Leeds United are still going strong six games into their much-awaited return to the Premier League. The Whites are up to sixth in the table after their 3-0 win over previously unbeaten Aston Villa, which is arguably their most complete performance of the season to date.
And what made that win even more impressive was the fact that Marcelo Bielsa was without two key players along the spine of his side.
Bielsa has long been renowned as one of the best tactical minds in the game, and he’s showing exactly why in his first season in the English top flight. The Argentine has been able to overcome some injuries during the early part of the season with his shrewd managerial moves.
He’s also been aided by a versatile squad that they can carry out the different roles their manager has asked them to play.
SBOTOP delves into more detail as to how this versatility can serve the Whites well as the season goes on.
Leeds made huge Premier League 2020 news in the summer when they made Rodrigo Moreno their new record signing in a £30 million deal with Valencia. The Spanish international striker was expected to challenge Patrick Bamford for the No. 9 role this season.
However, it hasn’t exactly played out that way. Bamford has been in banging form to start the season and is finally living up to all of his potential, which has kept Moreno from playing up front.
Instead, Bielsa has found another role for Rodrigo to play — in midfield, replacing fellow Spaniard Pablo Hernandez after the veteran playmaker picked up a thigh injury.
Despite Leeds’ massive £100-plus million summer spending spree, one target they missed out on was another midfielder who could fill the minutes of the 35-year-old Hernandez. They were unable to pry away Udinese’s Rodrigo de Paul, while the Michael Cuisance deal unfortunately fell through.
Bielsa’s decision to play Rodrigo as a ‘free 8’ after Hernandez’s injury seemed curious initially, but it has since made a lot more sense.
What Rodrigo lacks in terms of the creativity that Hernandez brings to the side, he has made up for with his pressing, mobility, and ability to get shots. After a quiet first two games, he has recorded 14 shots in his last four appearances, two of which were as a substitute.
Rodrigo has never been the most prolific striker in his career; he has just one goal thus far this season. Leeds will need a bit more from him this season, though, especially if Bamford finally cools off or goes down with an injury.
Nevertheless, it’s a promising sign that Bielsa has been able to find another role for the club’s record signing, who figures to play a prominent part in the side for the rest of the season.
Replacing Yorkshire Pirlo
The Premier League 2020 odds had Leeds as underdogs coming into their match against Aston Villa, and a couple of key injuries didn’t help their chances. They were without captain and centre-back Liam Cooper, as well as holding midfielder Kalvin Phillips, which was troubling considering how vulnerable Leeds had already looked at the back to start the year.
Losing Phillips for up to six weeks will certainly be a blow to Leeds. Dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo,’ the 24-year-old possesses the combination of passing and defensive ability that was crucial to their success in the Championship.
But Bielsa found a way to cope against Villa. He initially went with Pascal Struijk in the pivot, but quickly subbed him off for Jamie Shackleton in the first half after Struijk picked up an early booking. Mateusz Klich then moved to a deeper role, with the energentic Shackleton providing support in midfield.
All those moves worked perfectly as Leeds dominated Villa and ended their perfect start to the season.
Again, it was a testament to Bielsa’s boldness and intelligence to change things so quickly. It also speaks to how well-drilled his team is that they hardly missed a beat even after an unexpected substitution so early in the game.
Bielsa is not short of options in defensive midfield. Aside from Struijk and Klich, new signings Robin Koch and Diego Llorente also have experience playing in that role if needed.
But it seems that regardless of who plays which role, Bielsa will more often than not push the right buttons and have his players in the best position to succeed. That’s all anyone can ask of a manager, and it bodes well for Leeds’ chances of overcoming the obstacles that will inevitably arrive this season.
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