Is Bielsa right to praise his defensively minded players this season?

15 Mar 2021 11:50 am, by YorkshireSquare

After United’s disappointing 2-1 defeat at in-form West Ham United, Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa leapt to the defence of his error-strewn backline in a bizarre string of comments that may have risked alienating his forward-thinking players. Following the loss to the Hammers, Leeds now has the second-worst defensive record in the English Premier League (EPL), averaging 1.7 goals conceded per game. Only West Bromwich Albion have a poorer rate than this, averaging two goals conceded per match.

Their porous backline has not gone unnoticed by EPL pundits throughout the season. Many of whom have labelled United naïve for playing with such attacking abandon. Although the figures paint a grim picture of Leeds defensively, Bielsa spoke to the regional press, insisting that most of his top performers so far this season were in his defensive ranks.

Bielsa pleased with defensive unit over the “whole season”

After reporters suggested to Bielsa that Leeds made it too easy for West Ham to score at the London Stadium, the Argentine refuted those claims and insisted that the back line was not “facilitating the goals of the opponent”. He added that looking back at the “performances of the whole season” it was clear to him that the “goalkeeper”, the “four defenders” and the “defensive midfielder” are the “most consistent” in the squad.

Bielsa went further by naming the players he was alluding to, including Illan Meslier, Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas, Liam Cooper, Pascal Struijk and Robin Koch. He insisted they are the ones that have “shone” during the course of the 2020/21 EPL campaign. He acknowledged that his answer opened up a can of worms as to how his team could have “conceded so many” with defenders that have “played so well”.

Why would Bielsa praise his defenders before the likes of Patrick Bamford?

Is it the case that Bielsa is privately giving his defensive unit a dressing down and wants to be seen to be backing his players in public? Either way, it’s likely to be a detrimental move which could frustrate and disappoint his forwards that have provided so much entertainment for fans and neutrals so far this term. It’s hard to imagine that Bielsa would say that his defenders have been the most consistent when striker Patrick Bamford has averaged a goal every other game in his first full season in the top-flight. Goalscoring midfielders Jack Harrison and Raphinha have also set the league alight at times.

If Bielsa genuinely believes that his defensive unit is functioning well, it suggests the Argentine’s tactics are too flimsy for the EPL. In recent EPL predictions for game weeks, Leeds have been described as “always-unpredictable”. Is this the kind of basis for a team that can evolve and compete for domestic trophies in the future? Arguably not. talkSPORT’s former Aston Villa striker Gabby Agbonlahor believes that Leeds could have been realistic challengers for a top four finish this season had they been “more cautious” at times.

Despite previously branding Bielsa and his Leeds players a “myth”, Agbonlahor said that they are one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the EPL but needed to “change it up a bit” against the league’s stronger teams. Although this is something that many Leeds fans have been calling for – particularly after heavy defeats to Manchester United and Crystal Palace and even the FA Cup humbling at Crawley – it’s fair to say that any Plan B would simply be a compromise of Bielsa’s principles that have seen him grow into one of the world’s most revered coaches.

It’s also important to look back at the job Bielsa has done at Elland Road in such a short space of time. When the 65-year-old took the helm, Leeds had only just managed a top-half finish in the Championship, with a real sense of malaise creeping in throughout the club. Just two-and-a-half years later and the club and its supporters are enjoying their football once again, making friends (and enemies) at the top table of English football for the first time since 2004.