Under 23 football to most clubs isn’t that important and just a place where one or two fringe or young players get their chance to impress. The sole purpose is to hopefully allow a couple of academy graduates to make the first team. This used to be the case at Leeds United however not any more. Young players all over the world get to a point where they aren’t quite ready for their current club’s first team but are too good to be playing for the under 23’s. Take Ben White for example, Brighton have a lot of good centre back options and didn’t see him being able to make the cut this season however he is far too good to spend a season playing under 23 football. In most cases players would be encouraged to leave the club on loan for first team football and regular game time. At Leeds United, it is different. Our young players are better off staying and playing under 23 football. The reason why? Marcelo Bielsa and his coaching philosophy. Lets take Sunday’s under 23 game against Hull City as example; I am going to look at the tactical approach the under 23’s take and how it is nearly identical to the first team.
Like the first team, Leeds lined up in a 4-1-4-1 which at times became a 3-1-3-3 depending on the various game situations. The key position in the way the under 23’s and the first team look to play is the defensive midfielder. In the case of this game, Alfie Mccalmont was the player tasked to play this role. McCalmont dictated play by dropping short with the full backs pushing high giving a clear passing option. This allows the wingers to stay high and wide. With Hull City playing deeper and not pressing Leeds, McCalmont was allowed to play further up field and start attacks from there.
You can see from the example above, Alfie found space easily due to Hull not pressing and runs made by Leeds players out of picture, this is something that we will come onto later in the article. This is how Leeds started attacks, but how did they stop Hull City from attacking. The under 23 players are conditioned same as the first team which allows them to press as soon as their is a turnover of possession. As well as pressing, man marking was key in Sundays game. As you can see from the example below, Struijk was playing as a left back however tracked in his marker across the pitch into the right back area before making a challenge and winning Leeds a throw in.
For the first goal we saw exactly what both the first team and under 23’s work on in training on a regular basis. The winger staying wide (Huggins) with the defensive midfielder (McCalmont) on the ball playing a perfectly weighted diagonal ball which allowed Huggins to take it into his stride before cutting the ball back to the midfield runner, in this case, Jenkins to finish it off. A key movement in this goal was the run made by Edmondson, dragging players away from the edge of the area opening up the space for Jenkins. Wide player and full back combinations was key in this game and have been key for the under 23’s so far this season.
The partnership between the right back and right winger and the left back and left winger was vital, with four of the five goals coming from wide positions. As you can see from the two diagrams, the wingers and full backs move differently depending on possession of the ball and the areas of it. When the ball was in Leeds defensive third, we looked at playing the ball out wide to the wingers who had space due to Hull playing narrow (first goal an example). However when the ball was in Leeds attacking third, the wingers came inside, dragging the full back out of position allowing Leeds full backs to play wide and receive the ball in space (second goal an example). This also meant that when the ball came into the box, the opposite wide player attacked the back post instead of staying out of the 18 yard box (third goal an example). Hull City from the off defended narrow as they was scared of allowing Leeds space in the middle of the pitch, Leeds recognised that the space would be out wide and took full advantage.
I mentioned early about runs of the ball in order to open up space, these are called dummy runs. We see this all the time for the first team, particularly from Klich. The main three players tasked with this role in the game was Shackleton then Bogusz once he went off and Jenkins, who out the three, performed this role impressively. The example below shows Jenkins and McCalmont in similar positions but with McCalmont the one wanting to receive the ball. Jenkins runs away from the ball with the sole intention of taking his marker with him but also attacking the attention of other Hull City players. This allowed McCalmont to receive the ball under no pressure before playing the ball out wide to Struijk who set Leeds of on an attack.
The purpose of this article was to highlight using the most recent under 23’s game, how close the under 23’s and first team are in terms of style. Both teams train together and are coached by Carlos Coberan who works with both. It will get to a point where players are at an age where they need first team football but for now, players are better off staying at Leeds, continuing to develop as players under the influence of Marcelo Bielsa and co. With the first team squad being small, injuries are bound to happen and the players on the fringes need to be tactically ready and can only do so by training every day at Leeds rather than going to another club where the playing style will be different. I think it is safe to say that there isn’t a under 23 side in the country that play the exact same as their first team like Leeds United do. First team football is crucial for young players and at Leeds it is no different, however the current under 23’s squad is made up of players that are still young and not ready for a loan and players that are required to play an important role in the first team when injures happen. Whatever the case, Carlos Coberan, Marcelo Bielsa and all of the coaches for both the first team and under 23’s have brought the young players on in leaps and bounds over the last two years.
Written by Thomas Wilson – FocusOnLeeds
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