Leeds United v Leicester City: Marcelo Bielsa a master at conjuring up solutions

Football is not as simple a game as it once was. Granted, it is not as complicated as some would make it out, but modern players needs footballing intelligence as one of their skills.

Tomorrow, Leeds United face tactical chameleons in Leicester City.

So far this season the Foxes have wheeled out 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-4-1-2 formations. If they were mediocre, the Whites could just ignore it and get on with their own game, but few if any Premier League opponents allow you to do that.

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Leeds also shift shape from time to time, and the foundations lie in the opposition’s forward line. If the other side play with one – or three – up top, Leeds are 4-1-4-1. If they go with a two, Bielsa will want a third central defender. At Norwich City on Sunday they started in a 3-3-3-1 and shifted into 3-5-2 before ending the game nearer where they started.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo  Bielsa.   Picture: Bruce RollinsonLeeds United head coach Marcelo  Bielsa.   Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

If all those numbers are sending your head spinning, imagine having to compute them as finely-tuned athletes run at you from left, right and centre.

Leeds probably do not know how Leicester will kick-off, not after Bielsa’s chastening lesson in English views on training-ground spies a few years ago, and even his opposite number Brendan Rodgers will not know how they will finish. With Junior Firpo and Jamie Shackleton’s availability unclear when the coach spoke to the media first thing on Friday, it is possible he does not yet know who will start for his team. If neither full-back does, there could be a first Premier League start for right-back Cody Drameh.

Fortunately – essentially – Bielsa has a group of players who know his principles and can adapt to the details.

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Rodgers, who cut his shiny white teeth in Chelsea’s youth system, built a reputation at Swansea City, took a few hits to it at Liverpool and stocked his trophy cabinet with Celtic, is Bielsa’s kind of manager.

Patrick Bamford remains a key miss for Leeds United.Patrick Bamford remains a key miss for Leeds United.
Patrick Bamford remains a key miss for Leeds United.

“He is one of the reference-point coaches in this league,” he says. “He doesn’t have one formation but changes them with sense. All of the different formations are very well formed, very well articulated and very well oiled.

“Every year they have better individuals, not only due to their signings but also their development and how they maintain their players.”

It makes Leicester formidable opponents, but their shape-shifting does not unduly alarm him.

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“As I have been working for such a long time with the same group of players, the difficulty that does exist, is not impossible to solve for us,” he says.

It is similar, he says, coping without Patrick Bamford, Leeds’s only true No 9.

At Norwich, winger Jack Harrison started there before swapping with Dan James. Rodrigo, recalled by Spain to his surprise yesterday, began in the deeper free role that perhaps better suits his personality before partnering James for a while, leading the line without him, then making way for Tyler Roberts, another somewhere between attacking midfielder and targetman.

When Leeds are struggling – one place above the Premier League relegation zone this morning and likely to be there at kick-off with Burnley at Chelsea today – and Bamford is injured, as he has been for the last seven matches, the conclusions are as tempting to leap to as a cool swimming pool on a hot day.

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“Bamford has gone spells without scoring when he is in the starting XI for Leeds,” stresses Bielsa, who could equally point out they have won twice without him this season, but only beaten Crewe Alexandra with him.

“To have a goalscorer is always very important and the fact Patrick has scored a goal every two games in the last seasons is impossible to ignore but we prepare to solve the absence of every player.”

Playing with Bamford – such a good holder of the ball and the sort of forward some defenders would like issued with a restraining order when they are in possession – is not the same as playing without him but again, it is a problem Bielsa believes his players can think their way around.

“The offensive game of a team is fundamentally linked to the characteristics of the players,” he says. “The differences between Rodrigo and Bamford don’t represent difficulties to the other players.

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“When both of them play you have two wingers and a box-to-box midfielder and when one plays, Rodrigo can play behind with a centre-forward in front or in front of a No 10. Bamford usually plays with a No 10 behind. The links between the players are quite simple because it is based on their virtues and they are not difficult to mix.”

“Just get the ball down and play,” is so last century. Football is definitely the thinking man’s game now.

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