Thursday, September 17, 2020

Leeds Breath New Life into the EPL

They Let in Four But Won All the Plaudits

English football would not be averse to giving this season's Manager of the Year award to Marcelo Bielsa after only one game.

The fact it was also a defeat for Leeds United just adds to the aura of admiration glowing around the legendary coach in his first campaign in England's top flight.

Marcelo Bielsa

On Saturday, Liverpool won the season opener 4-3 but knew they had had a real escape. 

The defending champions were eclipsed in most eyes by the Yorkshiremen's innovative tactics, which bore all the hallmarks of a Bielsa hothousing. 

Rarely do away sides come to Anfield and take the game by the scruff of the neck like that or do Mo Salah hat-tricks get so quickly forgotten or even hardly noticed.

The visitors endured a nightmare start when a careless handball gave the Egyptian a chance to score from the spot but Jack Harrison's equaliser eight minutes later was full of bravado and showed the confidence the Premier League new boys have after winning the Championship.

Leeds' third goal was a thing of wonder as five white shirts had infiltrated the Liverpool box to receive Helder Costa's through ball and Mateusz Klich showed a top-drawer first touch and shot past Alisson. Their audacity was almost chutzpah but also the proof of the hours their famously obsessive coach had been dedicating to this clash. 

Bielsa must have relished an opening day's trip to the lion's den, the home of the champions, as soon as the fixture list was released.

His side's fast possession play was clear to see and looked novel in this division - a system of organised pressing, Kalvin Phillips orchestrating from deep and mass attacking, fine-tuned by the centre backs and midfielders splitting wide to stretch the opposition and create space to exploit.

Leeds play vertically and with quick transitions, tactics which helped Leicester City win the Premier League, but they keep the ball more tightly - last season they had more possession and spent more time in the opposition's third than any other Championship team and only Fulham passed more.

Bielsa's side does have weaknesses - they let in four goals in their first match after all, three from schoolboy errors  - the way Leeds' man-marking switched off to let Virgil Van Dijk sail in and score must have particularly irked their assiduous manager.

They are also not that rich so may not have the cash to reinforce in the transfer window like bigger clubs will.

New sides often cause a stir in the Premier League before their tactics get found out and they then struggle, typically from second-season syndrome. A season is long and attritional and shallow squads will suffer. Bielsa's second string's sudden exit to Hull City in the EFL Cup does not bode well.

But there seems something different about Leeds. With the Argentine genius at the helm expect at least a season of fireworks and entertaining tactics to feast on.

So let us give a warm welcome to the new kids on the block, back in the top flight after 16 years in the wilderness.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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