For years, my defence mechanism of choice when watching Leeds United was to predict that they’d lose. That way, if it came to it, at least I could claim the hollow victory of a correct prediction in the car on the way home. It wasn’t in the spirit of things, but neither was Leeds losing 2–0 so needs must. Season after season of lax defending made this insurance policy a staple of my matchday experience until Marcelo Bielsa established some defensive order at Elland Road.
Last season, however, the defensive solidity I’d become accustomed to was at times brought into question. Leeds suffered several heavy defeats — most notably a 6–2 humbling at Old Trafford and back-to-back 4–1 defeats against Leicester and Palace. But after the half-way point in the season, only four teams conceded less goals than Leeds. This remarkable transformation is a reminder (not that we needed it) that Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics are far less naïve than some would have us believe. At times last season that fact was obscured, but when Bielsa’s system works like we know that it can, Leeds are as solid at the back as they are scintillating going forward.
Bielsa chooses to defend with a high press and man-marking. He expects his players to work tirelessly to regain possession and refuses to afford opponents time on the ball anywhere on the pitch. His preference for man-to-man marking means that his team can often look chaotic when defending, but there is method behind the madness. This proactive form of defending helps Leeds to win the ball back quickly and facilitates their attacking brand of football.
In the Championship this system worked exceptionally well. On their way to winning the league in 2019–20, Leeds conceded just 35 goals — a feat that has only been bettered on three occasions in the past fifteen seasons. This outstanding record demonstrates how effective Bielsa’s defensive tactics can be when his team is playing at its best.
The step up to the Premier League, however, proved to be a much greater challenge. The tone for the first half of the season was set on the opening day in a 4–3 defeat to Liverpool. Right from the off, Leeds established themselves as one of the league’s most entertaining teams and only missed out on a point after giving away an 88th minute penalty. But, more worryingly, the goals they conceded also set a precedent. Leeds struggled to defend set pieces and found that Liverpool had the quality to play through their man-marking system. These issues became familiar problems and by the halfway point in the campaign, only West Brom had let in more goals than Leeds.
Criticism of Bielsa’s defensive tactics reached its peak when Leeds conceded thirteen goals during a four-game run in December 2020. The way these goals were conceded — five from set pieces and six in a single game against Manchester United — exposed Leeds’ greatest flaws.
During this run, Chelsea and West Ham were especially dominant from set pieces. Pin-point deliveries from Mason Mount and Aaron Cresswell combined with the aerial threat of players like Giroud and Souceck proved too much for Leeds. At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s aerial dominance was such that they were first to seven of their eight corners.
The following week, and only four days after conceding from yet another corner against Newcastle, the vulnerabilities of Bielsa’s man-marking system were exposed against Manchester United. Solskjaer’s side used direct line-breaking runs and clever movement to exploit the gaps left by Leeds’ marking system to devastating effect. The Leeds defenders were pulled all over by Man U’s front four which created space for deep runs at the heart of the Leeds defence. As Leeds tried to claw their way back into the match, they left themselves hopelessly overstretched at the back, and the game showed Bielsa’s side at its chaotic worst.
After mid-January, however, the team’s defensive performances improved drastically. So much so that Leeds went from conceding 34 goals during their first 19 games to just 20 across the same number of games in the second half of the season. Several factors contributed to this improvement. None more so than Diego Llorente recovering from injury to become a pivotal figure in the second half of the season. The Spain international was signed during the summer for a fee of £18 million but managed just two appearances prior to January. His athleticism and confidence on the ball is exactly what Bielsa wants from central defenders and it’s no surprise that the White’s best run of form coincided with Llorente making 13 thirteen consecutive starts.
The Spaniard wasn’t the only one of Bielsa’s centre backs to struggle with injuries. Between them, Liam Cooper, Robin Koch, and Gaetano Berardi missed fifty-eight games through injury or suspension. As a result of these disruptions, during the course of the season Leeds fielded fourteen different centre back partnerships and the most used combination played just seven games together. While I’m keen to avoid sounding too much like a Liverpool fan and attributing all our problems to injuries, it’s hardly a surprise that an injury hit-defence that went long stretches of the season without our big-money summer signings struggled at times. If Leeds can reduce the number of defensive injuries they suffer next season, the consistency and stability this will provide should be reflected on the pitch.
Tactical adaptations and adjustments also contributed to the improvement in Leeds’ defensive performances. While Bielsa’s championing of ball-playing centre halves means there is no quick fix for his side’s vulnerability from set pieces, encouraging Illan Meslier to venture off his line and intercept crosses proved to be a successful tweak. This adjustment helped Leeds to cut down the number of goals they shipped from corners and indirect set pieces from 8 in the first half of the season to 4 after the midway point.
A greater degree of savviness and composure throughout the team is also epitomised by Meslier. Rather than insisting on playing out from the back on every occasion, he has become more willing to look for long passes when there is nothing else on. Doing so helped to reduce the amount of times Leeds lost possession in dangerous areas during the second half of the season which, in turn, led to a sharp decline in number of times I had to cover my eyes with fear. Happy days.
Pragmatism and maturity grew into Leeds’ performances as the season went on. Especially when facing the strongest teams in the league, Leeds displayed a level of composure and discipline that was lacking at the start of the season. In Spring, hard-fought draws against Chelsea and Manchester United showed that Leeds can frustrate their opponents and grind out results in challenging circumstances. They can even go one better and steal all three points from league-leaders Manchester City, having withstood immense pressure with ten men for more than half the game.
These gritty, disciplined performances undermined the narrative that Leeds either batter their opponents or get battered themselves. Instead, towards the back end of the season Bielsa appeared to find a sweet spot between defensive solidity and attacking flair. That this took the best part of a season is hardly a surprise. After all, the Argentine tore up the rule book for how a newly promoted side is supposed to approach the Premier League.
As for next season, the whole team will benefit from having a full season of Premier League football under their belts, but don’t be surprised if Meslier and Pascal Struijk, in particular, reach new heights. They were both just 20 years old when they made their Premier League debuts at Anfield last year, having mustered 16 first-team appearances for Leeds between them prior to that. Their inexperience was apparent at times — Struijk managed just 21 minutes before being substituted against Aston villa, while mistakes by Meslier played a part in two of Tottenham’s three goals against Leeds in January. However, taking everything into consideration, they each had immensely impressive seasons. Having found their feet, both could play their part in ensuring Leeds are more solid at the back in the season ahead.
Now that Leeds have shown that they are capable of defending at this level, the question is whether they can do it consistently. The jury is still out on that one, and certainly don’t expect defending set pieces to suddenly become a breeze. But if Koch and Llorente suffer from less injuries, Firpo slots in smoothly at left back, and Meslier and Struijk continue to develop like they did last season, all the signs suggest that Leeds will be a lot less shaky at the back in the year ahead. Easy as that…