“Defenders Made in Bielsa” — How Marcelo Bielsa coaches his Defensive Principles Examined.

In what has already been a bumper summer of recruitment so far for Leeds United as they prepare for their Premier League return. There was one transfer in particular that stood out a little more than the others for me: that of the now former SC Freiburg Central Defender Robin Koch.

For one reason or another, the German internationals signing takes the tally to three new central Defenders in the three seasons since Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Elland Road.

That in mind, and with the routinely discussed, specific Defensive organization Bielsa’s sides are renowned for as the inspiration. I decided to take the opportunity to try and expand upon some of the possibly less revered principles.

My idea was to not just look at the What. But also more uniquely attempting to delve a little further into the Why, and moreover the probable How “El Loco” imparts these action through his methodology.

“Attack wins you games, Defence wins you titles.”

Parting from the premise that Attack and Defence are in essence indivisible. The impact and emphasis that a team places on how it behaves without the ball, does of course heavily influence the game overall.

In this respect, and using last season as a barometer. Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds demonstrated their conviction beyond any doubt by racking up a truly impressive set of metrics to support this. Not just at Championship level, but across the upper echelons of European club football too.

As evidenced in the always informative LUFCDATA’s graphic: no side in Europe’s top five leagues allowed their opponent less passes per defensive action (PPDA) than Leeds in the 2019-20 domestic campaign.

A similarly imposing statistic, was that their “Challenge Intensity”: a metric created by @InStatFootball focusing on the number of challenges/interceptions made by a Defending team per minute of opponent ball possession. Placed last year’s side on a rating of 8.9 — again first place among Europe’s Big Five leagues and the Sky Bet Championship.

So how did Leeds work towards this performance collectively on the training ground? Rather than look at this from a true holistic point of view*. I’ve opted to do so from a more bitesize prism, centred around key concepts in the former Argentina managers own words and coaching deeds.

(*The depth of an complete Bielsa training picture is infamous. This set of observations from Coach Ellis Riley for example, help provide some invaluable perspective.)

The “Partial Libero” concept:

Piggybacking from Jon Mackenzie’s superlative rundown, there are a few caveats to the bigger picture, that may not only provide a bit more insight around the Why Bielsa’s teams employ this idea. But also, some of the fundamentals that underpin it too — starting with what has been allegorically dubbed: “The Partial Libero”.

N.B: A “Libero” in a Marcelo Bielsa team is effectively what is commonly viewed as the Spare Defensive Man. Or if you prefer more specifically, the +1 alluded to in the ASAW Press-Cover article.

The above translated segment from Bielsa’s bespoke Argentina coaching sessions. Firstly, helps to understand the core fundamentals behind his individual oriented marking.

At its essence, the intent is to try to: Win the ball as early as possible towards the (Opposition) goal - as late as necessary.

This in itself is admittedly not something unique to Marcelo Bielsa’s M.O. If anything, many might say that (in a nutshell) it is what Defending would truly entail!

Notwithstanding as well that Bielsa has acknowledged that Man-Marking isn’t necessarily only, or even the optimal solution to Defend in this way of course.

However, secondly, the video also adds nuance to the outlook that Bielsa’s Defensive (“M2M”) idea is as rigid as sometimes purported. The overall mantra remains to quickly engage the player that can most impact the moment. Breaking defensive net’s so to speak, in the most natural way possible. That still protects the most dangerous (central) zones of the pitch.

The sample rehearsed movements used to instill this help to highlight this, are obviously on a larger tactical scale of positioning and interchanges. With football training exercise Guru Pedro Mendonca posting an interesting example of just how far down into the minutiae the Cover-Switch has been broken down at Thorp Arch over the last two years.

The Marriage Between Timing & Anticipating:

In this sense, the instant distinction to be made is that the appreciable goal in Bielsa’s setup is more likely to win the ball not On the (initial) Press Per se. But in actual-fact (intercept) On the Cover — and preferably at a specific level of the pitch as well.

A paramount differential to take from the clip, is Bielsa’s First Commandment would be to not let the ball travel more than/win it inside “20 to 30 Metres of where the opposition plays out from.

Albeit, in contrast to the earlier collection of principles, this would be a tad reductive and needs to be elaborated on.

The best source as always, is Marcelo Bielsa himself. Doing so linking it to a trifecta of components, and by using his teams imperious first half display against Arsenal FC, in last seasons FA Cup tie at the Emirates Stadium.

Ergo: Press the opponent’s circulation of the ball — Make the 1st Pass easier to be anticipated — Avoid (or at least limit) the opposition’s forward(s) impact on the game.

So, with the press-cover element touched upon earlier, the value would be in looking chiefly at Anticipation. In turn the key coaching point would theoretically be within the timing aspect of this.

It is clear to see from the heated insistence that it is given, that Bielsa deems timing as absolutely critical to being able to anticipate effectively. Notwithstanding that there are evidently different ways to tailor this to the individual player vs. player duels, I.E one such being: Momentum Vs Strength.

The synthesis of all though, does present a conclusion that defenders in a Marcelo Bielsa team(s) will be obligated to jump in early and often. Given just how decisive “First Contact” allied to anticipation is.

How to Defensively Resolve Being in Numerical Inferiority:

The “risk” would then be that the team is left outnumbered/undermanned in Defence. Something that Marcelo Bielsa, unsurprisingly, also has a prescription for.

As with the majority of great footballing concepts, the hypothesis is staggeringly simple — yet brutally effective.

There is a wealth of wide ranging ways that Marcelo Bielsa coaches the collective mindset needed to provoke this behaviour from the opponent. Perhaps the ideal drill (& further explanation around this) would be the: One vs Two.*

Albeit there are others, ranging from (again) drills encompassing a larger group + series of movements. To that of even more precise combinations of 2 vs 1, or 1 vs 1 +1's — on how to coax the rival into a decision.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Examples of Leeds’ Defensive Transitions in their last 5 games of the 2019–20 season. Taken from an outstanding overall summary of that period inside Riccardo Marchioli’s tactical report.

When finally armed with all these almost altruistic beliefs. A player of the calibre of Robin Koch would surely be a healthy bet to go on to embark on a trajectory akin to his predecessors Pontus Jansson and Ben White.

Nevertheless, if there’s an overarching theme to be taken away from the length of this quasi-recipe, it is that it will undeniably take him time to adapt.

Yet t ultimately it is also that on a grander scheme, Bielsa’s Leeds United is very much the modern day embodiment of “Side Before Self -Every Time!”

“I’ve finally accepted myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand’s outstretched… & when it happens, I give thanks for it!”