Leeds United return to the Premier League next season following a 16-year absence from the top flight.
Marcelo Bielsa’s high pressing and intense style of play led the club to the Championship title by 10 points. But there will be a sense of intrigue as to how Bielsa and his players adapt to the top-flight. Will ‘Bielsa Ball’ will be as effective in the Premier League?
By comparison, both Sheffield United and Wolverhampton Wanderers stuck by the footballing philosophies that got them promoted. Both teams broke into the top half of the table recently, with Wolves securing European football again this season.
Can Leeds United Emulate Sheffield United’s and Wolves’ Premier League Success?
Will Bielsa Ball Work?
Bielsa’s demand for high-intensity pressing and fast-tempo attacking play was impressive in the Championship this season. Leeds finished the season with the joint best goal difference (+42) in the league and boasted the most wins (28).
In the 5-0 win over Stoke City earlier in July, Bielsa Ball was showcased at it’s finest. Players retained the ball in their own half with quick one and two touch passing before working the ball out wide, overloading the right side, releasing Hélder Costa, who pulled back for Pablo Hernández to finish. There were 30 quick passes before Hernandez finished the move.
While Bielsa took two seasons to reap the rewards of his philosophies at Elland Road, repeating this in the Premier League will be a tougher challenge.
The quicker pace of play and intense press from the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool will make ball retention more difficult. While breaking down teams who sit deeper, like Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Newcastle United and Burnley will also be a tough challenge.
There’s also the concern of the ‘Bielsa Burnout’, which causes player fatigue due to the physically demanding methods of pressing and high-tempo.
Between December and early February this season, Leeds secured one win in ten as the fixtures piled up. While it didn’t completely dent their promotion hopes, player fatigue certainly showed in the busier periods of the season.
New Additions Needed
Bielsa will clearly use his favoured tactics, which he used throughout the majority of his career. But to avoid the inevitable slump in the season, a larger squad will be imperative.
Centre-back Ben White forged a key defensive partnership with captain Liam Cooper last season. The 22-year-old made 49 appearances for Leeds in all competitions. His comfort to retain the ball was a big part of his success in Bielsa’s side.
White, however, since returned to his parent club, Brighton & Hove Albion. It remains to be seen if Leeds will make a permanent move for the centre-back.
Aside from White and Cooper, the likes of Pascal Struijk (five appearances) and Gaetano Berardi (21 appearances) offer cover centre back. But the pair were clearly back-up options for Bielsa last season.
Leeds will also need to strengthen their attacking options. Patrick Bamford led the line for Bielsa for the entire season, scoring 16 goals in 45 appearances.
Currently, the only other recognised striker at the club is Jay-Roy Grot, who recently returned from a poor loan spell for Vitesse in Holland. Grot scored two goals in 22 appearances in the Eredivisie.
The reliance on Bamford highlights the major need for two, possibly three strikers to compete with the 26-year-old.
What Can Leeds Learn From Sheffield United and Wolves?
While these three teams use different football tactics, Sheffield United and Wolves display some similarities in how they achieved success in the Premier League.
Firstly, like Leeds, both clubs kept managers who believe in a certain style of play. For Wilder, a counter-attacking 3-5-2 approach is central.
Wilder fielded this formation in all of United’s 44 matches this season. But the rigidness of this approach, focus on defensive structure and direct counter-attacking play led to a ninth-place finish and the fourth-best defence in the league.
In three of his four seasons in charge of the Blades, Wilder favoured 3-5-2. The only time he deviated from this philosophy slightly was during United’s promotion campaign in 2018/19. Here he used a 3-4-1-2 approach instead of a flat five across midfield.
While Wolves play a more attacking game than the Blades, their unwavering principles under Espirito Santo show similar characteristics.
The Portuguese coach also favours the three central defenders, more a 3-4-1-2 as opposed to a 3-5-2. The only major difference is that Wolves make the most of their technically gifted players further up the pitch.
Wolves used 3-4-1-2 in 47 matches during Espirito Santo’s first campaign in the 2017/18 Championship season. This resulted in a dominant campaign where Wolves gained 99 points and the Championship title by some distance.
Wolves occasionally deviated from 3-4-1-2 in the Premier League, but they always field three centre-backs. Again, showcasing the unwavering philosophy of a manager which led to back to back qualification to the Europa League.
For Leeds, the Bielsa Ball philosophy could pay off with new additions to the squad. If the Argentinian can find the right players who take on his approach, like Ben White, whilst not breaking the bank, Leeds could break into the top half of the Premier League next season.