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Marcelo Bielsa has done an outstanding job as Leeds United manager – and his side have an excellent opportunity to secure automatic promotion.
However, one cannot help but wonder whether his response to two-striker systems is perhaps the one small area where the Argentine might be questioned.
When opposing teams go two up top, as Birmingham did in their 1-0 victory last week, Bielsa often switches from 4-1-4-1 to 3-4-3, with Kalvin Phillips dropping into defence and full-backs plus wide men pushing up slightly.
On paper, the logic behind the alteration is sound – Phillips, Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson should outnumber two forwards – but in practice it leaves them short centrally.
In front of Phillips, the other two midfielders – most recently Mateusz Klich and Tyler Roberts – have the impulse to make a lot of runs into the final third, thus Leeds can be left with a split: a defensive trio and an attacking septet.
To break teams down, it is important to have one deep-lying midfielder who can win challenges early, quickly step onto second balls and switch play to shift a defensive unit.
Phillips did that job to an extent in Tuesday’s 2-0 win at Preston, who operate with one striker – but Wednesday will pose a threat to Leeds with two up top and how Bielsa responds to that could have a big say in the outcome.
Essence of Bielsa’s press conference – Impressed by Preston but felt #lufc deserved to win the game despite the sending off. Bamford’s 2 goals arrive at important time for him & team. Phillips was impeccable in dealing with Browne. Hernandez was passed fit late on before kick off
— Adam Pope (@apopey) April 9, 2019
Steve Bruce’s first defeat in charge of Sheffield Wednesday came as early as his 12th game and, even if he might have been disappointed to have lost to former club Aston Villa, the 3-1 scoreline grossly misrepresents the nature of the contest.
For three-quarters of it, Barry Bannan and Sam Hutchinson were dominating the midfield – and the game could have panned out differently had Steven Fletcher converted his penalty.
As impressive as Wednesday’s response to that setback against Villa – a 3-0 thumping of Nottingham Forest – was the fact they delivered it without Bannan and Hutchinson, who missed out with a minor hamstring injury and illness respectively.
As a disciplined holding midfielder, Joey Pelupessy represented a reasonably obvious alternative to Hutchinson but Adam Reach adjusted admirably to a central role.
In Reach’s usual position on the right side of midfield was Marco Matias, who has continued his bizarre, quiet-yet-sporadically-remarkable four-year Owls career by marking his first start since mid-January with a brace, including one impressive first-time strike from distance.
— WAWAW76 (@ndunne76) April 9, 2019
If Matias could stay fit and find any semblance of consistency, he could be one of the stars of the Championship and Wednesdayites must be hoping Steve Bruce can get that out of him.
The Owls boss was criticised while at Villa for direct, handbrake-on methods.
While his current side are direct – early balls into Steven Fletcher have been the common approach – they play off the Scot with enough quality and intent to conclusively avoid the long ball tag.
The 4-4-2 they often start with out of possession tends to very quickly become a 4-1-3-2 in transition, with either Hutchinson or Pelupessy holding to allow the three other midfielders to fly forward simultaneously.
If Phillips is deployed as a centre-back in a 3-4-3 South Yorkshire, rather than as a holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1, there could be oceans of space between Leeds’ midfield and defensive units which Wednesday would have the potential to exploit.
Tip: Sheffield Wednesday +1 handicap 11/8