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What would (will?) Marcelo Bielsa’s lineup look like at Leeds United?

The Argentine’s preferred formation is his legendary 3-3-1-3

Panchine d'oro e d'argento - Italian Football Federation Award Ceremony Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Leeds United’s number one coaching target is legendary coach Marcelo Bielsa, known for revolutionizing the coaching profession with his innovative thinking and fast-paced style of play. He typically prefers the 3-3-1-3, but has also used a 4-2-1-3 successfully at stops like Athletic Bilbao, Chile, and Argentina. Should Leeds find the funds necessary to hire Bielsa, here are a few ways the squad could end up looking next year.

3-3-1-3

The Forwards

Leeds United seemingly have good personnel to fit Bielsa’s favorite formation, starting with the three forwards. Ezgjan Alioski and Pablo Hernandez would likely be the left and right wingers, as both of them have experience playing midfield and striker positions, and are very creative, attacking minded players. The striker is a more interesting question, but if Abel Hernandez is able to be signed, then Leeds should have nothing to worry about. Hull City, Hernandez’s former team, played 3 defenders (or 5, the difference is minimal) several times last year, and if he is surrounded by Saiz, Pablo, and Alioski, he should have no problem continuing to score large numbers in front of the net. Additionally, a 3-3-1-3 is an excellent formation to have Kemar Roofe, as he has proved to be a solid backup on the wing and at striker.

The Midfield

The two true center midfielders are the most easily filled positions in this formation. Samu Saiz and Adam Forshaw perfectly fit the roles of creative attacking center mid, and defensive mid respectively. Forshaw has shown that he can help facilitate attacks as well, a trait that Bielsa values from his defensive midfielders. Leeds also has an abundance of midfielders, so backing up this position should not be too difficult, with Ronaldo Viera, Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich all being viable bench options.

The Defense

Defensively Leeds desperately needs new additions to fit Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3. Primarily is the issue of center back. Keeping Pontus Jansson, Leeds’ best defender by a mile, will go a long way in solidifying the back three, as would the long rumored return of Kyle Bartley. As for the third center back position, it is very likely that Luke Ayling will slide over. Ayling has long been an elite defender, but lacks the offensive skills and pace that would be needed for a wing-back in Bielsa’s system. A back three of Ayling, Bartley, and Jansson would be very appealing, but it does not answer the interesting question of who would take over the wing-back positions.

Leeds may want an experience Championship defender or two to fill this gap. Aside from recently-promoted Wolverhampton, only Sheffield United played a permanent three or five defense system. Both George Baldock (left) and Enda Stevens (right) had above average seasons at United, and are very capable of helping Leeds find an answer on the wings. Other targets that played well at this position are Jack Hunt of Sheffield Wednesday and Jake Bidwell from Queens Park Rangers. If Leeds stay in-house to fill the gaps, then Stuart Dallas and Tom Pearce would probably do fine. Dallas especially should be more comfortable here, especially since Bielsa likes his wing-backs to be aggressive in the attack, relying on more mobile center backs and the CDM to cover for them.

It is also important to note that in a 3 back system the two wing-backs are non-essential to the team’s success. Because they are playing behind true wingers, and in front of three potentially mobile center backs and a CDM, they are not crucial parts of either the defense or the attack. Because of this, Leeds would not need to bring in superstars for this formation, but inexpensive, consistent players who can be relied upon to make few mistakes, while helping the offense run smoothly.

This lineup obviously assumes that Leeds is successful in their pursuit of Bartley and Abel Hernandez (and Marcelo Bielsa for that matter), but it is a very talented one that has plenty of depth in players like Roofe, Liam Cooper, Tyler Roberts and Kalvin Phillips among others. If the depth chart looks anything like this regularly next season, then Leeds could very well be on their way back to the Premier League.

4-2-1-3

Bielsa has used this formation much less at his many coaching stops, but it is easier to predict, as well as being a safer option for a Leeds team which primarily played in the similar 4-2-3-1 last season.

In the attack, it is the same three forwards: Pablo Hernandez, (hopefully) Abel Hernandez, and Ezgjan Alioski. Samuel Saiz likely remains at CAM, and Adam Forshaw would stay in one of the two CDM spots. The other CDM spot could be filled by a myriad of players mentioned as backups above, like Ronaldo Viera, Kalvin Phillips, or Mateusz Klich, if Leeds chooses not to buy or sign someone else. The defense is much more straight forward, with Ayling on the right, Jansson and Bartley (again, hopefully) playing centrally, and Tom Pearce on the left.

This lineup is less intriguing than the 3-3-1-3, and is generally more conservative defensively, which, while not a bad thing, will not be as exciting to watch as Bielsa’s preferred formation. Still this lineup is excellent compared to last year’s and also has the potential to bring The Whites back to the Promised Land.

Final Thoughts

Marcelo Bielsa would bring a long and successful track record to Leeds, and may even be hired before this article is published, as Leeds have stated that they wish to have a head coach by the end of the week. This article is based on the players that Leeds currently have, or players who they are rumored to have interest in. This could ultimately not matter, as in the past Bielsa has been very clear that he wants full control of players coming in and going out. So, in the event of Bielsa’s hire, Leeds fans may need to prepare for the possibility that some of Victor Orta’s reported targets, like Abel Hernandez or Kyle Bartley, may be rejected by the Spaniard.

If you are interested in learning more about Bielsa’s tactics, this video does a great job and is relatively short too.