I n Bielsa and Klopp, Leeds and Liverpool landed on two visionaries who have concocted formula's for footballing success that has left the world agog in admiration. Fast paced, exhilarating football which displays and necessitates an incredible amount of intensity from every single member on the field. The level of cohesion required for the successful implementation of their styles of football is staggering and this is why both players tend to forsake superstars for humble hard-working players looking to develop.
However, both these managers have not quite developed a formula for regeneration and developing a second cycle of success at the same time. Their initial blueprints are so wildly successful that it generally turns their players into all-conquering giants and in turn, creates a team of players who are on the verge of stardom which in turn, affects the cohesion and work-rate of their respective sides. Furthermore it is just humanly impossible to continue to work at the intensity that both these managers require for the ideal execution of their philosophies.
What makes matters worse is that both managers are very emotionally attached to their first team players and thus even when standards have begun to slip or new blood needs to be introduced... neither manager seeks to take that step, and more often than not - they would rather fall on their sword. Hence both teams go into this encounter with an air of staleness about them. A sense of no direction or ambition plagues both sides at the moment.
In terms of selection issues, Liverpool will be badly affected by the ongoing 'Brazil-Gate' saga which sees the likes of Fabinho and Allisson prevented from playing due to not turning up for Brazil. Caoimhin Kelleher will earn the right to start and the promising Irishman has the opportunity to show what the hype is about. The back four picks itself and thus the main talking point will be in midfield. Henderson and Harvey Elliot seem likely to start but there is a three way battle between Keita, Thiago and Ox for who features alongside them.
As for Leeds, they will be missing their main man Raphinha - a devastating blow. It is hard to see how Leeds can replace his impact within their current roster and thus I would be minded to throw Dan James straight in. He is not as good as the Brazilian but he has the dynamism and work-rate to at least keep Liverpool's full backs honest. Another option should have been Helder Costa who is the closest to Raphinha in terms of style but is on loan to Valencia.
Without further ado, let us dive now into the tactics and key battles which could decide Saturday's fascinating duel!
Bielsa has experimented with a 3-3-3-1 formation this season. An interesting attempt to give his side a new look or edge, without necessarily refreshing the player roster. The issue with such a formation is that the two wide men in the second line of the structure always tend to be full backs, as they're the only players with the energy and discipline to contribute in defence and attack. Therefore this turns into a 5-1-3-1 during the build up phase.
Why is this an issue? well it is easy to pin back, as the defenders tend to pass from side to side as there is only one midfielder to find - who can easily get snuffed out and thus you're relying on the forwards to drop in deeper to collect - which is not an optimal form of constructing a build up phase. We saw against Burnley that Leeds were at times forced into making a progressive pass into their forwards because Phillips was marked, leading to a loss of possession.
If Bielsa persists with this formation, Liverpool could take advantage if they deploy a high pressing strategy, with their forwards man marking Leed's back 3. Liverpool's full backs could step up to meet Leeds' full backs but this might prove risky if Leeds do break through the press, so a safer option may be to try and use the midfield as well - i.e. ball sided full back presses onto Leeds full back, and one of the midfielders steps up to Phillips while on the other side, the full back drops off to form a back 3.
Once Leeds do break through the press, they do look fluid in attack although there is a heavy reliance on Raphinha to provide that unpredictable elite quality in the final third. As I mentioned in the intro, the player who could have replicated that dimension is Helder Costa but he has fallen out of favour and gone on loan. With him and Harrison out wide, their ambidextrousness would have allowed them to cut in and allow the full backs in midfield to overlap or if they go down the line, allow the full backs to make inverted runs.
With the 3-3-3-1 formation, there is a loss of the second CAM element which was a vital component of Leeds' attack last season. One has to question whether the full backs having more licence to roam presents a greater overall threat than last seasons 4-1-4-1 but Bielsa is keen for his side not to stand still and present his opponents with new problems.
Liverpool struggled last season at Anfield to keep Leeds at bay despite having Virgil Van Dijk in the backline. One key absence during that encounter was Fabinho and Henderson was used as the CDM. A similar issue presents itself in this game, although if Leeds play with just one CAM - Henderson might not be overloaded in the deeper central areas.
It is worth noting that in both the encounters last season Leeds dominated possession. That rarely happens to Liverpool and is a measure of how well drilled on the ball Leeds are as well as how effective their press can be. Leeds made an astounding 34 tackles during their 4-3 loss and in their 1-1 draw, they had 64% possession! Granted Liverpool's side in the latter encounter had Fabinho at centre back but the signs are clear... without the Brazilian holding, Liverpool are susceptible to losing the midfield battle.
Leeds are a devastating side on the counter and this is borne out in the numbers. Last season they scored 10 goals in transitional situations, only conceding 4 goals. Liverpool in comparison only scored 4 and conceded 7. Compare that to their title winning season where they scored 15 on the counter and conceded 2, and there are understandable concerns as to whether this Liverpool side can slice through disorganised sides in the same manner and whether opponents have just become wise to it.
Raphinha has the ability to find killer passes and run through disorganised defences at will. James on the other hand lacks these qualities, but if the ball can be hit in behind - he has the pace to run in behind and eat up yards, before whipping in a decent ball. Harrison is a menace on the counter with his two footedness and his duel with Trent Alexander-Arnold will be a fascinating one to watch. Harrison has the endeavour to get back and track Arnold's forays forward - and he has the dribbling qualities to leave Trent for dead.
Liverpool are not used to facing such a kamikaze press. Historically they are the aggressors but as the hunger and desire in the squad has begun to wane, they can be vulnerable to sides who go for the jugular. Leeds were unfortunate to not secure a victory against them last season.
Leeds in their 3-3-3-1 structure, still press with Bamford as their primary ball chaser and then a second wave of 3 supporting the lone forward. The difference to the 4-1-4-1 is that instead of the second CAM dropping into CM to assist Phillips, the non ball side wide full back/side midfielder comes in centrally and helps plug any gaps in the midfield.
Liverpool will predominantly try to build through Trent, but they can also build up from VVD down the left side and that makes them a difficult side to put pressure on - contrast this to United whose entire build up seems to be centred down the left, with the Maguire-Shaw axis being their only way out under the press.
However in the absence of Fabinho, having to build up through Henderson presents problems. He struggled against Leeds last season when deployed as the DLP and in the absence of any alternatives, it is likely that he will be used there again. He is not as press resistant as the Brazilian and is less adept at linking up play in the defensive third.
If Liverpool play the likes of Elliot and Curtis Jones, or even Oxlade-Chamberlain, there is the potential that Leeds midfield will not get enough time to regroup after an aggressive press and leave gaping holes for the Liverpool midfield to run into. With Phillips potentially left on his own, this could prove catastrophic. If Liverpool play it safe with their midfield selection, i.e. Hendo, Keita, Thiago - it will be a touch one paced and this will mean that Leeds have the time to get into a good defensive shape.
Up front Jota will return. He could prove a dangerous threat against this Leeds defence and whilst the White Rose can drop back into a back 5 - there will be moments where Leeds have not dropped into a low block and with Jota's ability to penetrate and drift into half spaces, he will be a more potent force than Firmino.
Salah was absent during the 1-1 return fixture but scored a hat trick in the 4-3 game. He may have scored two penalties but he looked menacing throughout. Leeds will have their hands full in trying to keep the Egyptian quiet. The best way to keep him frustrated is to play a low block but I cannot see Leeds sitting back, especially at home.
With Firmino out, Liverpool have three players up front who have the pace to unsettle this Leeds defence on the transition. The blueprint for Liverpool needs to be how Manchester United set up against Leeds. Greenwood's movement and Pogba's probing exquisite passes from deep kept slicing open the Leeds backline and a player like Thiago may be able to perform similar feats when feeding in the likes of Jota and Salah.
Both teams are trying to tweak their personnel and tactics from within, shunning the need to bring in new faces. This in my opinion will prove to be a mistake in the long term as there is an air of staleness about both sides. As for this encounter, I believe the absence of Raphinha will hit Leeds harder than the loss of Fabinho will hurt Liverpool.
Robertson may have had a slow start to the season but I can imagine him having a decent game against James. If Costa had not gone on loan, then Leeds might have a better chance. I also believe that Leeds would be better served by returning to the 4-1-4-1 formation for this particular encounter. It would give Phillips greater support centrally and also overload Henderson.
Prediction… If Liverpool are to win, Salah will be devastating once again - his absence in the 1-1 last season was noticeable. For Leeds to win, they need to fight fire with fire but I think the key is to exploit Henderson and play a 4-1-4-1, but even then a winger like Costa would have been preferable. Overall am fancying a Liverpool win as a lot of things have to go right here for Leeds to win.