Will Leeds’ Single Pivot Succeed in the Premier League?

In this article, Tom Underhill looks at Leeds United’s single pivot and wonders how it will fare in the Premier League…

Since Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival, the transformation of Leeds United — both culturally and tactically — has been vast.

Bielsa’s pedigree alone is enough to warrant high hopes for the Yorkshire club’s return to the Premier League. But they go from being dominant title challengers in the Championship to a club for whom survival is now the watchword.

Key to their success under Bielsa has been Kalvin Phillips: the side’s sole defensive midfielder in a 4–1–4–1 or 3–3–1–3. The question is: will a single pivot — a sole defensive midfielder — suit a side who will be looking at survival first and foremost?

In this article, we’ll look at some of the proponents of a double pivot within the Premier League in a bid to answer this question.

Who Plays A Single Pivot?

In possession, this shape will often segue into a 4–1–2–3, a 5–2–3 in counter attacking sides or a situational 3–4–3 in sides that look to dominate the ball.

The latter best explains Leeds’ shape in possession. Phillips drops towards the centre backs to bypass the opposition press in possession and the full backs spread high and wide to combine with the central midfielders.

Having cited Bielsa as an influence in establishing his high pressing possession based game, it should come as little surprise that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are the Premier League side whose shape most closely matches Leeds’.

The graphic below shows this in their average positions data with centre backs Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte being the only players deeper than defensive midfielder Rodri.

City play a high possession, high pressing game which allows them the freedom to play a single pivot. A sole defensive player allows them to get more players forward and the high press on a turnover gives them time to get players back into a more defensive structure.

For Leeds, as a promoted side, to even be compared to Manchester City is remarkable and demonstrates how impressive Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure is. But Manchester City are the dominant side in the Premier League when it comes to possession play. Will Leeds be able to match them for control in-game? Or will they need to temper their tactics somewhat to adapt to a higher league?

Take Sheffield United for example. They are systematically different to Leeds in that they play three centre backs with a defensive midfielder in front, and that this system affords them defensive solidity and attacking width to hit crosses into the box.

For all the success and brilliance of this system, the Blades are not a side ever expected to dominate games in terms of possession. Leeds’ use of Phillips in the Championship was prompted by an intention to attack through ball retention. This makes them largely unique when it comes to promotion into the Premier League.

The single pivot does seem to be an affectation enjoyed by top Premier League sides rather than bottom. Liverpool utilised a single pivot midfield with alternatively Fabinho or Jordan Henderson playing in the deeper role.

The graphic below shows Fabinho as the defensive presence but the positioning of the flanking midfielders means that Liverpool’s three-man midfield maintain the same shape in both attack and defence, allowing their full backs license to get into really advanced positions.

Fabinho’s defensive work is aided by the positioning of his eights and their relative lack of attacking play, compared to that of David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne of City, or Pablo Hernandez and the box-to-box Mateusz Klich of Leeds.

This would suggest that the Liverpool model wouldn’t really function as a blueprint for Leeds United in the Premier League.

Leicester City are another team who played with a 4–1–4–1 for much of last season. They deployed Wilfred Ndidi as the sole defensive midfielder just in front of their defence.

Leicester City offer a different model for Leeds United with Brendan Rodgers using Ndidi in a slightly different role to the way City and Leeds use their single pivot.

Where Guardiola and Bielsa use the pivot to maximise build-up in possession, Ndidi is an out-and-out defensive player used to shield and destroy any oppositional play both through the centre and in covering the wings. His deep positioning is attributed to this screening, rather than using his ball-playing abilities to aid build-up play.

While Kalvin Phillips is by no means just a build-up facilitator and his defending offers an important aspect to Bielsa’s system, it will be interesting to see if Bielsa introduces a more Leicester-style aspect to his team: a little more solidity in the midfield areas and an emphasis on direct wing play creatively.

The Pivot

The Englishman’s heat map for the 19/20 season can be seen below and shows a reluctance to venture beyond the halfway line. This is strange given that, even despite him being the first line of defence in the case of a turnover, you would still expect him to sit in the opponent’s half during spells of pressure.

Compare this to Fabinho and Rodri’s heat maps:

As you can see, the relative possessional (or territorial in Liverpool’s case) dominance their teams enjoy, allows both of these two players to get into advanced positions on the field.

For Phillips, though, the majority of his touches come from deep build-up.

This phenomenon could also be explained by the fact that, although Leeds dominated possession in the Championship last season, they saw far more turnovers of possession per game than either Liverpool or Manchester City. So while Leeds did have a greater percentage of the ball than their rivals in games, these spells of possession were shorter, preventing Phillips with the opportunity to go forward.

On the ball, Phillips plays 5.3 long balls per game, just higher than Rodri’s 4.9 and almost double Fabinho’s 2.9. Once again, the similarities between Manchester City and Leeds United is obvious. Most of Liverpool’s ball progression goes through their full backs but Rodri and Phillips are both happy to use long balls as an outlet during build-up.

However, these stylistic similarities notwithstanding, if we compare the dynamic radars of these three players, Phillips is most comparable to Fabinho.

As you can see, Rodri attempts and wins tackles and duels at a far lower rate than the other two and also loses the ball more in his own half.

Phillips and Fabinho, then, are more rounded players than Rodri — responsible both in the defensive and build-up aspects of their teams’ playstyles.

Conclusion

In the 2018/19 season, Fulham signed expansively in an attempt to dominate games and, in the end, were disastrously unsuccessful. The Norwich team of 2019/20 were similarly ambitious and paid the price. But neither of these sides had a defensive midfielder of Phillips’ ability nor, perhaps, a coach of Bielsa’s ability.

The re-signing of Jack Harrison and Helder Costa, the imminent signing of Rodrigo Moreno, and Leeds’ rumoured pursuit of Ryan Kent show that Bielsa might aim to utilise attacking width more in the coming season.

Will this mean that we’ll see a more solid midfield a la Liverpool to help Phillips out in his defensive duties? Will Forshaw return to the squad in time to add a little more steel and guile in the middle? This approach could definitely be a valuable alternative should Leeds find it hard to implement their preferred system in the Premier League.

However, to discount the approach that has proved so successful in the Championship flies in the face of everything we know about Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds are where they are as a result of his unique perceptions of positioning and getting the best out of a player’s skill set in areas they had not previously been afforded.

Phillips deserves the chance to prove himself as a brilliant defensive midfielder and Bielsa deserves the chance to play his single pivoted formation. The past two seasons more than affords them this right.

All the data visualisations in this article come courtest of Twenty3. All data is from Wyscout.

You can follow Tom Underhill on Twitter @tomd_underhill.

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