Everton will require more than the usual Ancelotti approach to beat Leeds United.
There’s a reason why a number of Premier League teams fear Leeds United even though they have just achieved promotion. The common narrative for the newly promoted teams is that they tend to struggle against the quality of Premier League sides, barring a few exceptions like Sheffield United last season and Wolves two seasons ago.
One of the biggest reasons why Leeds are a force to reckon with is due to the presence of their manager Marcelo Bielsa. Don’t get illusioned by their 14th place in the league table. They are one of the most deceptive sides in the Premier League due to their tactical genius Bielsa.
The Argentine’s brand of football, popularly termed as Bielsa ball, has troubled some of the most elite sides. From Manchester City to Liverpool, sides and master tacticians like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have failed to break down Bielsa’s tactical acumen. So, does Carlo Ancelotti and Everton have the pedigree to beat Bielsa’s aggressive tactics?
What is Bielsa-ball?
The Leeds United boss is a patron of high pressing, possession based football that combines a lot of rotational play on the field to disrupt the opposition defence lines. Bielsa ball has been mastered after a lot of hard work, hence requires players with a particular set of qualities for each position.
The highly specific system bore the sweetest fruits for Leeds in the Championship and has achieved considerate success against the Top Flight sides. Speaking about the fluid functioning about Bielsa-ball, taking note of the formation is important.
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The most common base formation seen at Leeds is a 4-1-4-1. However, the 4-1-4-1 is just the base and is always changing and transforming due to the fluidity. Initially, the formation will remain as it is to form a diamond in the defensive half, giving the keeper at least 3 options to pass.
While accelerating forward, Bielsa has altered his side’s shape to become a back three giving an edge in the horizontal exposure. This can very quickly transform into a trademark 3-3-3-1 or a 3-4-3 depending on the opposition press.
The role played by full backs is key to the success of Bielsa ball. Central midfielder Kalvin Phillips is the most important piece in the Leeds jigsaw. He can drop down and form a back three, allowing the two full backs to push further up or move forward to add numbers in the middle of the park alongside Mateusz Klich and Tyler Roberts.
The complex system has often taken many opposition managers by surprise. Seldom has the Bielsa ball backfired causing heavy damage to Leeds.
Can Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton derail the Bielsa ball?
Neutralizing Phillips is the most important aspect for breaking Bielsa ball. Leeds are known to attack and carry out their play from the flanks rather than the middle often creating a gap in the middle. Teams often fall into the trap and try to capitalize on the space created in the middle of the park by clogging the midfield. The consequence of this is that the gaps are formed at flanks where Leeds have already overloaded themselves.
First and foremost thing for Everton will be to avoid falling in such a trap. Without Lucas Digne, the Toffees are likely to revert to a more defensive 4 man defence with Niels Nkounkou covering for the Frenchman.
Ancelotti’s answer to Leeds’ overloading the flanks can be a change of shape without the ball. Probably switching to a 4-4-2 with Richarlison providing much needed cover on the left flank. Everton will require a near perfect, faultless game to get past the 3-3-3-1 formation. However, Ancelotti is one of the finest masters of this art and will have answers ready to counter Bielsa’s plans.
However, it remains to be seen if Ancelotti’s ideas can be transformed from paper to the pitch by the players.