Leeds United went to Anfield to start their Premier League campaign facing off against reigning champions Liverpool. Their chances took a hit after it was announced captain and starting centre back Liam Cooper had sustained an injury whilst playing for Scotland. Meaning he was ruled out for the opener. This meant Leeds went into the game with a back four who had never played together, Dallas and Ayling the only regulars from last season.
Apart from the late omission of Cooper, Leeds starting eleven was as expected. Young keeper Meslier has been given the starting job. A back four of Luke Ayling, new signing Robin Koch, academy prospect Pascal Struijk and Stuart Dallas. Kalvin Phillips as usual in his deep lying play-maker role. Klich as our 8 while Hernandez was slightly more forward operating as the N.10 with Harrison and Costa out wide to man the touchline. Bamford once again lead the line as he did throughout last season.
Leeds defensive strategy remained the same against Liverpool as it did in the Championship. Bielsa implemented his man-marking and high pressing system. Below you can see this in action. It clearly shows each players individual task and who should be marking who. As you can see Struijk is not marking anyone and Gomez is not being marked. This gives Leeds leeway to press and roles to change whilst not being completely exposed. The idea is always to have one extra defender, which extends into the build up phase too. Resulting in having one less in attack leaving one centre back free.
Man-marking against Liverpool is a really interesting strategy. Two of their main weapons are Firmino playing as a false nine and the wing backs being afforded space out wide to create from. Bielsa’s system cancelled out both of these threats. In the above image you can see Firmino has dropped back to receive the ball and instead of being open Koch has followed him all the way not allowing him any space. Something Koch will have found easy to adapt to as he has previously played as a defensive midfielder for Freiburg. Below is another example of Koch restricting Firmino’s effect on the game and not letting him drop into his false nine role with ease.
Harrison vs Alexander-Arnold-
Image two is another example of Bielsa’s strict man-marking. Dallas has been tasked with sticking to Salah. So as Salah drifts inside Dallas stays with him into the centre of the pitch. Normally this would open space up for Alexander-Arnold (TAA) to run into making himself available for a switch. That’s what Liverpool are trying to exploit and how Trent achieved 13 assists last season. Harrison’s marking of Alexander-Arnold made it impossible for him to find room and impose his creative ability. Harrison’s defensive job on TAA was excellent and resulted in him creating zero chances from open play. The only two chances Trent created came from corner kicks. More on those later. Image three below shows xThreat, Expected threat. Alexander-Arnold influence was minimized and so too was Robertson’s. The man-marking by Harrison and Costa meant Liverpool’s fullbacks were not afforded the space the usually are. This stopped them having an impact from open play as it limited their opportunity’s and time on the ball.
Leeds continued to press high against Liverpool but their quality at keeping the ball under pressure was noted. Leeds averaged 14.44 PPDA, passes per defensive action. This would have been their highest number in the championship as we only achieved 12.09 against Preston North End. This shows our press was not as effective against Liverpool and we struggled to put the player in possession under pressure.
Above shows that although we couldn’t always put the player in possession under pressure. Our tight man-marking system would severely limited Liverpool’s passing options. The image shows Joe Gomez in possession of the ball after Alisson has rolled it out to him. He has plenty of room, as afforded to him by the -1 system in attack. So Bielsa is making Gomez beat the system. Gomez was often the centre back left unmarked as Van Dijk has a better passing range and can beat the press via a long ball. Joe has no easy option with Leeds squeezing up him forcing him to play a risky pass into midfield or go long. He chooses to go long in this occasion and Leeds recover the second ball and regain the ball. Perfect example of Bielsa defensive structure in action. Although Liverpool created some chances throughout the game Leeds were defensively very good allowing no goals from open play or big chances created from open play. Despite conceding four goals we were very good defensively at limiting Liverpool from creating opportunity’s during open plays and closed them down well if the did get into dangerous situations.
Set Piece Defending-
Leeds United conceded all four goals from set pieces. Although two were penalty’s, the second penalty was conceded straight after Leeds failed to clear the ball from a set piece. Set pieces have long been the whites Achilles heel under Bielsa and it appears this wont change in the Premier League. Liverpool’s second goal came from a corner whipped in by Andy Robertson. Leeds mix with zonal and man-marking from set pieces and Robin Koch was tasked with keeping the flying Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk at bay.
Van Dijk is very experienced and positions himself touch tight to a Liverpool player as to create space from Koch. This means as soon as Van Dijk sets off Koch is already a step behind. Then Liverpool’s set piece strategy of ‘screening’ comes into play. Mane highlighted below moves into the gap Koch is running into, blocking off Koch from interfering with Van Dijk.
This works to perfection as Koch is bumped and stumbles. Leading to him being unable to catch Van Dijk and stop his momentum. Van Dijk therefor has so much space to run into as highlighted. Robertson delivers the ball perfectly into that area and Van Dijk has a free header to nod it home past a helpless Meslier.
A similar routine took place in the second half which resulted in Van Dijk getting free and scoring again, this time it was disallowed. Koch had wised up after the corner goal and slipped through the Liverpool player creating space as to give Van Dijk less time. Curtis Jones tripped Koch leading him to fall which alerted the ref who then blew the whistle for a foul. The fourth Liverpool goal also came after Leeds failed to clear the ball after a set piece.
It is clear Leeds need to improve in this area and it is the reason we lost. Defensively from open play we kept Liverpool down and stopped them from keeping us under pressure or creating any big chances. Every single major threat Liverpool had came from some sort of set piece. This must be addressed.
Build Up Play-
Bielsa’s build up play is very structured and has many pre-planned patterns the players must follow. In Bielsa’s build up structure he understands centre backs have the most time on the ball. Therefore they are very important in deciding where to pass and to put the machine in motion. This requires an excellent understanding of what Bielsa requires. Koch was making his debut while Struijk was filling in for Cooper. Two players new to the system, although Struijk has been groomed in the role last season. Our build-up even without two centre backs well versed in Marcelo’s game plan was good. We went long unnecessarily and misplaced some passes in the first half that hindered our fluidity. This was definitely picked up upon at half time and resulted with us coming out in the second half and dominating possession at Anfield. Which is a rare achievement.
In the second half we drew Liverpool in more and were much more patient at the back. Our second goal is a good example of what happens when you are patient with the ball at the back. Koch dictated play spreading the ball around the back line as well as making some probing balls into midfield for the return pass. This made Liverpool come onto us and step up. Then Koch played the ball back to Meslier, giving Liverpool another trigger to increase their press and squeeze up higher. Meslier calmly chipped a ball to the full back Dallas. He the played a 1-2 with Klich before spotting all the space in behind Liverpool’s back line. This was due to our patience and allowing Liverpool to press. Dallas then hit a rather poor through ball over the top, with Bamford the intended target. Some sloppy defending from Van Dijk led the ball to Bamford regardless. Who wasted no time in punishing Virgil by slotting it past Alison into the bottom left corner.
Below is an example of our positioning in the build up phase. Bielsa’s whole footballing philosophy is about gaining numerical superiority. Here you can see we out number Liverpool 5 to 3 in our third. Whilst also out numbering their defensive line 5 to 4 with 5 white shirts in behind Klopp’s midfield. Klich and Hernandez to rotate and drop in front of Liverpool’s midfield line to offer themselves for a 1-2 to disrupt the red’s shape.
Switches Of Play-
Another thing of note in the above image is our wide men, Harrison and Costa. They are both hugging the touchline stretching the pitch making it as big as possible. Bielsa uses the switch of play to the isolated side as one of his main weapons. This created Harrison’s goal in the first half.
Above is the picture just before Harrison’s goal. Harrison has his feet on the touchline spreading the Liverpool defensive line as wide as possible. Hernandez once again in behind Liverpool’s midfield in the left half space causing positional doubts for Gomez and Alexander-Arnold. Phillips receives this ball on the half turn and Harrison is already running in behind Trent. This perfect switch out wide is pinpoint to Harrison and instantly puts us on the front foot. Jack Harrison’s first touch allows for so many of these switch’s to be fluid instead of slowing play down. Below shows his magic and is poetry in motion. But the goal was created from one of Bielsa’s key principles.
Our constant rotations and positional interchanges were causing all sorts off problems for Liverpool. We overloaded them easily in some areas and caused marking nightmares. Our best opportunity of the night came from a classic Leeds third man run in behind and was beautifully orchestrated. It was a real shame we didn’t score it. Klich wins a challenge and Dallas recovers the second ball. He quickly lays it of to Pablo in space.
Pablo highlighted above makes a forward pass to Klich. This makes Gomez step up to press Klich as shown below. This opens up space in behind the Liverpool defense. Trent is also stepped up trying to stop the ball from getting to Harrison. Meanwhile Hernandez is continuing his run. A pattern of play we have become all to familiar with.
Klich still manages to get the ball to Harrison on the byline. He turns and see’s that Hernandez has completely lost Henderson and the positional interchanges have caught Liverpool out. With Bamford occupying Van Dijk Harrison has acres to play a ball into the oncoming Spaniard.
Hernandez receives the ball in a dangerous area and Van Dijk has left Bamford to pressure Pablo. Unfortunately Van Dijk does enough and closes down the passing lane blocking the through ball. This was however a warning sign to the Liverpool defense and a showcase of Bielsa’s wonderful patterns and movements.
As previously noted our press was still apparent but less intense. This did lead to us winning the ball back in less dangerous areas. However Leeds wining the ball back in the final third did lead to our third goal. Liverpool had a throw in on the left hand side of the pitch. The throw was aimed down line to Salah but Dallas was alert and intercepted, knocking it down to Phillips. Leeds then switched play quickly across to Costa on the right hand side. Shifting Liverpool’s whole defensive line, as the below clip shows.
Costa then played an inch perfect pass into the box to Klich. Taking six red shirts out of the game. Klich took a perfect touch before volleying home past Alisson to make it 3-3. A goal coming from a brilliant high press from Leeds not letting the opponent breathe in their own half.
Leeds where uncharacteristically clinical in the final third. Converting all three of our shots on target. Over achieving our xG of 0.67. All three were well placed finishes into the bottom left corner giving Alisson little chance. This is a vast improvement from last year. A much needed one too considering the probability we will create less chances than last season.
After each game I will pick out three key performers from the match. Their where so many players who performed amazing, Costa, Phillips and Meslier could have all been included in this section. However these three players had such a huge impact at Anfield.
Klich has already opened his tally in the first game of the season. Just like he did two years ago against Stoke City. It was an emphatic finish and gave Leeds the equalizer for the third time in the match. The xThreat map below shows he was a constant threat. Creating all over the pitch and causing Liverpool so many defensive problems. His movement across the back line as shown prior was difficult for their defensive line. This showed during his goal where Rodrigo and Klich were both being occupied by one centre back in Joe Gomez. Klich is Bielsa’s go to guy and it seems nothing has changed in that regard. Is a perfect fit for Bielsa and looks to continue exactly where he left off.
Jack’s performance was complete. He’s attacking contribution and goal will get all the headlines but his defensive job on Alexander-Arnold should not go unnoticed. As previously spoken about Harrison stopped Trent from getting his creative foothold in the game. This was huge for Leeds and TAA didn’t create one chance from open play. Jack won 86% and 80% of his defensive duels and aerial duels respectively. Whilst making 4 interceptions and recovering the ball 7 times. His defensive performance was incredible. Harrison’s tight man-marking wasn’t the only thing Trent struggled with.
Harrison kept the width all game providing an option for the switch. When Phillips played a pin point switch to Harrison he wasted no time in threatening their defense. He then cut inside knocking it round Alexander-Arnold and then Gomez before sublimely finishing at the near post out doing Alisson. He also completed both of his attempted dribbles and made three progressive runs.
Pascal was thrown in the deep end against Liverpool’s world beating front three of Salah, Firmino and Mane. Struijk had only started two Championship games prior to this and both were made at defensive midfield in place of Kalvin Phillips. He has come through the ranks at Ajax and it showed completing 86% of his passes, the second most on the team. Looking very calm on the ball all without coopers guidance. Struijk also made the most long passes during the game with 12. These switch’s to Harrison and Costa opened up the game and disrupted Liverpool’s shape. This created some really dangerous opportunities.
Written by TheYoungPeacock, Thanks for reading hope you enjoyed.
Credit to @pwawrzynow for the xThreat image. All data from Wyscout.