Leeds United recorded the first victory of the Paul Heckingbottom era at Leeds United last Saturday over Brentford. The victory also saw the return of Samu Saiz to the lineup, as the Spaniard had been out for six matches after spitting at an opponent during the FA Cup loss away at Newport County. The return of Saiz also saw the return of Saiz playing behind the striker as a “number 10” attacking midfielder. Does this mean a return to the 4-2-3-1?
One of the criticisms of Garry Monk and Thomas Christiansen was their lack of tactical flexibility, as they both favoured the 4-2-3-1 to an extreme degree. Both managers seemed to stick with the formation no matter the situation or personnel at their disposal. Christiansen went so far as to stick two traditional attacking midfielders, Pablo Hernandez and Saiz, into the line-up, shoehorning Hernandez into a spot on the wing in order to get both him and Saiz on the pitch at the same time. And while that seemed to work in the early parts of the season, it stopped working well and the club went on two winless streaks that ultimately cost Christiansen his job.
When Heckingbottom was named as manager of Leeds, many fans were hopeful that the former Barnsley FC manager would ditch the 4-2-3-1 and play either a traditional 4-4-2 or his preferred 4-1-4-1. And for the first few matches, Heckingbottom seemed to do just that. The first match, against Sheffield United, featured Leeds playing in a 4-1-4-1 with Adam Forshaw lined up along side Kalvin Phillips with Eunan O’Kane playing behind them in a three man central midfield. Not sure if it was because Leeds hadn’t played like that all season or what, but Phillips seemed to waffle between trying to play as a number 10 and as a central midfielder and accomplished neither. Leeds were poor, and lost 2-1 at Bramall Lane.
The next two matches of the Heckingbottom era, Bristol City at home and Derby County away, both featured the team lining up in a 4-4-2 to start out the match. The personnel was juggled around each time as Heckingbottom seemed to try and find the right mix of players. Saiz came on in the second half at Derby and the team seemed to be lifted when the Spaniard entered the match. Leeds took a lead into the dying moments of the match, and while the result was cruel, it showed that Leeds were on their way to being back.
#lufc v Brentford: Wiedwald, Berardi, Cooper, Jansson, Anita, Phillips, O'Kane, Alioski, Saiz, Dallas, Lasogga.— Phil Hay (@PhilHayYEP) February 24, 2018
On Saturday, it was a bit of surprise to see Leeds lineup with Saiz playing behind Lasogga in what appeared to be a 4-2-3-1 again. But is it so surprising? Saiz is by far the most creative player at the club, and is with probably the team’s best player. As much as fans talk endlessly about formations, the difference between them can often be splitting hairs. And as much as Heckingbottom used a 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 at Barnsley, he also didn’t have someone with the natural playmaking ability of Saiz either. Saiz isn’t a striker, and he’s not really a winger, he’s an attacking midfielder who plays best behind the striker.
The 4-2-3-1 formation provides flexibility for Saiz to make runs in the offensive third of the pitch, dragging defenders with him to create space for the wingers to run into or to open up space for the striker in box. Saiz doesn’t really fit as a striker in a 4-4-2 and doesn’t play best on the wing in a 4-1-4-1, so if Leeds are to get the best out of their best player, the team is going to have to play with an attacking midfielder. Call the formation a 4-4-1-1 if you want to wash the bitter taste of tactical inflexibility out of your mouth, but as long as Saiz is around, Leeds will be playing in some variation of this formation.