When Leeds United clinched promotion to the Premier League in July, fans of attacking soccer rejoiced. Under head coach Marcelo Bielsa, the Championship winners usually played a possession-heavy style that allowed them to control games and score lots of goals. It’s safe to say then that fans were expecting Leeds to turn most matches into chaotic bangers and, through two outings so far, the club has lived up to the hype: Leeds has scored and conceded seven goals, losing to the defending champions, Liverpool, by a score of a 4-3, before winning by the same scoreline against newly-promoted Fulham.
What might surprise long-time Leeds observers, though, is that in neither game did the team actually stick to its possession style in order to pour in the goals. Against a superior Liverpool side, Leeds figured out, quite wisely, that Liverpool’s midfield was ripe for bypassing, and so Bielsa decided to do just that by mounting vertical attacks through the wings. Leeds also capitalized on a rare Virgil van Dijk error for a goal, but even that was born of its press was so manic and the threat of getting in behind Liverpool’s back line was so real.
It was more of the same against Fulham on Saturday. Though Leeds scored two goals in the first half, Fulham’s own high-press stymied the Whites, who only had 42 percent possession. New signing Rodrigo Moreno, recently acquired from Valencia, was dropped into a midfield/forward role in the first half, and he didn’t particularly shine. Given that Leeds was lucky to get to halftime with a one-goal advantage, something had to change for Bielsa and Co.
Two tactical shifts at the break turned the game around, opening it up to exactly the same type of chaos from the Liverpool match. The first shift was subbing out Moreno for Tyler Roberts, who proved more adept at linking the midfield and striker Patrick Bamford together, while also exploiting any spaces in the press. The other, more substantial change involved switching to a gameplan similar to the one from the Liverpool match: Leeds couldn’t break the organized Fulham press, so they opted instead to completely bypass it, relying on long balls to the flanks.
The fourth goal (7:22 in the video below) is a perfect example of this shift: Leeds goalie Illan Meslier booted the ball to left outside midfielder Jack Harrison, who in turn headed it over to Bamford running down the left wing, who crossed it to Hélder Costa for the 4–1 advantage.
(Bamford, so often derided for his lack of goalscoring, was superb on Saturday, exploiting the right side of Fulham’s defense, both in the goal above and the one prior. Fulham had no answer for his pace and movement.)
Here you may notice that Leeds only won by a score of 4–3, and this is where their weaknesses as a team come into play—the same weaknesses that made their first two games such incredible viewing for neutrals. Under Bielsa, Leeds deploys a man-marking defensive style, giving every player someone to follow around in hopes of suffocating opposing attacks. It’s an unconventional strategy, though it’s one well-suited to Leeds’ assembly of hard workers across the field who can shadow players before they receive the ball. The problems come in when opponents break through the man marking.
With no one in set zones to cover for mistakes or simple dribbles past one-on-one defenders, Leeds’ defensive solidity breaks down all too easily. Each of Fulham’s two second-half goals demonstrated this in similar ways. Both came from counter-attacks, with Leeds attackers way out of position to track back and the more defensive players busy occupying their assigned men. This allowed the Cottagers to exploit acres of space with their own pacey players, and it turned what should have been a comfortable home win into a fireworks factory of anxiety.
Against the lower quality Championship sides last season, Leeds’s defensive shortcomings often went unpunished; their 35 goals conceded made for the league’s stingiest defense. The team will not be as fortunate in the Premier League, even against presumable relegation battlers like Fulham. As shown by the Liverpool match, Leeds does have the firepower to turn any game into a goalfest, no matter the opponent, but the Premier League season is long and grueling, and playing at breakneck speed in every minute of every match is something that even the best and deepest teams can’t do.
It’s not clear if Bielsa is the coach to transition the club from Championship contenders to Premier League stalwarts, as fantastic as he has been in getting Leeds back into the top division for the first time since 2004. Maybe he doesn’t need to be, at least not yet. Leeds’s main goal this season, as it is for most every newly promoted side, is to avoid relegation and the potential of “yo-yoing” back down to the Championship. If they lose some shootouts with the top six in the process, so be it; the club should still have more than enough talent to rack up goals and points against the table’s bottom dwellers.
Looking beyond this season, it might be fair to question the effectiveness of Bielsa’s all-action style. Change might cost Leeds some support from neutrals, who will love how Leeds sets itself up for mayhem, but if the goal is to achieve sustained success in the Premier League, it may prove wise to tone down the fun in order to increase the points.