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Marcelo Bielsa Cracks The Code To Deliver Leeds United To The Promised Land


Just when it had started to look like Leeds United would approach the end of a second decade outside of the Premier League, along came Marcelo Bielsa. Stats Perform looks at how the Argentine has masterminded a total football revolution at the Yorkshire club.

By: Jamie Kemp

On the final day of the 2019/20 season, Bielsa will take charge of the Whites for the 100th time. Within this century of games, the Argentine has overseen a total football revolution at the club – taking them from mid-table to promotion contenders in his first season, before unleashing one of the most dominant sides in the competition’s recent history in his second act.

When Leeds blew Stoke away on the opening day of last season – with an XI featuring just one new signing – there was a sense that Elland Road may be about to witness something special. Over the course of a single pre-season in 2018, Bielsa had transformed Leeds into a team with irrefutable identity and did so without an influx of new recruits. Making work with what he already had, Bielsa set about the construction of a team that would later go on to take the Championship title by sheer force.

The primary area in which Leeds have differentiated themselves is their high rate of possession. Bielsa’s side have dominated the ball across both seasons, while they have posted an average possession of 64% this term; the highest such figure of any Championship team in the last seven campaigns.

It is from this platform that Leeds wrestled control of the Championship, and more specifically, their control over the share of chances for and against. Bielsa’s side have been an aggressive attacking outfit while in possession, and a stifling proposition in terms of pressing and recovering the ball after turnovers.

Leeds United, Possession vs. PPDA

Contrary to the stereotype of Bielsa being a proponent of attacking football at the expense of defensive solidity, it has been Leeds’ ability to balance the two that has led them back to the Premier League.

Using Stats Perform’s Expected Goals metric, we can see the extent to which Leeds have dominated the ownership of chances for and against. Bielsa’s side have created significantly more goal-scoring opportunities than any other side, and they have achieved this while still being one of the best performers in a defensive sense.

Leeds’s goals conceded per game average this season is their lowest in a league campaign since 1973/74. Their haul of 21 clean sheets this season is also their most since then. Leeds United won the top-flight English title in 1973/74.

With Bielsa’s side consistently generating a monopoly on scoring chances, Leeds have been able to translate their performances equally well when playing home and away. Since the Argentine took charge at the club, only Liverpool have won more away league games in the top four English tiers. Indeed, Leeds’ victory at Derby saw them set a new club record for most away wins in a league campaign (13).

Squad Usage

Bielsa’s time at Leeds has been an education in how things can be done differently, against the norms of what English football – particularly the second tier – usually demands from those involved. Leeds’s subsequent success thus comes with even greater merit, after many had thought Bielsa’s methods would be too volatile in a 46-game competition.

At the forefront of this, the Argentine’s preference for a small playing squad has not been a barrier to success. Against the backdrop of the modern game, where squad rotation and recovery is heavily prioritised across long seasons with packed schedules, Leeds ignored the status quo and pressed on with full belief in their manager’s preference for a reduced group of contributors.

The Yorkshire side have named more unchanged starting XI’s than anyone else in the Championship this season (17). Their total of 19 different outfield starters is also a league-low. Indeed, this is inflated still, with Bielsa granting youngsters Pascal Struijk and Ian Poveda starts against Derby after Leeds were already promoted.

Such is the extent of Leeds’s uniformity in team selections, midfielder Matuesz Klich has started 92 of their 93 league games under Bielsa – recording the longest run of consecutive league starts by a Leeds player since Gary Kelly in 1995. The only game he has missed was the most recent one, where celebration was the order of the day.

Pablo Hernández

At 35 years old, Hernández’s physical capabilities are not what they always were, but his picture of the game has never been clearer. If Bielsa is the architect off the pitch, then Hernández is his most capable associate on it; the player who accepts the highest individual responsibility within Leeds’s collective play.

Operating from an attacking midfield role, the Spaniard has again been one of the top creative forces in the Championship. He leads all players with 900+ minutes in open play chances created per 90 (2.5), while he is also Leeds’s top contributor in for combined goals and assists per 90 (0.6).

Using Stats Perform’s sequence data, we can also see that Hernández has been the most influential player in the process of his team generating shots. The midfielder has been involved in 217 open play sequences that resulted in attempts at goal. When accounting for minutes played, Hernández leads all players across the Championship in this metric.

Championship Shot-Ending Open Play Sequences

PlayerTeamMins PlayedShot-ending Sequence Involvement Per 90
Pablo HernándezLeeds United24398.0
Said BenrahmaBrentford34577.4
Matheus PereiraWest Bromwich Albion32946.3
Filip KrovinovicWest Bromwich Albion22046.0
Anthony KnockaertFulham31915.9

*players with 50% of possible minutes played

Although his average minutes per appearance has dropped to 70 (compared to 86 the previous season), Hernández’s contribution in 2019/20 has been no less important than it was a season ago. While Bielsa will be remembered as the catalyst who changed the trajectory of Leeds United, the Spaniard’s rank will not be far behind.

Until the time for historical recollection comes, however, the story of the Yorkshire side’s redemption will have many more layers to add. Next season the Whites will return to the top-flight of English football, 16 years after they said goodbye and went as far away as the third tier.

As they prepare to emerge on the other side, Bielsa’s relentless work will soon kickstart again; the Premier League his new point of intense focus. Whatever the future holds, his legend at Elland Road was affirmed long before then.

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