“Practice does not make perfect, Practice makes permanent” — A look at how Marcelo Bielsa’s Attacking constructs are maturing in their 2nd season at Leeds United

In the interests of full disclosure, although it’s already fast approaching 18 months now, I’ll unashamedly admit there’s still many time’s that I can’t quite believe I’ve had (& continue to do so) the good fortune to be able to follow Marcelo Bielsa in close quarters on a journey through the Sky Bet Championship.

Having not missed a game throughout, it is the well into double figures of fixtures and counting, I’ve been able to attend in the flesh, that to my mind I consider the most impacting in this time.

So, and even after a defeat that feels a little akin to a punch in the gut, like last Saturday’s vs. Swansea at Elland Road. I’m still mindful that years of watching on the TV (not just matches but countless training sessions/talks not being discarded of course), there’s an educational impact that comes from being able to see the game through its natural lens, and all the subsequent nuances, that for me personally feels priceless

Truth is, there are so many seemingly subtle elements you can pick up when having a privileged access to a bigger picture. That then in turn can often become more recognizable overall going forward.

This in fact funnily enough also somewhat mirrors the Marcelo Bielsa coaching process. In terms of experiencing the moments of game to then internalize these.

A process I myself have been trying to refine for some time now, by continually categorizing “El Loco’s” back-catalogue of work.

In this sense, while there have been new(er) snippets of the Bielsa training methodology since arriving in England — both last season, and indeed this, and notwithstanding my own previous attempt at adding to this genre as well. It is still going further back in history where we can find a greater library of content around this specialist subject.

The roots of “BielsaBall” blooming in attack

To try and learn his footballing language, a good starting point would take that for Marcelo Bielsa, broadly speaking the game contemplates* that there are for example:

36 — Ways to communicate through a pass.
17 — Distinct Defensive mechanism.
11 — Different finishing types.

Or to give a practical example: 10 Coordinated Defensive Positional Movements, to support the man-to-man marking structure.

(* Particularly from an English language viewpoint, and to obtain a greater depth on this from an attacking sense overall. Day 1 of the Aspire Academy Conference back in 2016, remains the most useful appendix.)

However, with said style of footballing education now acting as the backdrop, and continuing down the attacking rabbit hole a bit further. Then, and largely setting to one side the dubbed “undeniable star” option of dribbling and beating players with the ball.

There are according to Bielsa, primarily (but not exclusively): Individual focused as seen here, or Collective, hereways of creating space/separation from the opponent.

This in mind, and guided by the early season to date, there’s a lot that can be analysed when watching the current Leeds United side. Not to mention a fantastic wealth of sources online from which to help underpin this. (Too many to note all in one place!)

It was Post Stoke City — Away this season, Marcelo Bielsa himself declared that the team has to a degree attacked more spontaneously this term, and in line with the players own individual tendencies.

Yes, there’s at times been perhaps a heavier focus to try and build from the centre-left and arrive to the box on the right (with Nottingham Forest’s visit to Elland Road highlighting a game-plan to try & combat this).

But beneath this, there’s been signs of a team that is more comfortable with the concepts outlined previously. To paraphrase as some have from the Tifo Football Marcelo Bielsa Special podcast a more visible “In the Blood” feel around the key BielsaBall principles. With plenty of in-game examples to support this campaign already.

Pablo Hernández vs. Bristol City — Away.

Creating Separation. Option 1: Receive to control on the half-turn.

Although the video is in Spanish, and from Marcelo Bielsa’s talk in Affligem — Belgium. This is primarily superseded from that of the Aspire Conference to provide better visuals of the animations Bielsa uses.

Equally as it also includes an example of a training exercise used to cultivate this from the Athletic Bilbao years (with much thanks to @julius_riemann for this.)

Arguably the best in-game example of this was Pablo Hernández’s control and turn, before finishing vs. Bristol City. Despite starting back to goal to the ball, still giving the game the fluidity Bielsa describes.

Jack Harrison vs. Bristol City — Away.

Collective Associations between 3 players: The player that gives the 1st pass does not receive the 2nd pass (“3rd Man”). Option 4: Up-Back-Through.

Whereas the first video was more of an example of a direct way of creating space, one part of the famed 5 Different Ways to Create Separation. The second is as Marcelo Bielsa has (as touched upon last season) one he has been a rather vocal advocate of, the: “3rd/4th Man” attacking gambit. His Leeds side being an outstanding proponent of this.

The now universally well known Up, Back, Through is the option highlighted on this occasion. With the training animation shown in the below image.

The build-up to Jack Harrison’s goal (7:16 seconds in to be precise) also in the season opener, providing a great, and topical example.

Eddie Nketiah vs. Salford City — Away (Carabao Cup, 1st Round).

Creating Separation. Option 2: Receive in-behind the opponent.

Quite possibly my personal favorite, both in terms of the type of option to penetrate. But also how the goal itself was elaborated.

It is for that very reason I’ve merged Bielsa’s explanation with the match example. Such a devastating was of creating separation, as seen also against Brentford in the league… And with the same two final protagonists to boot!

Ezgjan Alioski vs. Stoke City — Away.

Collective Associations: Between 2 players 2 passes, the return pass is first time. Option 4: Counter-Anticipating by the wingers.

An excellent route to find the “attacking gates**” Bielsa often discusses — a ball that by-passes the invisible line between two defensive players. One that may hopefully ease concerns of opponents typically condensing the centre of the field against Leeds.

The video although without the English dubbing, does happily afford another training ground visual example of how Bielsa helps indoctrinate this to his players.

Illustration of this comes from the recent masterclass away against Stoke City. It also helps to underline that, as Patrick Bamford does interjecting to receive Pablo’s ball ahead of Mateusz Klich (& of course lay on the goal for Alioski) in the outlined action itself. That the idea, as Bielsa has repeatedly stated in his press conferences, is not necessarily to repeat a picture-perfect action. But to instead internalize the response to a recognizable scenario into the players Working Memory.

(** There’s a great Podcast that expands on the “gates”, as well as some of the cues for “play-around’s” elements, with Jed Davies. Author of the highly recommendable: Philosophy of Football: In Shadows of Marcelo Bielsa.)

Keeping the faith in the process, over and above the outcome

The last elected in-game sample, also acts as a convenient segue into emphasizing that most of what occurs throughout the 90 minutes is generally less than picturesque or precise.

A timely International Break reminder along the lines as Bielsa himself warned, that the relationship between Practice and Perfect in football, is far from linear, and influenced by a complex, multitude of very different factors.

An important distinction to make when analyzing, and hopefully trusting in the process. If not then just some meaty food for thought, along with the rest of the article content!

“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!”

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