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An Elland Road revolution - can Marcelo Bielsa change the way football is played in the Premier League?

Arsene Wenger did it at Arsenal. Pep Guardiola has done it at Manchester City. Can El Loco’s Leeds revolutionise Premier League football and change the style of play throughout the league?

Leeds United v Manchester City - Premier League
Is Marcelo Bielsa leading a footballing revolution with Leeds?
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

In October 1996, a quirky, bespectacled Frenchman flew over from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan’s J1 League, and arrived at Arsenal, unknown and unproven. His name? Arsene Wenger. Many in the Premier League scoffed; ‘Arsene who?’

Over the next 22 years, and 823 Premier League games, that question was answered emphatically. Wenger became the first true Premier League revolutionary, leading Arsenal to great domestic success, not least the legendary ‘Invincibles’ season.

The biggest legacy, however, will be his impact on the game as a whole, pioneering what is now the new normal. Wenger brought over from Asia dietary knowledge and restrictions that were, at the time, unheard of in the football world. In what was known as the ‘Evian-broccoli diet’ the training ground cafeteria was instructed to stop serving burgers and chips, and switch them up for chicken or fish, mashed potatoes and boiled veg. The bar was banned from serving alcohol full stop.

Furthermore, he introduced a footballing philosophy like nothing seen before in England. In training, he relied heavily on science and data. Every movement meant something, every drill had purpose, and it was all timed by the second in accordance with the science. He brought in an osteopath and an acupuncturist. He used this training as the foundation for a style of play that took the league by storm. Wenger ripped up the rulebook of George Graham and his fellow predecessors, flipping the defensive, sturdy approach on it’s head and advocating a fast-paced, slick and exciting style of attacking football that utilised short passes and smart movement, admittedly at the defence’s expense. Arsenal’s Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis once said; “Arsene set a totally new standard, to make art out of football.’ he wasn’t wrong.

Arsene Wenger holding up his most treasured gift: a golden Premier League trophy awarded for his 2003/04 invincible season with Arsenal.
IAN KINGTON/AFP via Getty Images

In February 2016, when Pep Guardiola joined Manchester City, another revolution was brewing. The Spaniard flew in from Munich with a much more substantial reputation than Wenger, having previously taken Barcelona to the top of the history books as arguably the best team ever assembled, and followed that by dominating domestic football with Bayern Munich. Once again, the traditionalists doubted he could do it ‘on a cold, wet Tuesday night at Stoke.’ Guardiola has never lost to Stoke City.

What he has done though is influence a change in style of play to an extent never before seen, and further down the footballing pyramid than ever before seen. The ‘Tiki-Taka’ style of playing out from the back no matter the pressure, keeping the ball at all costs, and having positional fluidity without shackles is the hallmark of a Guardiola team.

The intensity to which Pep coaches, never seeming to rest, is exceptional. Even famously after thrashings of other teams he is captured wrapping his arms around Raheem Sterling or Gabriel Jesus professing what they should have done to make it seven or eight nil instead of five.

Because of these two legendary Premier League managers, the game is what it is today. They have upped the standards of every team around them, whilst pioneering a style of play that has become the benchmark for modern, attractive football.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester City - Premier League
Pep Guardiola after winning the 2018/19 Premier League with Manchester City
Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

There has already been a revolution at Elland Road under Marcelo Bielsa. Here in West Yorkshire we have been living through it for the past 2 seasons. We have seen the vast improvement of previously disregarded players. We have seen a style of football that has us on the edge of our seat, or more recently, our sofa. We have seen a team go from mid-table Championship mediocrity to Premier League box office.

Bielsa is poised to become Premier League revolutionary number three. Lets be frank, this is not a prediction of similar success, Leeds are not going to be topping 100 points or going invincible any time soon, but a style and intensity so widely admired by top-tier veterans after only 4 games is set to pioneer a riskier, more exhilarating, goal-filled era for the Premier League, and it’s already bearing fruit.

A man-to-man marking system like no other in England. Bielsa’s unusual defensive system is one with which he has stuck with throughout his career. Reacting to his opposition on the day, he deploys either a 4-1-4-1 or a 3-3-1-3 (which has been known to look like 3-5-1-1), with every player matched up except his one spare centre-back, compensated by the striker shuttling between opposition centre backs. This sets the tone of the game to be dominated by individual battles, which makes for great, but terrifying viewing.

Formation and structure can look almost disregarded. It’s man for man at it’s most simple, it’s most primitive. You win your battle and that’s that. Risky? Absolutely. In the first half against Man City our right hand side (Ayling and Costa) lost both of their indvidual battles with their enemy (Sterling and Mendy), but the introduction of Ian Poveda changed the game. He was able to stick himself on the already cautioned French full-back whilst Ayling took individual care of Sterling, which meant when Leeds gained possession he was almost always set for a one-on-one, to devastating effect.

Furthermore, when Riyad Mahrez (or Roberto Firmino in Gameweek 1) dropped into a deep ‘false 9’ to try and create some space, he was hunted and pressured by his centre-back enemy, sometimes deep into his own half. In this instance Leeds would morph into a makeshift back 3, with the two full-backs packing in and staying with their respective wingers, and the free centre-back adopting a sweeper role in between.

Luke Ayling’s fascinating battle with Raheem Sterling was a decisive one in the draw vs Man City
Photo by PAUL ELLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

What further sets The Whites apart from their Premier League rivals is their seemingly endless stores of energy. An intensity to press and chase that never seems to fade from the first minute to the ninetieth. The elite of the top-tier are used to being met with similar intensity from kick-off, but manage to whittle the opponent down until pouncing on tired legs going into the last half hour. There is no such luxury when you play Leeds.

The Whites have covered more distance on the turf this season than any other team in the top-tier, averaging out at around 115km per game:

Add to this the most ball recoveries, most pressures and most tackles won and what you have is a tireless press that suffocates any attempt at creating space, time, or chances.

Kyle Walker hit the nail on the head when describing what it’s like to play Bielsa’s team: “Leeds! I promise you Andros, it’s the weirdest game... It’s like basketball!”

It’s like nothing seen before. It’s game-changing. It is: revolutionary.

In seasons to come, top-tier new boys, mid-table stalwarts, and even the ‘big six’, may delve deep into the archives and examine the tactics currently being pioneered at Elland Road, asking themselves ‘Can we?’.

It’s that lasting legacy on the league, and on Leeds United, that makes Marcelo Bielsa a Premier League revolutionary.