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Leeds United vs Tottenham Hotspur: Preview

A momentous international break and an analytical dive into two of football’s most contrasting managerial philosophies - how will Leeds United fare in North London? 

Panchine d’oro e d’argento - Italian Football Federation Award Ceremony
Conte and Bielsa meet back in 2015, when Conte came to listen to the then Marseille boss talk tactics at the Panchina d’Oro awards.
Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Now without another international break until the final week of January next year, Leeds United are almost back and ready to entertain another Premier League and Europa League-fused outfit in Tottenham Hotspur, where both clubs will lock horns at the state of the art 62,800 capacity Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this Sunday evening.

And yet, no doubt both clubs will go into the game with much optimism following a considerably more action-packed international break, which between them featured: international debutants, broken records and official FIFA World Cup qualifications for the eagerly anticipated tournament in Qatar this time next year. For example, just two weeks back, ten of Leeds’ first team departed West Yorkshire in hope of aiding their country’s chances of competing at the World Cup - perhaps for some the last time, but for most, potentially the first.

For instance, Leeds United goalkeeper Illan Meslier, or alternatively nicknamed the ‘Iceman’ for his stone-cold defensive performances, helped France under-21s to two wins and two clean sheets in his two games, whilst also coincidently igniting a recent friendship with former versatile North Macedonian Ezgjan ‘Gjanni’ Alioski when the two met at the same hotel last week. Furthermore, Whites captain Liam Cooper also helped his side to two clean sheets, whilst also cropping up with an assist for defensive partner John Souttar against the already group winner, Denmark.

Elsewhere, Diego Llorente and Rodrigo’s second-half cameo helped Spain successfully qualify for the 2022 World Cup, while Raphinha earned the same achievement with Brazil. Moreover, Welsh duo Tyler Roberts and Dan James are not quite there yet but a James assist against Belgium means a shot at the play-offs will take place next March. Both Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich featured for Northern Ireland and Poland respectively, plus England regular Kalvin Phillips also played in both victories against Albania and San Marino, earning full qualification in turn. The international break also proved enjoyable for Leeds’ younger players, with Charlie Cresswell, Cody Drameh and Sam Greenwood all making their debuts as they joined Lewis Bate for England under-21s, only to be topped off with a Greenwood goal against Georgia. Finally, exciting Dutch winger Crysencio Summerville also marked his first start with a goal in a convincing 7-0 thrashing of Gibraltar under-21s.

But now with just days to go before the Premier League makes its eagerly-awaited return, Leeds United’s trip to North London to face Tottenham Hotspur is easily one of the more exciting games to come this weekend. Despite the forty-six combined years in management, both Marcelo Bielsa and Antonio Conte have never actually faced each other, yet the latter has been very keen in publicly stating his admiration for the Argentine. Back in 2015 at the Panchina d’Oro award, Conte avidly watched on as Bielsa conducted a footballing masterclass to a room full of fellow football enthusiasts, discussing tactics and his thought processes as an experienced and clearly passionate fanatic, no doubt only further providing greater context to catalyse a fascinating encounter on Sunday.

FC Internazionale Milano v Udinese Calcio - Serie A
Antonio Conte stands proud having led Inter Milan to the Scudetto.
Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

When attempting to break down the tactical intent behind Bielsa and Conte’s footballing philosophies, it is unlikely to fuse two that differ so incredibly. Of course, Marcelo’s attacking-possession based play style is built upon the foundations of high tempo and maximum commitment and equates to high risk-return potential. But in order to reach the level he expects, it can take years. Bielsa has often relied upon his unorthodox, and innovatively dynamic 3-3-1-3 formation that he utilised in control of Argentina and Chile during the 1990s and 2000s, exerting intense physical and mental demands upon his often smaller than most squads.

Nonetheless, Bielsa’s unconventional personality and infallible self-belief have brought him well-documented affection from some of football’s most respected managers, such as Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, and Antonio Conte himself. When compared to Bielsa, Conte prides himself on establishing a dependable backbone to his frequently physical and industrious sides. Now labelled ‘the Godfather’, Conte’s playstyle often incorporates reliable defensive focus, trusting player experience and commitment within a direct 3-4-3 counter-attacking formation requiring the use of width, with the potential to even switch to a 5-3-2 (as seen at his former job at Inter Milan. Despite managing for half as long as Bielsa, the Italian has become a serial winner wherever he has been with six league titles, two league cups and a Europa League runners-up medal to show for it, although the shot at finally playing Marcelo Bielsa during his first home game as Spurs manager can only increase the anticipation further.

Heading into the game at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, Leeds will be fighting to close the five-point gap between them and the home side. Even with last season’s away win at Fulham, Leeds’ track record in London is widely uninspiring. But the Whites can go into this game with confidence again, unbeaten in three games, an almost fully fit squad to choose from again and playing a Tottenham side still experiencing transition as a result of the change in management. Leeds’ draw with Leicester City before the international break provided fans with a much-needed belief that this resilient Leeds squad can convincingly compete against teams destined for Europe, but Bielsa will have to out-tactic Conte, whilst facing the challenge of keeping England record-breaker Harry Kane quiet - probably easier said than done following two games that saw the striker score seven in two games and become the first to net consecutive hat-tricks for sixty-four years. But as long as Leeds have Bielsa at the helm then they have hope. A sold-out away end marching on together as they go and a squad capable of competing against anyone, Sunday’s Tottenham vs Leeds (or no doubt a Conte vs Bielsa narrative) will be another captivating fixture to come