West Bromwich Albion v Leeds United – Whites preparing for whole different ball game

IT is fair to say Marcelo Bielsa and Sam Allardyce come at the game of football from different angles.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Leeds United coach Bielsa is the South American purist who is criticised for not being pragmatic enough at times, whilst West Bromwich Albion’s Allardyce is portrayed as the John Bull Englishman whose sides only ever take one route to goal – route one.

Both caricatures are overly simplistic and dragged out to the extremes but it is true to say they and their teams play the game a different way. Bielsa believes the best way to defend is to keep the ball and when you do lose it, do so high up the field. Even though his side had its collective back pressed against the wall by Burnley in Sunday’s second half at Elland Road, they still saw more of the ball than the Clarets over the 90 minutes.

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Hours later Allardyce, by contrast, was content to let Liverpool have 78 per cent of possession in return for a point at Anfield, a ground the Reds have not lost a Premier League match at since Allardyce took his Crystal Palace team there in 2017.

West Bromwich Albion manager Sam Allardyce. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/PA

The beauty of football is that neither is right, neither is wrong. Both have chalked up enough wins and points to justify their methods, both are fondly thought of at former clubs.

Because of that, both have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about media criticism. Allardyce’s has been permanently resident since he got tarred with the tag of being a long-ball dinosaur in his time as manager of Bolton Wanderers.

He may favour the quickest route to goal on occasions but many of his sides, not least the Trotters, could play a bit too. In many ways, he is actually a very modern thinker.

Bielsa’s chip has been more prominent recently, aggrieved at receiving the opposite criticism to Allardyce, that he favours style over substance. He has been eager to deny the charge that has frequently been laid against him.

Leeds United go into Tuessday night's game on the back of a1-0 weekend win over Burnley. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

There is little doubt, though, that broadly speaking Bielsa’s approach is the more fashionable nowadays, influencing stylish managers such as Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola. The theory that the best way to keep clean sheets is to hog the ball was a big part of Guardiola’s Barcelona and the Spanish and German national sides being the best and most dominant teams of this century.

“The best way to defend well is to manage to finish your attacks well and to have the ball,” explains Bielsa.

“In the second half (against Burnley) we didn’t have the ball a lot and we didn’t attack too much. How do you resolve this? Maintaining the possession when you recover the ball or when you have the ball. We weren’t able to manage this and this is something we reproach ourselves for.

“Perhaps in our goals of trying to create danger we took more risks, perhaps we could have been singled out as naïve (another, related bugbear of Bielsa’s).

“For a team to defend well, they have to attack well because those who attack badly lose the ball quickly and this doesn’t allow you to defend well.

“The same goes for attacking. To attack well you have to recover the ball in good conditions when the opponent is in possession of the ball, not when they’re close to our goal.

“For attacking, it’s important you don’t defend badly and to defend well not to attack badly.”

If it sounds a world away from the gritty reality of Allardyce football, which the Baggies are now adapting to having started the season under the more expansive Slaven Bilic, it is not.

“You give the ball away (in your own half) and the opposition are at your back four or your back two and they are shooting and scoring goals,” he told Sky Sports three years ago in what was effectively a seminar in his specialist subject, escaping relegation.

How to avoid that is where the biggest difference lies. Bielsa’s solution largely revolves around having 11 players – yes, in today’s football even goalkeepers such as Illan Meslier cannot get away without it – comfortable receiving the ball in tight situations. Allardyce would tell you he often works for clubs who cannot afford them, and he therefore adjusts accordingly.

If Bielsa’s football has a very 21st Century feel, Allardyce’s is more retro, a throwback to the 1980s, when he was a no-nonsense centre-back.

“I was brought up to always make your first pass forward if you can,” he explains. “Even against the best defensive team in the Premier League, it’s a quick forward pass that creates the opportunity to score.

“Too many sideways of backward passes allow the opposition to get back into their own half and put up two banks of four (something Leeds are being increasingly criticised for not doing often enough).

“I didn’t think Crystal Palace were good enough to break that down, particularly at home, so I wanted to get the ball forward quickly either through the lines or off Christian Benteke.”

Both styles work, both have their faults, and both benefit from occasional dashes of the other. On Sunday, for example, Leeds’ match-winning penalty came from nothing more complicated than a straight ball from centre-back Luke Ayling to centre-forward Patrick Bamford.

What the pair have in common is they believe passionately in what they do and can point to why it works.

It is the contrast of styles which makes English football so entertaining, but results both men will be judged on this evening. One thing both experienced managers can agree on is that is how it should always be.

Last six games: West Brom WLLDLD; Leeds WLLWLW

Referee: L Mason (Lancs)

Last time: West Brom 1 Leeds 1, January 1, 2020; Championship.

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