Written by Matthew Mak
What a crazy weekend of Premier League football, Manchester United and Liverpool were both hammered by Tottenham and Aston Villa. Manchester City, travelled to Elland Road to play against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, resulted in a 1-1 stalemate.
It is always an interesting tactical battle when Pep Guardiola and Bielsa faced each other, this game is not an exception. With Raheem Sterling scoring the opener, the home side levelled things up with Rodrigo Moreno’s goal. This tactical analysis shows the tactical battle of the clash between City and Leeds.
Leeds were without Jack Harrison as the left-winger was ineligible because of his loan status from City. Ezgjan Alioski started at that position. Some guess Stuart Dallas was a midfielder, but that was just an approach against Sheffield United last week. Dallas returned to the left-back position. The rest are the key squad members from their EFL Championship winning campaign.
City missed a lot of first team players, such as Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus and Ilkay Gundogan. There was no room for Guardiola to rotate the starting lineup hugely, only a few adjustments were made from the Carabao Cup game. Ruben Dias made his debut for the team, while Phil Foden returned to the squad as a midfielder.
City had a good start
City had a good start and a better first half in this game. Apart from taking the lead which thanks to Sterling’s goal, they set up the pressing well and created many transition opportunities. By using a zone-oriented system to set a pressing trap, the Citizens were able to regain possession high on the pitch. Leeds were easily caught because of misplacing passes.
Leeds insisted to play out from the back with the keeper and a wide back four, they spread to occupy all vertical zones on the pitch. Kalvin Phillips operated as the pivot to move behind City’s first line, though he could drop to Leeds’ first line as well. So far, the team used a lot of diagonal passes or cross-field balls in their own half to circulate the ball. Patterns varied from Mesiler – full-backs to Ayling – Dallas. This approach did not work well in this game.
What City were trying to do was to guide Leeds into the pressing traps. Pep’s team defended in a 4-3-1-2 initially, but happy to leave central spaces opened to invite the ball into that region. The wide midfielders – Kevin De Bruyne and Foden were more inclined to the wide zones, in the hopes of controlling the full-backs.
The system was zone-oriented, so Sterling and Ferran Torres should step up to pressure the defenders in their vertical zones. This means Sterling on Robin Koch and Torres on Liam Cooper. Meanwhile, Riyad Mahrez should cover Phillips while pressing Illan Mesiler if necessary.
A key concept was the curve-runs, which was the basics of City’s pressing game. The wingers must avoid direct accelerations to the ball, instead, they should curve the path. This was pivotal as Pep wanted to shut the player behind the pressing player while applying pressure to the ball. In this case, Meslier passed to Cooper, which triggered Torres’ pressure as shown below.
When Cooper returned the ball to Meslier, Torres must continue his run to pressure the keeper. Meanwhile, Cooper should be eliminated in the build-up as he was under Torres’ shadow. These were the situations of the below image.
In addition, Sterling moved a step closer to Koch, while Mahrez did his job to shadow Phillips. Meslier was not extremely good at kicking, and these were occasions that City could regain the ball from a long pass.
On top of the system, there were plenty details in City’s pressing. De Bruyne did a tremendous job by pressing from the receiver’s blindside. Also, the Belgian international looked energetic to sprint towards the ball, winning the ball high for the team on several occasions.
Mahrez did a good job to curve his run, forcing Phillips to move laterally to open a passing lane. Thanks to the Algerian player’s effort, now De Bruyne knew where the ball was going to as Mahrez limited the angle of the pass. De Bruyne quickly sprinted towards the ball, intercepted it from Meslier’s suboptimal pass.
However, such an aggressive approach of the away side did not sustain too long. Around halfway through the first half, the intensity dropped. Mahrez and Torres did not offer the same energy and defensive outputs as Jesus did previously. Therefore, City defended in a midblock that was more conservative.
Lastly, when defending deeper, City suffered because of the zonal system used. Leeds attacked with almost every player, including Dallas and Ayling to make the supportive runs. When the full-backs joined the attack, Walker and Mendy’s zone were underloaded, respectively. City should be handling this better.
For example, Dallas joined the attack below, but Walker was unable to cover huge ground on his right. City were caught and conceded an opportunity.
Intense pressing from Leeds
The “El Loco”’s team never stop pressing. Without the ball, they run. Leeds were fearless regardless the opponent they were playing against, they played in their usual way against City. The press was largely man-oriented, but there were some tactical tweaks to adjust the details. Since the intensity was so high, City found themselves difficult to control the rhythm of the game.
The below image demonstrated the pressing scheme of Leeds. Most parts were man-oriented, such as Dallas – Torres; Ayling- Sterling; Roberts – Rodrigo Hernandez; Cooper and Koch on Mahrez (shifting was available). However, Phillips’ role was different, he should defend the zone behind the first line more by positionings.
Playing in the Premier League, Bielsa was willing to sacrifice numbers at the first line to create a “+1 advantage” at the backline. Since Bamford could only mark either Aymeric Laporte or Dias, the wingers had multiple duties to adjust. Alioski and Costa should cover the centre-backs in their respective vertical half. Also, Bamford had to cleverly cut the links between the centre-backs to prevent Leeds being stressed out by ball circulation. This was why Bamford had his position at Bielsa’s team. So far, no striker could offer the same pressing intensity as Bamford did.
Below is an in-game example on Leeds’ pressing. Costa, joining Bamford at the first line was approaching Laporte. Meanwhile, Roberts did a good job by sticking to Rodri whenever the pivot dropped. From the body gestures of the pressing players, we can tell Costa and Roberts were sprinting, forcing the opponents to think quickly and play quickly.
Under tremendous pressure of the opponent, City found difficulties to pass in their own tempo. Consequently, sometimes they made suboptimal decisions, such as Laporte neglecting Benjamin Mendy in this case.
Of course, Guardiola knows Bielsa very well, and he was well-prepared for this game. City did a double training session before the game, which was the first time under Pep’s era. The players were instructed to do something different from usual. Even the defenders – Laporte, Mendy, and Walker, were permitted to dribble more. Instead of using passes to bypass the opposition structure, this was a cleverer approach to exploit spaces properly.
This was because spaces must be available at the midfield, attributed to the nature of Leeds’ intensive press. Pep’s troops also carried out the tactics with so much courage and confidence.
In this example, Mendy confronted Costa, he knew De Bruyne was available at the midfield, but the left-back did not pass at this moment.
Instead, he dribbled until Mateusz Klich (originally the marker of De Bruyne) had to press him. With better players who could carry the ball forward, City tried to use qualitative superiorities to beat the markers in 1 v 1 situations. When bypassing the marker, another defender was forced to leave his position to press. In those momentums, City would enjoy a 2 v 1 temporary numerical superiority to overload the opponent.
That’s why Mendy took the risk to dribble, successfully eliminated Costa and drew Klich out of position. Now, De Bruyne was left free with spaces around, and this was the good moment to pass and carry on the attack.
In addition, given the work rate of Bamford, it was important to try carrying the ball over the first line. This time, Rodri took the risk to bring the ball forward.
Another method for Pep’s men to disrupt the man-oriented system was positional interchanges. Torres and Mahrez were flexibly exchanging their positions to move the oppositions. The only scenario that they should avoid was both players staying at the same vertical zones. If one of them stayed wide, another one or Sterling must provide the offensive height.
As a result of the positional interchanges, Dallas followed Torres to the centre. Cooper, was slightly aware of his positioning, moved out to press Mahrez below. With this approach, the Algerian attacker had spaces to dribble. However, Alioski was hardworking enough to close Mahrez from another angle, avoiding these 1 v 1 situations.
A very common issue of City was the closed body of receivers. To avoid the ball being trapped at wide zone, the centre-backs did not connect with Walker and Mendy much in this game. Instead, the away side emphasized more on verticality, to exploit the central spaces behind the Leeds first line.
This verticality was useful at times, but when the receiver closed his body, the third man was not available always to continue the attack. For example, De Bruyne was without the third man’s help below. He did not want to pass to Walker, as the wide pass would trigger the pressure and trap the ball at flank. Although at last he passed, it was misplaced and conceded a throw-in.
In fact, De Bruyne was unaware of spaces at the centre. Since the marker already changed his direction to catch the wide pass, De Bruyne should have turned and accessed the highlighted areas. He did not, probably because of being limited by closed body. City were not doing these details well enough, especially after entering the offensive third.
Leeds came back in control
After the break, Bielsa used Rodrigo to replace Roberts, who made an impact in this game. Leeds were the better side afterwards, part of the reason was City’s pressing dropped the intensity.
Torres and Mahrez did not offer the same level of energy that Jesus can provide. Therefore, City sit in a midblock more often to stress the build-up. In the first few mins, Torres were a bit unfocused on the situations on the pitch. The former Valencia winger did not press enough.
For example, he stood a second when Dallas had the ball below. What he should do was to curve his run and try shielding the areas, or shutting the angle of pass. The slow reaction from Torres has allowed Leeds to progress by a combination play, initiated by Dallas. The process happened at the area where should be under the shadow of Torres.
And, City did not apply pressure to the centre-backs anymore. Both Cooper and Koch were now the free player to start an attack at the backline. City suffered a lot from this passive defensive behaviour, maybe they should have done better to press the opponent.
Without any pressure, the long passes were morel likely to reach the receiver. The above attack from Cooper developed as Ian Poveda received the ball. Look at the numbers that Leeds had committed in the attack, it was a 6 v 4 at City’s defensive third. The direct plays from the backline directly bypassed the midfield of the opponent, and the Citizens must run up and down to defend.
With six players to attack, it was impossible for City to cover every zone with just four at the back. Rodri was way to slow to protect the defenders sometimes, these are dangerous moments that might led to goals.
As Pep said, Leeds can help you to make the transitions. With the energetic display at Elland Road, Bielsa’s men created many opportunities through offensive transitions. These could be scenarios after a set-play or a regain possession at their own half.
The objectives from Leeds were clear. If the ball is regained at the middle third, try dribble into the space and releasing the wide players. When clearing the ball in the defensive third, play to the wide areas or find Bamford quickly. The rest should instantly join the attack whenever the transitions occurred, in the hopes of attacking City with numbers.
In the open plays, City faced difficulties to defend the counter-attacks because of the flat and opened shape when attacking. The likes of Bernardo Silva, De Bruyne, Mahrez, Sterling and Foden were all attacking in the final third. However, the positionings were more staggered because of inability to control the tempo. Thus, this attacking pattern also increased the difficulty to counter-press the opponent.
Therefore, the City rest defence left exposed in the second half. Rodri had some difficult moments as the area to defend was too large. Sometimes he tried to make tactical fouls by pulling the carrier, but failed to grab the shirt tight enough, or not even being able to stop the transitions. In this example, Rodri tried to foul Rodrigo, but he could not stop him.
Clever substitution to regain control
After suffering for half an hour, City finally gained control at the ending stages of the game. Bielsa praised Guardiola’s use of Fernandinho as a clever change, as the introduction of the Brazilian helped the away side to control the game.
With an additional pair of fresh legs at the midfield, City did better to kill the transitions. Leeds tried to drop the wingers to attack spaces behind the full-backs in the second half. Therefore, the backline needed more protections.
What Fernandinho offered was the intelligent positionings that could suffocate the counter-attacks. Despite not being the quickest player on the pitch, the 35-year-old player always appeared at the right position to cover spaces appropriately. Here, he knew Bamford was running into spaces behind the left-back, but he was also clear that tracking the run was difficult. His decision was to stay at a position that could cut the passing lane to Bamford, successfully intercepted the ball before Poveda releasing Bamford.
With an additional man at the midfield, Rodri’s workload was eased. City also found some transition chances at the second half. On most occasions, they attacked spaces outside of the centre-backs, mostly capitalizing on the high full-backs of Leeds.
As an example, Ayling was out of position below. Rodri quickly released the runner at the front line, who could challenge Koch on 1 v 1. However, they did not make any of these chances despite trying a lot. Leeds players were too quick to retreat behind the ball, City never utilized the limiting time to shoot from a dangerous position.
It must be one of the most interesting tactical battles of the season. Despite using more than 2k words to dissect the tactics of Bielsa and Guardiola, the details of the game are far beyond this article. Both teams tried to win the game, spent so much efforts on preparing the game. The 1-1 draw should be a fair result to Leeds and City.