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Marcelo Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3

The Argentinian is hailed as one of the best coaches. His attention to detail and philosophy for attacking possession-based football has also made him one of the most influential people in football history. Managers from Pep Guardiola and Jorge Sampaoli to Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone have all spoke about the huge influence the former Bilbao manager has had on them. Despite all this, one of the main things that people talk about is his unusual 3-3-1-3 formation.

As with all of his set ups, Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 involves complex attacking movements and relentless pressing. He has used this formation at many Chile and Marseille and after their successes he has implemented it well at Elland Road.

They will start in a conventional 4-1-4-1 but will move into the 3-3-1-3 when in possession. As you can imagine, it is a fluid system which means the personnel in each line are interchangeable. One of the full backs will push forward which means the other one will tuck in to form a back three. As this happens, one of the central midfielders will move out wide to the side with the tucked in full back, this means the other central midfielder can move forward into the number 10 position. The wide midfielders in the original 4-1-4-1 will push forward to become wingers and form the front three.

The second line of three look to utilise the space in between the opposition’s first line of defence and their second. With them occupying the space behind their front line and in front of their midfield, this opens up passing options and creates multiple forward passing opportunities between the lines.

The two lines in front of this three are the aforementioned attacking midfielder and front three. The wingers in the front three are responsible for stretching the opponent horizontally and trying to get one-on-one opportunities with full backs. The striker’s job is to either occupying the centre backs or dropping deep to help link play and leave space for the attacking midfielder to make a forward run. With the wingers creating the width and the striker occupying the centre backs, this leaves the number 10 in a lot of space in between the opposition’s defence and midfield.

Many teams in the Championship play with two strikers up front who lead the press. With the three at the back, this creates a numerical superiority which is vital in build-up play as Bielsa wants to create overloads around the ball wherever possible. For this 3v2 to happen, Kalvin Phillips will drop in between the two centre backs who have split out wide meaning there will always be a free player in the defensive line.

When the ball is played back to the goalkeeper, Phillips will advance up the pitch, so he is behind the opponent’s press. This means it is now a 4v2 situation and Leeds’ four are in a diamond and Phillips creates a new passing opportunity that will break the first line of the press. When Phillips receives the ball, he will be in space and can turn to start a quick attack.

Passing back to the goalkeeper has another benefit as it encourages the first line of press to push up higher. That movement separates them from the second line of the press which creates space for Phillips or an advanced player to drop and help link the play. If a midfielder from the second line of the press follows Phillips or a player that has dropped deep, then Leeds can exploit the space he has created.

With good ball circulation the gap between the strikers opens up for Phillips. He can push up with the ball and make himself part of the midfield again. This is when Leeds can shift into their 3-3-1-3 and attack their opponents. With Phillips leaving the defensive line, a full back drops to maintain that three but Kalvin will be accompanied by another Leeds midfielder to maintain the numerical superiority, this team it’s a 5v4. Phillips and the other midfielder, often Mateusz Klich, move around so whoever has the ball will always have two open passing options infield.

Once they have moved the ball into the final third, they have two main ways of causing problems, either play into space or play into pressure to create space. By long diagonal switches, Leeds will try to exploit space left by their opponents. By playing the ball into possible danger, it draws the opposition to press the Leeds player in possession which creates space elsewhere for a player to make a darting run into.

If the opposition have a low block with only the midfielders pressing, Leeds form a triangle around a wide pressing player to create a 3v1. This draws out a full back and a central player which creates space in behind the full back and some space in front of the low block. Although the opposition have nullified the 3v1 to make it a 3v3, there is space for Leeds to pass into in dangerous areas.

If they want to play into the wide space, the striker will often stay in front of a centre back, so he thinks the striker is no threat. Whilst this is happening a central player will run behind the occupied centre back in a blindside movement. This has turned the 3v3 situation into a 4v3 situation with a player behind the line of pressure.

Because Leeds play with two players in wide positions, their management of space is important. The wingers will provide the width as they are hugging the touch line, this allows the other wide player, often a full back, to make an underlapping run. This gives the winger another passing option in a dangerous area in the half space between the opposition’s full back and centre back. If he is given the ball, he can hit the ball low across the face of the goal so his teammate has an easy tap in or so a defender might accidentally hit into his own goal.

Leeds are patient in build-up and with clever movement, once the space is created, they exploit it. They will spring an attack with quick vertical passes, often catching their opponent out. Once in the final third, more clever movement and intricate passing will lead to a chance being created. They have been excellent at creating these chances, just not taking them, which has seen them drop points in games they have dominated.

A wonderful team to watch in possession and hard work and organisation makes them a strong defence side. The only things holding them back are their finishing ability and luck.


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