Leeds United are hardly a straightforward side to analyse at the best of times, but the last 18 months or so have been a particularly intriguing period at Elland Road. Legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa took the reigns in summer 2018, almost guided his new side to automatic promotion, but were ultimately edged out in the playoff semi-finals. This season, they’re going again.
To find out more about Bielsa’s Leeds, we spoke to Leeds United fan, football writer, podcaster and radio host Jon Mackenzie. You can see his work on, among other places, the All Stats Aren’t We account on Twitter, a Leeds United fan show on Love Sport Radio, and the excellent Football Today podcast.
What have you made of Leeds’ start to the season?
Marcelo Bielsa took a squad who finished 13th in the league the season before and turned them into the Championship’s Manchester City. Obviously, the precipitous collapse of last season has been well documented but this season has seen Leeds carry on from where they left off before that late-stage loss of nerve. This season, before they lost a couple of key personnel to injury, they were looking even more assured. Which will only make the late-stage collapse this season even worse...
Having missed out on promotion last season, are Leeds on track to go one further this season?
Last season, Leeds were producing numbers that suggested that they were good enough to get promoted automatically. Of course, as people like to point out to me, producing good numbers isn’t enough to see you promoted. But I would consider it fairly rotten luck if Leeds don’t go up this season… That’s the Championship though, isn’t it?
What are your main strengths?
Bielsa. And then, the system he has developed. The team are so well-drilled now that we manipulate space better than any Championship side I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot by now).
Finishing. We’d be cruising this league otherwise.
How important is Kalvin Phillips to the way you play?
Well, everyone in the system is important to the system which is why it works so well. Phillips is great because he is tasked with two roles: ball winning and distribution. In both cases, he is up there amongst the best in the league. There are few central midfielders who can boast of that; they’re usually good at one or the other. Expect to see him in an England set up near you in the next year or so.
Tactically, how do Leeds set up?
Leeds set up in a tactical arrangement that is easy enough to tweak into different formations.
We’ll play two centre backs unless we’re playing against a front three in which case one of the central midfielders will be dropped into the middle of the back three (potentially swapped out for a centre back. Then the full backs are expected to go high, flanking a central midfielder. We play a single striker in most cases but sometimes play two. Other than that, it’s a classic winger on the left and more of a play-maker (Pablo Hernandez) on the right who sits deeper. Unless Helder Costa plays instead of Hernandez in which case the number 10 will either play as more of a 10 than an 8. Confused yet?
Of course, the beauty of the system is that it can be manipulated to the strengths of the players within it. Expect to see Leeds overload the right-hand-side (around Hernandez) and look to make space for Jack Harrison on the left in order to isolate him against your full back.
Beyond that, lots of high pressing, lots of patient possession play, and lots of attempts to cross the ball.
If you’re really interested in the tactics, the best place to go (he says) is my Twitter account @AllStatsArentWe. I’ll be doing a thread there looking at how Leeds will line up at the Madejski Stadium.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
Reading are an interesting team. Any team that adopts a fairly regular structure and sticks with it, I always find interesting. And I also love John Swift. Your 3-5-2 will probably see Leeds playing a 3-5-2 themselves or the famous 3-3-1-3. I think I’m supposed to say I expect us to win but I wouldn’t be surprised to see us drawing equally. I’ll say 2-1 to Leeds.