What Leeds United could expect from the tactics of Marcelo Bielsa


by Daniel Fraiz-Martinez

Stranger than fiction. Possibly the best way to describe a potential Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United. Although that would probably be just a drop in ocean of the many cliché’s you’d here and read that will surround his hypothetical arrival in England.

Some more plausible than others, especially in the tactical sense where a lot of half-truths always surround an undeniably fiery, idealistic persona.

You’d be ‘crazy’ to believe them all without question.

But with that in mind now is as good a time as any to challenge a few of the most common myths behind the Bielsa footballing method.

He always plays in a 3-3-1-3 formation

Amongst the most popular conceptions that surround Marcelo Bielsa is the one that surrounds the use of his preferred 3-3-1-3 formation.

Undoubtedly as dogmatic tactician as they come, Bielsa’s marriage to it is not truly born around the value of a particular structure ahead of all others.

In fact quite the contrary as he’s publicly stated on many occasions how he weighs relatively little to footballing shapes as whole. When the ball is in play there are no formations, there are simply spaces.

This is why the wedlock between 4-2-1-3 and 3-3-1-3 is in point of fact influenced by the prized ‘+1 Defensive Specificity’ concept.

“If the opponent attacks with 2 (strikers) then why do I need to defend with 4, instead of 3? 

The extra player I’m using here I will ‘miss’ elsewhere on the pitch.”

 – Marcelo Bielsa: Aspire Academy 2016.

Whilst in essence a quote from El Loco, technically speaking the mantra of +1 in relation to the opponent is actually an idea Bielsa openly admits he stole from the great Johan Cruijff.

Renowned for an attacking emphasis (much like Cruijff before him) Marcelo Bielsa has always been open with respect to his prioritising the selection of players with attacking conditions in mind above the defensive ones.

Ergo among the 10 formations he recognises exist within the game, Bielsa’s base 4-2-1-3 structure, visibly morphs into a 3-3-1-3. However, this is ultimately often dictated as a result of facing opponents with three, two, or even one forward.

LOSC Bielsa 3-3-1-3 The +1 Defensive specificity concept

A recent example of this at Lille, represents the favoured way the form can be switched from the initial 4-2-1-3 to a 3-3-1-3, for example:

– The defensive midfield pivot (Ibrahim Amadou) dropping in-between the two centre backs.

– The full-backs (Malcuit & Kouamé/Ballo-Touré) then pushing up into the midfield. where the notional ‘No.8’ – box-to-box midfielder, drops in to compensate and form the second line of 3 ahead of the defence.

All the while attempting to retain the now infamous spatial distribution in both: length (approx. 25 metres “head to toe”) and width (evenly cascaded across the half space lines).

Indeed the symmetry that the 3-3-1-3 offers to support these two principles in particular is touted in many circles as the secondary key component to Bielsa’s predilection towards the formation.

This not taking into account the tactical demands of the players continually interchanging. Allied to the relative rarity of the formation as a whole, are arguably why the ‘No.8’ role along with that of the full-back(s) who impact greatly in linking the attack, are typically the key positions within a Marcelo Bielsa team.

Such is their importance to the structure in understanding the moments of the game in the sense of when to rotate + their significant roles within the transitional phases.

Although notwithstanding his famed penchant for mechanisation. The relative fluidity of the players roles and movement can also be seen as the reason for why Bielsa feels the need to instil three fixed defensive players who provide a balance in his XI* . (Alongside the 3 that he calls “Mixtos” – mixed role, as well.)

“His sides are all ‘lungs’ and no brains”

Having already provided evidence for the case against such as claim. An Exhibit B, would require loosely borrowing a basketball term in the patented ‘Full-Court’ Bielsa press. A concept that is arguably as synonymous with the Argentine tactician as even any of his celebrated nicknames are.

Truth be told though as a result of the paradigm a great deal of nuance and tactical layers are routinely overlooked by simply labelling this as a pure gung-ho ‘Man-to-Man’ strategy.

Bielsa, and perhaps contrary to popular convention again, actually proposes what is broadly known as a ‘Flexible Man Marking’ pressing set. In that at its core it largely resembles the original standard Man-to-Man duelling idea, with added plasticity.

The key defensive distinction is that players seek to ‘pass on’ opponents to each other whenever possible, in order to avoid being drawn away from important areas of the pitch. As well as being able to double-up and swarm said fundamental zones to win the ball back quickly.

(Also with the tertiary intent to minimise the confusion usually caused when opposition players switch positions during a game to evade the press. The latter particularly significant given Bielsa rather unconventionally does not set his teams up to play the offside line.)

LOSC Bielsa -Man-to-Man concepts vs LOM

The LOSC game against former side Olympique de Marseille back in October afforded an excellent contemporary example of the shape and precision of Bielsa’s Man-to-Man strategy, and the components behind this:

A: (Flexible) Man-to-Man, but with a ‘Spare’ – Júnior Alonso on this occasion playing the spare player, as his remaining teammates all pair up one-on-one with their opponents.

A crucial cog in terms of supervising the marking rotations. Alonso, or more precisely the notional ‘Spare man’, plays a key role for one in terms of managing the tempo. Setting the cue to delay/deny/destroy.

B: 1 vs. 2 ‘Cover Shadow Press’ – Generating a spare man invariably also means that at least one player will have to account for a corresponding two of the opposition.

In this instance the left sided player is obligated to go 1 vs.2 and employ a ‘Cover shadow press’ (green shaded area) – Ergo when a player positions himself between the ball carrier and the man + secondary player to mark by covering the latter with the use of the own body/his fictive shadow.

C: Cover Shadow Press + Steer the play towards the defensive ‘strong side’ – The primary goal of both earlier principles are not by coincidence linked to the overall idea.

By restricting the passing options and steering the goalkeeper or opposition defenders on the ball with the use of the body, Bielsa’s teams are committed to forcing their opponents to play the ball into a congested zone. Therefore pro-actively encouraging a culture that favours the opportunity to win the ball back as quickly as possibly, as high up the pitch as possible.

“Aggressive”, “athletic”… “frenzied”?! All descriptions seen as largely emblematic to the Bielsa MO. However, purposeful and systematic are truthfully just as apt.

As much as the emotional-volitional qualities are normally highlighted when describing how Marcelo Bielsa’s teams play, there’s arguably even more cognitive, analytical ones on top. In any given sequence there’s a lot more than simply meets the eye.

Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao versus Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona. A contest seen by many as a seminal example of the (tactically rich) Bielsa Press.

Bielsa prefers “robots” over talented ‘free spirits’

Touched upon in the early parts of the piece when analysing the teams formation, the myth of the rigid Bielsa style (versus the authoritarian manager) is one that if nothing else lacks a huge amount of nuance.

Tata Martino, Pablo Aimar, Ariel Ortega, Andrés D’Alessandro, Alexis Sánchez, Dimi’ Payet, Yassine Benzia (& many more). Have all at some point been the fulcrum of a Marcelo Bielsa side.

Equally: Movement, Rotation, Focus and Improvisation are the well established cornerstones of the Bielsa ideology. Building from this credo his training then focuses on creating intelligent, versatile players who by combining these attributes are better equipped to deal with the continually influx nature of the game.

“Totally mechanised teams are useless, because they get lost when they can’t find their script. 

However, I also don’t like the ones that rely on the inspiration of their ‘soloists’, because when God does not ‘illuminate’ them they are then left at the mercy of their opponents.”

– Marcelo Bielsa

Said statement often provides a bit more to the “If footballers where robots” folklore that has followed the former Argentina manager for some time now.

Whereas Bielsa has a set of stern principals he adheres to, these are designed to unlock a more rounded footballer. Players are educated so they are capable of performing in a range of differing positions and contributing both in defence and attack. Knowing what to do when off and imperatively on the ball.

Some examples of the mechanisms behind this would be:

Always linking the Defence to Attack (2 – 2 & 2)

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 14.37.47

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 14.38.34

Taken from the Second Day of his presentation’s at the Aspire Academy Summit in 2016. Marcelo Bielsa outlining the notional connectivity element(s) of pairing players responsibilities inside the 4-2-1-3 / 3-3-1-3.

Red square = Players who defend. Fixed role (not to be confused with position) pretty much regardless of the opposition shape.

Black square = Players who attack and interchange position. Ergo link the attack from defence – 2 from 3 can join depending on the moment of the game.

IE: If both full backs go forward, the ‘8’ box to box holds along the ‘5’ defensive midfielder.

LOSC Bielsa - Linking the Wings

A practical example of this from last year would be the role of Kévin Malcuit and Thiago Mendes in linking the midfield to attack (Anwar El Ghazi) on the wing. By interchanging positions.

In this example by either Malcuit going ahead of El Ghazi, who stays back – looking to remove a “fixed reference point” to the opponent on the flank. As well as the freedom to interchange positions and surprise. (Indispensable in one of Bielsa’s sides.)

Or if both players join the attack (& Mendes dropping in) – overlapping the opposition and penetrating the blind side. In this scenario you are creating an overload (/Numerical Superiority.)

Coordinated attacking movements

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 15.04.46.png

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 15.05.31

A slide from Bielsa’s tactical symposium in Affligem – Belgium, 2017

In it he emphasises the value of coordinated player movements to unlock the 3rd Man (Option A) or 4th Man (Option B) runs, looking to find space between the lines and unlock compact densely populated defences.

LOSC Coordinated Movements - Ruptura

Another topical representation of the subtle,  yet effective movements Les Dogues used in their first game of the 2017-18 campaign to pull the Nantes defence out of position.

(& how a player should not always only move in relation to the man on the ball/1st intended pass. But actually with an idea in mind to what the receiver of the ball will look to do as soon as he gets it.)

However, for the archetypal display of a Bielsa team’s coordination and guile in movement on and off the ball, then surely most would point to his Athletic Bilbao’s celebrated Europa League display at Old Trafford, back in 2012.

As a famed champion of  the ‘Analytical Method’ of football coaching, a discipline that’s largely taken a back seat nowadays to ‘Tactical Periodization’. Or to the ‘Structured Training’ methodology synonymous with Positional Play, Bielsa and his sides can seem guilty of the rehearsed over the spontaneous, when perhaps an accurate assessment is closer to somewhere ‘centre right’ in a footballing spectrum.

Nonetheless it’s far from a binary conclusion of course. With a chance for all to judge from themselves now seemingly appearing back on the footballing horizon.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielFMPro
Football fanatic/writer:  &! Covering ,  & many more, both in  &  [Creator of]


One response to “What Leeds United could expect from the tactics of Marcelo Bielsa

  1. Pingback: Tactical breakdown of Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 & the principles of 3rd + 4th Man | golazo argentino·

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