Bielsa won’t change his ways? Well, he might just have.

Thomas Cundell
6 min readDec 30, 2020
Illan Meslier in action with Burnley’s Dale Stephens Pool via REUTERS/Molly Darlington

A lot has been said this past few weeks about how Bielsa doesn’t change his methods or the way Leeds play. A lot has also been said about Leeds being leaky from set pieces. Yet over the past two games Leeds have come up against 2 teams who like to play the percentages at set pieces and corners and kept 2 clean sheets. Against Burnley they faced 12 corners and even though they wiped the floor with West Brom, they faced 3 corners against a team that had proven a threat from set pieces with Semi Ajayi’s late equaliser against Liverpool 48 hours earlier.

So let’s start by playing a game of spot the difference. Below are 4 corners I picked out from when Leeds lost 6–2 against Manchester United. There really isn’t much difference except one corner is coming in from the other side. It’s Harrison at the 10 yard mark jumping, Rodrigo on the corner of the 18 yard box, Bamford at the edge of the 6 yard box and everyone else man for man. That’s how Bielsa’s Leeds have always set up to defend corners for the past 2 and a half years.

Going into the two games between Christmas and New Year all the talk in the media and between fans was that Leeds were going to struggle from set pieces against teams managed by Sean Dyche and Sam Allardyce. There were talks in the media of Bielsa needing to change his style. Now we know he won’t change his style but he might change how his style is implemented. Against Burnley we see this with how Leeds began to line up to defend their corners.

Burnley have Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, two forwards very competent in the air and then their centre backs who they’re going to aim for. Leeds’ defence at the best of times isn’t the tallest, never mind a makeshift defence with no first choice centre backs and down to a centre back pairing of Luke Ayling, a right back, and Pascal Struijk, 4th choice centre back. So how did Leeds choose to combat this?

Below you can see Leeds have changed how they set up. Whereas before Harrison (or a winger) would stand on the 10 yard marker, they shifted back to be on the front post leaving that area free. You can also see in the first Burnley corner of the game Harrison forgets this change and Meslier is telling him to come to his new zone that he is to defend.

This is how Leeds set up for all 3 corners they face in the first half. Harrison on the front post, Raphinha on the back post and Bamford floating on the edge of the six-yard box. In the second half they make another small adjustment in the way they line up.

Harrison goes out to the edge of the box man marking Westwood, Raphinha goes to the front post and Leeds leave the back post empty.

Leeds stayed with this format for the rest of the second half and for all of the next 8 corners Burnley have. The only change being when Raphinha went off, Pablo took up the role at the front post.

Before I move on to talking about what actions Leeds take in actually defending the corners I may as well brush over how Leeds set up against West Brom. Really there’s nothing much different to say, they set up in the exact same way that they did in the second half against Burnley.

With this angle we can see more clearly how Leeds have chosen to set up. Instead of Harrison watching the front edge of the area we see Alioski, with Harrison man marking Sawyers more centrally. Raphinha takes up the front post zone again.

So what do Leeds do and what have been the outcomes of the corners they faced? Well for one, what was a perceived weakness for Leeds and a strength for WBA and Burnley both failed to score.

Against West Brom, Struijk and Phillips both cleared once from the centre of the area while Meslier came and punched/palmed away the first corner of the night.

Against Burnley however we have much more footage to take in. Of the 12 corners Leeds faced Meslier came out to try meet 8; collecting 1 after palming it down, punching or palming away 6 and missing one which led to Alioski clearing from the middle of the area.

What was also now noticeable was that it was also Raphinhas job to try and attack the incoming ball at an early opportunity. This results in him not only clearing a corner but, if he misses and the ball goes over him he’s already on his way up field in the hope he’ll receive the ball and get Leeds on the counter attack, based on if Meslier collects or Leeds get their clearance out in his general direction.

This brings me on nicely to the “Meslier looks uneasy and keeps coming for crosses” argument that I have seen recently. Prior to the Burnley game Meslier has come out to meet 19 balls into his box this season. That’s an average of 1.36 times per game. In the last two games he’s come to meet the ball 16 times (12 of which came against Burnley) almost doubling his season figures and taking his ratio to 2.05 per game. This in my opinion, is a clear tactic from Bielsa and his Leeds coaching staff to use their tallest player as their main form of defence against teams with a strong aerial presence. It’s why Meslier continued to do it, the plan from what I can see (especially against Wood & Barnes et al.) was for him to get something on it, get it away from the immediate threat and have confidence that his defence will deal with the aftermath. It might seem like a mad solution but that’s why they call Bielsa “El Loco” because, he’s crazy.

So Bielsa did change how Leeds play, which is what many pundits were calling for, just with a little more subtlety than I think any of them really anticipated. So subtle in fact that the same people ended up saying Meslier looks shaky and unconfident, not realising this was likely to be an instruction. It remains to be seen if going forward Leeds continue with this set up against teams that are not so well known for taking advantage from corners or set pieces. But I would say that 2 clean sheets from 2 is a good return and a good measure for this new defensive set up staking a claim as Bielsa’s go to corner tactic.

All data and images were sourced from WyScout unless stated otherwise



Thomas Cundell

Android Engineer for Weezy. Sports Analyst hobbyist and Host of The Backroom Staff Podcast Twitter: @BKRMStaff and @THCundell