Marcelo Bielsa’s tactical vulnerability: How Antonio Conte, Spurs and the Premier League’s great and good worked out Leeds United’s genius

Swashbuckling at first, even pioneering, eventually the great and the good found a way to bring Marcelo Bielsa to his knees. Stuart Rayner reports.

When they called it an “open letter” to Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds United’s Supporters Trust missed out the word “love”.

At no point in Saturday’s embarrassingly feeble 4-0 defeat at home to Tottenham Hotspur were there chants calling for the sacking which came the next morning.

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Boos at half- and full-time were a first of Bielsa’s tenure, but that was pretty much the full extent of the Elland Road dissent, and the stadium is always the proper barometer of what true fans are feeling.

Dejan Kulusevski celebrates his first goal again st Leeds for Spurs (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

They could never be said to have been disconnected with a coach who gave them so much joy but the problem was canny managers had worked out how to decouple Leeds’s forward line from the rest of the team – and if there is one thing the Premier League is dripping with, it is world-class coaches.

Amongst other things, Bielsa’s success was built on voracious pressing, but hassling the man in possession is a team sport requiring all units of the side to gang up together. Too often on Saturday there was a black hole between the two ends of Bielsa’s team from which Harry Winks – a midfielder Leeds turned down the chance to sign in January – Pierre-Emile Hojberg and Harry Kane created three of the four goals.

In the previous two games, Jurgen Klopp and Ralf Rangnick had cleared a midfield corridor for their right-sided centre-backs to march through to score and create goals.

Explaining after the match how he tries to win games, Bielsa said: “There’s a press in the opponent’s half that prevents the ball getting to their forwards cleanly so when the opponents’ forwards receive the ball they find themselves uncomfortable because the pass that found them was made difficult. In the last three games that hasn’t happened. The passes that came from back to font, they could always pick them.”

Luke Ayling in action for Leeds United v Tottenham Hotspur. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Bielsa had actually selected a more conservative midfield than the one Liverpool ran through three days earlier but his man-to-man marking allowed Antonio Conte to dismantle it.

His reactive tactics mean clever opposition managers can dictate their shape. He always – sensibly – selects one more centre-back than the opponents have centre-forwards with his players expected to stick with individuals rather than mark zones. So with the full-backs detailed to mark Son Heung-Min and Dejan Kulusevski, the inside-forwards behind Kane, others had to deal with the wing-backs.

Raphinha is a brilliant player, albeit one suffering a dip in form, but not one you want to shackle to a key attacking opponent so whilst Jack Harrison looked after Matt Docherty, Stuart Dallas was Ryan Sessegnon’s bodyguard, making him one of three central midfielders in name only.

With key players injured, Leeds did not have the individual brilliance to overcome it.

Marcelo Bielsa after Spurs' second goal. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

It backfired after just 10 minutes, Winks having the space in midfield to play the pass Sessegnon was able to run past Dallas onto and cross for Docherty, who had got in front of Harrison, to score.

When Diego Llorente cleared the ball after 27 minutes it dropped into a central midfield Leeds no-go zone Hojberg was alone in, allowing him to measure a pass for Kane’s goal. Kane got into that space to feed Son.

Add in the demoralised, feeble defending from Llorente and Junior Firpo which Kulusevski glided past for goal two, and you had a recipe for footballing disaster.

After the way he transformed Leeds, putting pride back into a club wallowing away from English football’s top table for over a decade, Bielsa had earnt the right to correct the problems but did not want to.

It was not that he did not want results to improve. Bielsa loved Leeds and worked for them longer than any other club. But he was not prepared to change the methods and principles that would achieve that.

He reiterated as much before, during and after Saturday’s game, whilst admitting the players were currently unable to do what he was asking. The only logical solution was to ask for something else, and the only way Leeds could do that was by changing coach.

Stubbornness is a common trait in top managers and Bielsa’s principles took the club to ninth in the Premier League in May, but were threatening to drag them back into the wilderness they had escaped.