On Tuesday night, Leeds United were thumped 7-0 by Manchester City. In doing so, they became only the second team to concede five or more goals to both Manchester clubs in the same Premier League season; a statistic courtesy of Richard Jolly on Twitter. This was also the biggest defeat of Marcelo Bielsa’s long managerial career.
The other club that have this unfortunate record is Southampton; who last season suffered a 9-0 defeat away at Manchester United and a 5-2 defeat away to Manchester City. Add to this the fact that Southampton were embarrassingly beaten 9-0 by Leicester City the season before and these emphatic defeats highlight just how dangerous high-pressing football can be when executed poorly.
High-risk, high-reward; but suicidal at times
Leeds and Southampton are both teams whose managers have very clear footballing philosophies and they tend not to waver from their beliefs. They both ask their teams to play very aggressive, high-pressing football. There are subtle differences to their approaches, though, with ‘Bielsa-ball’ usually a man-marking approach and Hasenhüttl implementing a Gegenpress. There are pros and cons to both styles, with Bielsa’s style a little more unique than his Austrian counterpart’s. The problem with both, however, is that if one or two players don’t execute their role properly the whole system comes crashing down around them, allowing opponents to carve them open at will. This was what we saw in City’s drubbing of Leeds, and it is what we have seen on more than one occasion at Southampton.
In both of Southampton’s 9-0 defeats, the St Mary’s side found themselves playing with ten men for large parts of the game. In fact, in the defeat to United, Southampton ended the game with nine men, after a late red card was shown to Jan Bednarek. It was 6-0 at the time and, in the short amount of time that followed, the Saints shipped three more goals. This is another glaring issue with these principles of how to play.
When implanting a playing style that is dependent on high octane, pressing, football there is often an element of high-risk, high-reward, but when it goes wrong it really exposes the team. There are a number of triggers to the press and when one player is taken out of that, often the whole team is unsure of what they should be doing. It is why teams such as Southampton and Leeds tend to struggle so much more than others when a player down. For Leeds, specifically, who play man for man, when they have a player less than their opponents this becomes impossible to execute properly.
Both Hasenhüttl and Bielsa stick to their principles and, while this is commendable, it means that they often lack a ‘plan B’ when things aren’t going to plan. It also means that once a weakness has been identified, their opponents can often repeatedly exploit it with little resistance due to the nature of the playing style. Hasenhüttl has often been accused of lacking a ‘plan B’ and it is difficult to argue that thus criticism hasn’t come without justification. Thus season has perhaps demonstrated a slight season shift in his focus to try and make his Southampton side more solid, though, by sometimes reducing the press a little or starting the press a little deeper.
The obvious pro to the Gegenpress is that the higher up the pitch you win the ball, the closer you are to your opponents goal with good numbers on the attack. However, when teams play through the press, it means that the defence is horribly exposed. This is a situation that Hasenhüttl has looked to reduce this season, but the defensive issues have reared their ugly head again in recent weeks.
Fatigue an unavoidable issue
Another issue that has huge implications on teams of the size of Leeds and Southampton playing this way is fatigue and injuries. Leeds have a very small squad and, as has been evident recently, with a couple of injuries to key players the effects are severe. Southampton’s squad is bigger this season than it has been in previous campaigns under Hasenhüttl, and he will be hoping that this stands them in better stead for the entirety of the season.
Lots of games in a condensed period of time is perhaps the worst thing for a manager who coaches this style of play. There is no doubt that Southampton and Leeds will be two of the fittest squads in the league, particularly with Bielsa’s infamous ‘murder ball’ training in pre-season that involves vomit-inducing, non-stop running.
However, playing this tempo of pressing football every three days becomes problematic. If only the first half of this season’s Premier League games counted, Southampton would be a Champions League team, if only the second half counted, they would be nailed on for relegation. This is a problem that Hasenhüttl has to try to address, and it may be why he’s seemingly adopted a slightly less high-octane approach in some fixtures this season. For fatigue to creep in during the busy festive period is normal, for it to present itself so obviously in individual matches early on the season is a far bigger issue.
Why it works for ‘bigger’ clubs
One thing that must not be forgotten when judging the methods that the likes of Bielsa and Hasenhüttl opt to use is the limitations of their squads. With all due respect to both clubs, Southampton and Leeds do not have the squad depth or quality to maintain a high level of performance every week with this style. On the flip side of that, the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool do. These are tactics that can make the likes of Southampton and Leeds compete with the best teams in one-off games when executed perfectly, but can also leave them susceptible to surprise defeats to inferior opposition when not.
Liverpool and Manchester City have far larger squads at their disposal and, ultimately, have far better players within those squads. Better players mean less mistakes and less mistakes mean less chances for opponents to exploit them and have chances on their goal. It sounds so simple, and it is really, but better players can execute tactics more effectively. They are more efficient in front of goal and more solid in defence.
Another reason City and Liverpool are able to play so aggressively, so consistently, is that they tend to have higher possession than their opponents. They work extremely hard off the ball, but once they regain possession they often have long spells with the ball which allows them to recover. Teams like Southampton and Leeds are simply not as good at retaining possession, and consequently are often forced to look forward very quickly. It is a tactical choice, and it is with the intention of turning the opposition defenders and creating chances, but it will often lead to possession being surrendered if a goal is not scored.
Leeds are generally better in possession than Southampton, with the Yorkshire side averaging 55% possession this season to Southampton’s 48%. Southampton do tend to really struggle against sides who surrender possession to them. The onus is then on the Saints to break the opposition down, while Southampton’s best work is usually done off the ball, out of possession. They then rely on quick transitions into what Hasenhüttl labels the ‘red zone’, which is effectively the final third of the pitch where the most damage can be done. Manchester City and Liverpool, on the other hand, are often able to create overloads through their confidence in each player on the ball, but can also turn defence into attack in seconds with precise balls to their runners in behind.
While issues of fatigue, quality, execution and lack of ‘plan B’ are all potential flaws of Bielsa and Hasenhüttl’s approaches, they can lead to some really exciting football and some impressive results. Southampton’s 1-0 victory over Liverpool in January was an example of their philosophy executed perfectly, while Leeds picked up four points from champions Manchester City last season.
There is also no doubt that both teams would be much higher up the table if they had a higher level of goalscorer at the club. Patrick Bamford’s extended absence is perhaps a key reason Leeds find themselves in the predicament they do, hovering above the bottom three, and Southampton are still trying to replicate goals lost from the sale of key marksman, Danny Ings, in the summer.
The tactics of both managers are very much all or nothing. When executed well it looks great and results often reflect that, but if one or two players fail to play their role then it can be disastrous and lead to heavy defeats. Southampton and Leeds have both been evidence of the fine margins between perfection and disaster in recent seasons. Neither manager is likely to change anytime soon, though, and the Premier League is all the better for it.