When Bielsa first arrived at the club fans didn’t quite know what to expect. Most certainly didn’t expect to see Phillips play at centre back and Dallas at centre midfield so successfully. In hindsight, we should have. We are talking about a coach that many top managers in the game regard as one of the best. Why does Bielsa require his players to play with so much flexibility in terms of the position they play on the pitch? And is there a term that Bielsa uses to describe this method? The answer, multifunctionality or multifunction.
In simple terms, multifunctionality allows Bielsa’s team to change system in game without having to make personnel changes. There are a number of reasons why his team may need to change shape:
1: Opposition line-up differently then expected/previously have
2: Opposition change system in game
3: The game tactically isn’t going as planned
4: Through rotations, players find themselves in different positions
The above diagram shows what multifunctionality is. Each players in their “set” position is expected to play in a number of different positions. Take number 2, his set position is to play right back. However he’s expected to be able to push up as a winger, move in field as a midfielder or move across and play as a central defender. If Bielsa is required to make three tactical changes within a game, meaning that three players will be changing their start position, he has to make three subs and replace the players with ones that are more comfortable in the new position. However if he needs to make more than 3 changes, then at least one player will be moving into a position they’re not comfortable in. This is the reason why Bielsa uses multifunctionality, so that any change in system and the players positions, can be done seamlessly without having to make any personnel changes. We very rarely see Bielsa change his overall tactical system but throughout a game players find themselves in different positions on the pitch and this is where being familiar in that position helps. For example if the right winger moves in field and opens up space, the right back is expect to fill in the gap, something we’ve seen Ayling do lot this season with great success.
Now using this template, takes the current Leeds United team:
The standard starting line-up for Leeds this season when everyone is fit, a rough 4-1-4-1. In possession we see a lot of rotation between positions in order to open up space. If the opposition were to either line up with two strikers or change their system in game, then Leeds commonly switch to a 3 back formation, as seen below:
As you can see, both Ayling and Dallas would push further forward, Phillips would drop into the defence as the free man and Klich would drop slightly deeper. The attacking four wouldn’t change their “set” position in this case. This is the most common change we’ve seen Leeds do throughout Bielsa’s time so far.
Players training and playing a number of different positions allows Leeds to make tactical changes no matter what the opposition does. Any change in system is to make sure that Leeds always have numerical advantage and are able to play in triangles. This also means that when possession is overturned, that there are players in positions to press the opposition without being left short and exposed to a 3v2 situation. This of course then comes down to individual players winning their battles. For example if Bielsa makes a change to go from a 4 man defence to a 3 man defence meaning that Leeds have 3 (CBs) v 2 (ST) then they have numerical advantage. However one piece of individual skill from the opposition could turn a 3v2 into a 2v2 or even a 2v1 in the opposition’s favour. This is why Bielsa spends a lot of time practicing 1v1 in training sessions, with there being many examples online, both with Leeds United and with previous clubs. This sort of numerical advantage is what allows Leeds to have so much possession of the ball and limit most teams to playing on the counter attack or playing for set pieces. The system is just one element in overall team performance and results but is the foundations of executing a game plan. Once in possession and in overload situations, it’s up to the players to make the right decision.
Not only does Bielsa want the first team to be able to play like this, but also the academy, starting with the under 23’s. Bielsa suggested in 2017 that there are 10 overall systems, 5 of them with 4 defenders and 5 of them with 3 defenders, these being:
- 4-2-4 (4-4-2)
He believes there are slight changes to each one of these systems but they are the main overall systems used within football. He believes that training players in all 10 systems, five lots of 10 minutes for one team playing in the five 4 back formations, whilst the opposition plays in the 3 back formations. Then switch, meaning that after 100 minutes, all the players have experienced all 10 formations and them specific roles within them as previous touched on. The more they train and play in these formation, the more comfortable they become. Meaning that when players arrive in the first team, they are ready. This is why we have seen new players that haven’t had time to train as long struggle initially, before more often than not slowly improving over the course of the season. A good example of this is Jack Harrison.
Like the first team, the under 23’s predominantly start in a 4-1-4-1 or a 3-3-1-3 with changes in position for the players rather than the system itself. For example, Robbie Gotts started out at Leeds as a right back but after a few weeks started playing in midfield. Over a period of a couple of months, Gotts played a number of games at right back and centre midfield. We’ve seen Leif Davis, predominantly a left back, play at centre back for both the first team and the under 23’s. He started away to Aston Villa last season at left back however started at centre back away to Salford City and at home to Stoke City in the cup this season. Bielsa doesn’t expect that every player will be able to play each position required of them perfectly as there are many factors that can affect this. Take Robbie Gotts, fully comfortable at right back and in midfield due to him having the required attributes to play those positions. However, he is not quite as comfortable at right wing due to him lacking more attacking attributes. The final of the four required positions for a right back, is centre back. Gotts doesn’t have the physical attributes to be able to do a good job in that position. This is why we see a midfielder drop into defence when required to play a three man defence or we see the left back (Davis for example) shift across. In an ideal world Bielsa would like the academy players to spend longer in each formation throughout their time at Leeds. If the team plays two of 10 systems each year (one four back and one three back) after 5 years they will have played each system and each role within those systems. This means that when they arrive in the first team squad, they’ve had plenty of experience and are able to adapt easier. In modern day football, this is something that is hard to achieve due to how quickly things can change. This is also one of the many reasons as to why Bielsa prefers it if academy players stay at Leeds rather than go out on loan. If a player was to go out on loan, they’re likely to only play one position meaning that when they return to Leeds they’ve missed out on learning and developing in different positions. It does however get to a point in a young professional’s career where first team football become more important if they want to make it in the game. As a club, the academy has always produced good talent that has gone on to play for their country. If you look back on the young players that have played for Bielsa and gone on to have great careers, as a fan it excites me to see where the current crop of talent at Leeds will end up in 5-10 years time.
Without being able to see training or have an insight into the tactical side of training it’s hard to say for certain that Bielsa is training his team in all of the 10 systems, however the teams ability to adapt throughout game would suggest that they are. As a fan and an admirer of the tactical side of football, multifunctionality is a pretty simple idea but in practice much harder to produce. This is why Bielsa is such a genius in the football world.
Written by Thomas Wilson