ and speed in attack, and overloads in the wide areas.
This system brought Leeds 14 wins against the bottom half of the table last season. This season it has brought four, with only six games remaining against the bottom half teams.
So what’s happened here?
Firstly, it seems teams have realised how to defend better against Leeds. In the Championship, many teams would be scared to press Leeds for fear of what would happen if the Whites bypassed the press and could run through their midfield. In the Premier League, the pressing systems are far better and Leeds can find themselves in situations like they did against Everton at the weekend where they are penned back and can’t progress the ball forwards.
When they do, they are too easily pinned in wide areas, as shown below at Goodison Park.
Jack Harrison has the ball on the left wing and is pinned to the touchline by Alex Iwobi. There is a diamond of Everton players stationed just inside to cut off any options for Harrison to pass inside or down the line to. Therefore, he tried to dribble and lost the ball.
Defending like this nullifies Bielsa’s overloads and wide rotations, and Leeds don’t have quality in central areas to effectively create when their wide options are taken out of play. Last season, only Brighton really did this from the bottom half teams. It’s now something that far more teams are doing and Leeds haven’t come up with an answer.
To illustrate the difference, here’s last season’s non-penalty expected goals for from the Premier League:
Here’s this season’s:
So, Leeds are now creating 0.25 non-penalty expected goals fewer per 90 minutes than they were last season. This drops them from the fourth most creative team in the league to the tenth. The loss of Bamford for almost all the season will be a part of this, given that without him there is often not a target in the penalty area and he is an elite mover in the box. However, I don’t think him being back would fix everything in this regard.
In a defensive sense, Leeds were one of the worst teams for expected goals against last season and they are again this season. However, the drop in attacking numbers has meant that can’t be covered for.
It’s worth noting that Leeds now don’t necessarily come out on top in ding-dong transitional battles like they have done in the past. They may have beaten West Ham away from home but that was an anomaly this season, rather than the rule. In 20/21, Manchester United brutally exposed man-marking at Old Trafford, as did Chelsea at Stamford Bridge but it felt ok to say that elite players would win out in those situations.
This season, many more teams have learned that to create big chances against Leeds, you just need to make your marker follow you away from their position and then exploit the gaps left behind. Jacob Ramsey’s first goal for Aston Villa last week was a prime example of it:
Here, Coutinho pulled Ayling into an area no right back would normally find themselves in a more typical defensive system, and Ramsey sprinted into the space where Ayling would have been, leaving Klich trailing in his wake.
This goal has all the hallmarks of a move worked on in training. Villa recognised that shifting players out of position would pay dividends and they executed this move perfectly.
Villa are a good team under the management of Steven Gerrard and the coaching of Michael Beale, but more and more teams will become confident of their ability to cut Leeds open like this now. It’s not just the top teams who can exploit this weakness in Bielsa’s system.
Again, it begs the question — can or will Bielsa change this?
So far, he has barely shown any sign of willingness to change from his carefully devised tactical structure. In the second half of last season, he did use Dallas more zonally in midfield to stop teams running through the centre at will but for an unknown reason, this tweak has been abandoned this season with no sign of it coming back.
As far as I can tell, if Bielsa is manager of your team, you will uncompromisingly play man-marking, seek superiority in wide areas and try to win in high-intensity transitional phases. That is the plan and it won’t be wavered from.
If Leeds are to develop tactically, then it seems the only way to do that is with another coach. That coach would need to have similar principles, but be more adaptable than Bielsa, who is more of a dogmatist.
So, What Next?
All this leads me to think that the best way forward is to get through the rest of this difficult season and then bring this chapter to a close.
Whilst this season has not been fun, the rest of the time under Bielsa has been a magical time and — as I made clear at the start of this — for that he will remain a legend. My personal feeling is that Leeds will stay up this time but that if he stays another season, the squad will be in an even less healthy shape, even more teams will learn that they can exploit Bielsa’s tactics, and it could be worse than this season.
Some may accuse me of catastrophising but I can only see that ending in relegation. This would obviously be disastrous for the club and impact on Bielsa’s legacy. Nobody wants to remember him as the manager who brought us back up only to go down again.
Leeds are likely to be under new ownership in the summer and if the 49ers want to kick on to the next stage, a reset makes sense. The club will be established in the Premier League after surviving two seasons, and a new forward-thinking coaching with a refreshed squad seems like the best way they can achieve their goals to push on up the table over the next few seasons.