It’s Liverpool v Leeds. And we have five big tactical questions…
1) Will Leeds temper their high pressing or go for broke?
Marcelo Bielsa is an idealist; a tactical purist whose vision of how football should be played has inspired a generation of managers. But like so many of the great revolutionaries, he is uncompromising to a fault. Leeds United will press high and hard, and will play furious attacking football, no matter the opponent. That surely suits Liverpool.
Jurgen Klopp has tempered his own ‘heavy metal’ football over the last two seasons, primarily in response to Premier League opponents sitting deep and negating Liverpool’s ability to counter-press. Leeds, then, offer Liverpool a rare opportunity to break at speed; to enact their own high-pressing game to devastating effect.
That is the expectation, at least, and yet surely even Bielsa realises that you cannot go to Anfield and play an expansive game. The result on Saturday depends almost entirely on whether or not the Leeds manager is willing to sit back at times and absorb pressure. Assuming he doesn’t, instead going for broke as always, then Leeds might have a strong start. They might enjoy periods of dominance. But in the end Liverpool will triumph amid the chaos.
2) Can Bielsa’s attacking lines expose Liverpool’s full-backs?
The chances of a wide-open game on Saturday evening are increased by the contrasting attacking lines deployed by the two coaches. Whereas Klopp funnels attacks through the middle (instructing Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to stay narrow, sucking the opposition infield to create space for the late-arriving full-backs), Bielsa aims to overload the flanks. That offers Leeds a glimmer of hope.
Although nominally a 4-1-4-1 Bielsa’s system mutates too frequently to be defined by a formation graphic. With Kalvin Phillips anchoring as a deep-lying playmaker, the remaining midfielders fan out to create multiple diamond shapes across the length and width of the pitch – and make late runs to replace the forwards as they drop off. More often than not, Bielsa’s quick vertical passing lines are filtered down the wings as central midfield empties to support the wide men.
Liverpool are occasionally vulnerable in this area, as shown most potently in Watford’s 3-0 victory back in February. Mane and Salah rarely track back and the central midfielders have been known to struggle to get across, leaving Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson exposed if counter-attacks are channelled down the flanks. That is the area Leeds can do damage.
Just feel like Watford took a page out of Simeones book, overload the box when defending and press the fullbacks. No idea why ain’t everyone tried that against Liverpool yet
— Diogo Luz | Senysga (@SenyLuzz) February 29, 2020
3) Or will Liverpool’s controlling possession grind the visitors down?
More likely, Liverpool will do everything in their power to prevent the contest from getting out of hand. Klopp isn’t the wild gegenpresser he once was, and one of his side’s biggest strengths is their ability to kill a game by controlling the tempo. They may play more conservatively than usual, feeling their way into the contest by allowing Leeds to do all the early running in the hope they tire themselves out.
Keeping Leeds at arm’s length in the opening exchanges would allow the hosts to find their feet and get a sense of just how much danger this unknown entity poses. It would also, with time, force Leeds into a gradual retreat as Liverpool build possession. From here, they could win the crucial psychological battle as the excitement and enthusiasm begins to drain.
Contrary to what most are predicting, this game might not be carnage. Klopp will know Liverpool’s best chance of winning is to avoid an end-to-end contest.
4) Could Firmino and Keita hold the key to outmanoeuvring Bielsa’s man-to-man press?
The most unusual aspect of Leeds’ high pressing is Bielsa’s use of a man-to-man system. Rather than surround the ball or cut off the passing lines, his players look to sit on top of their opposite numbers and rely on just a couple of men to apply pressure to the ball. This gives Leeds that aggressive edge and prevents the opposition from outmanoeuvring the press through clever movement alone.
It also means players can get dragged well out of position. So far, Bielsa’s Leeds have been very well organised defensively as a direct result of this pressing system (and his use of a spare man in each line of defence and midfield, to cover gaps as players are pulled away), but the Premier League, of course, represents a major step up. Liverpool’s tactical intelligence could poke holes in the approach.
Roberto Firmino’s movement dropping off the front line confuses pretty much everyone, and certainly it presents a conundrum for the Leeds midfield: does the centre-back follow him right out of the back line, or should Phillips pick him up? That disruption alone could be enough to allow Naby Keita to escape unseen, making the sort of line-breaking run through the middle that we began to see at the back end of last season.
Working in tandem, Keita overlapping Firmino is the sort of complex tactical move that could make the Leeds midfield go a bit wonky.
5) Will Liverpool’s long balls expose Leeds’ high line?
For a simpler read on how this game might go, perhaps those raking long balls from Virgil van Dijk will be able to catch Leeds pushing too high up the pitch. Direct football is increasingly common at Anfield, and Bielsa wouldn’t be the first big-name manager to get caught out by the simplicity of Klopp’s approach.
van Dijk’s long passing towards Mané is probably my favourite aspects of LFC’s play. It epitomises Liverpool’s common sense approach. There’s space in behind? We’re going to knock it into it – if Mané gets the ball in final 3rd, great. If he doesn’t? We’ll press you straight away
— EBL (@EBL2017) August 30, 2020
Van Dijk could be the key player, then. He will certainly fancy his chances of shepherding either goal-shy Patrick Bamford or new signing Rodrigo, set for a baptism of fire against the world’s best defender. On the ball, Van Dijk’s distribution may just set Salah and Mane away behind the Leeds defence – taking advantage of Bielsa’s ultra-attacking philosophy.
Leeds won’t be chastened by events at Anfield whatever the scoreline. Bielsa only has one way of playing. Some weeks it will work, and some weeks it’ll end in a 5-0 defeat. Liverpool at Anfield will probably be the latter.
Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter