The History of the ‘Bielsa Burnout‘
Marcelo Bielsa’s gung-ho Leeds United have been one of the ‘must watch’ sides of the 2020/21 Premier League season.
They adopt a box office style characterised by a relentless high press and pitch-wide man marking system designed to exhaust opponents, but are Leeds the ones who are beginning to tire?
It’s a criticism that has been leveled at Bielsa’s sides throughout his career.
Athletic Bilbao were in fifth place and pushing for a Champions League spot half way through the 2011/12 season. Bielsa’s team had only lost four of their 19 matches, yet finished the campaign in tenth having lost nine of their final 19 matches.
His 2014/15 Marseille team lead Ligue 1 from matchday 6 to 19 and were top at Christmas before faltering to fourth, finishing 14 points behind winners PSG.
After winning 13 of their opening 19 games, with four losses, Les Phocéens’ decline in the second half was remarkable as they only managed eight wins and lost seven times.
Accusations of the so-called ‘Bielsa Burnout’ have followed the Argentinian to Yorkshire, notably towards the conclusion of the 2018/19 EFL Championship season. Leeds yo-yo’d between first and second for much of the opening 23 games, only losing three times in the first half of the season.
However, The Whites began to fall the way of a number of Bielsa’s past charges. Dogged by the infamous ‘spygate’ scandal, Leeds last held top spot in matchday 32 before slipping to a third place finish and the Championship playoffs.
Ten losses in the second half of the season, including six from their final ten games, saw them overtaken by Sheffield United and Norwich before succumbing to Derby in the playoff semi-finals.
Leeds finally sealed their return to England’s Premier League after topping the 2019/20 Championship standings, shaking off fears that they would not go the distance.
Despite their triumph there were still signs that ‘Bielsa-ball’ took its toll at points. Having only lost three games between 4th August 2019 and 14th December 2019, Leeds then lost five, drew four and won two in the six weeks that followed.
In fact, the busy Christmas/New Year schedule has consistently caused problems for Bielsa’s Leeds.
His win percentage between 1st December and 10th February, English football’s most congested period, is 44% compared to the 51% his Leeds tenure has averaged.
So there is something in the ‘Bielsa Burnout’ narrative, and there are signs that it is beginning to once again rear its head this season.
The FPL Perspective
At the time of writing, Patrick Bamford (£6.7m) has an effective ownership (EO) of 82% in Fantasy Premier League’s top 10,000 teams. He is also the seventh highest scoring asset in the game with 104 points.
The immensely popular frontman has been one of the best budget players this season and the focal point of one of the most attacking teams in the league.
However, after scoring six goals in the opening seven gameweeks Bamford has only scored four since, with 49% of his points coming between GW1 and GW7. In the same period Leeds amassed an expected goals total (xG) of 11.22, the fifth highest in the league, with Bamford responsible for 5.07 of the team’s xG.
Between GW7 and GW14 Leeds topped the standings for xG, with a huge 14.87. Bamford amassed 6.04 xG in that time but only scored three, a noticeable regression on the previous seven weeks. His share of the team xG also fell to 40.6% during that period, having been 50.8% for the period before.
In the opening 14 weeks we can see that Leeds grew as an attacking force but became less dependent on Bamford, perhaps due to the introduction of Rodrigo (£5.7m) and Raphinha (£5.4m), and that Bamford’s finishing appeared to decline as the season went on.
We now cast an eye upon Leeds’ most recent stretch of games, GW15 to GW20. Here we start to see a noticeable decline in underlying numbers with Leeds amassing an xG of 5.28, putting them in the bottom half of the league for that particular metric.
Bamford has registered an xG of 1.87 over the same period, 35.4% of the team total and another sign of his fading influence.
One could argue that Leeds’ numbers may be skewed by the cancellation of their GW19 match with Southampton, however they are still mid table for minutes per xG, with their average of 88.6 putting them level with shot-shy Sheffield United.
Bizarrely, this regression comes during a period where Leeds have faced West Brom, Burnley, Brighton and Newcastle, who all rank in the bottom half for expected goals conceded (xGC) of late.
Leeds’ attacking downturn is evident beyond just xG. In the opening 14 weeks they averaged 11 shots in the box (SiTB) per match and 2.2 big chances (BC) per 90 minutes, versus 7.2 SiTB and 1.2 BC over the last five matches. Leeds have defied this obvious regression to score eight goals in their last five and pick up three wins, so the shift in underlying numbers hasn’t yet dented their fortunes.
As FPL managers we strive to get ahead of the curve and predict potentially template breaking events. With Bamford’s ownership so colossal now may be the time to step away and trust that on-field results will begin to align with the stats.
It’s a gamble made all the more tempting after the Leeds forward was hooked before the hour mark away to Newcastle in GW20. Having started every game and only being subbed five times it may be time for a rest.
With the re-emergence of Michail Antonio (£6.4m), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (£7.7m) and the revived scoring touch of Ollie Watkins (£6.2m), there are plenty of viable options out there.
The three mentioned all have more favourable fixtures than Leeds over the next six gameweeks. Villa and West Ham are in great form while Everton appear to finally have all of their best players fit.
Based on Bamford’s season long numbers it appears a risk to drop him, but at this stage of the season it is the sort of decision that could be crucial in improving your overall rank. DCL, with the questionable Newcastle and Leeds defences up next, looks like a particularly good direction to go in.
Speaking of Leeds’ defence…
It’s no secret that Bielsa seeks to outscore opponents rather than shut them out. Across the season Leeds are second bottom of the league for shots in the box conceded (189), shots on target conceded (104) and big chances conceded (51).
Three powerful indicators of how likely a defence is to concede in any given week, Leeds have done well to overcome having the league’s third worst record for goals conceded.
Stuart Dallas (£4.8m) has had a terrific FPL season so far, his 75 points ranks him joint tenth of all defenders. The sometimes out of position asset has proved to be great value, his attacking returns making up for the occasions Leeds’ defence let them down.
However, with their attack showing signs of decline it may be wise to move off Dallas as a decrease in his attacking returns would leave you relying on a notoriously vulnerable backline for clean sheets.
Between GW1 and GW14, Dallas averaged 1.24 shots, 0.41 SiTB and 0.21 BC per 90 minutes. Between GW15 and GW20 these fell to 0.58, 0.19 and 0 respectively.
The Northern Ireland international has also seen his xG per 90 decrease from 0.12 (GW1-14) to 0.04 (GW15-20), showing that the quality and quantity of his opportunities have declined hand in hand.
While Dallas and his defensive colleagues Illan Meslier (£4.7m) and Ezgjan Alioski (£4.5m) have offered great value and created some legitimate FPL moments to remember, it now looks like the time to remove emotion from our decision making and seek options from more reliable defences.
Clean sheets should after all be the bedrock of an FPL defender’s skillset, the goals and assists should come as bonus.
It is still slightly too soon to write Leeds off as viable FPL options, however there are signs that their usefulness is fading.
Beating the template is one of the best ways to catapult your FPL season, and we find ourselves at a crossroads where many will continue to show loyalty to Leeds assets that their recent numbers suggest won’t be rewarded for much longer.
Those who are brave enough to part with Bamford or Dallas will find a plethora of potential replacements from Villa, West Ham, Everton and more.
My advice – move off Leeds’ assets and try to beat the anticipated decline. Use this as an opportunity to be different, to take risks. With Bamford their most expensive player at £6.7m it’s an easy switch back if the move backfires or Leeds continue to defy their underlying numbers.
There is historical evidence to suggest Leeds will follow the trend set by many Bielsa sides before them, and with the attacking returns becoming increasingly spread across the team there are undeniably better picks available.
*Featured image source: https://www.fifa.com/news/the-one-of-a-kind-marcelo-bielsa (no copyright intended)*