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Leeds vs Middlesbrough: Clash of Styles in Bielsa’s Biggest Test
Aaron Rogan
Aaron Rogan
August 31, 2018
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Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.

The biggest game of the Championship season so far comes on Friday night at Elland Road. The top two sides in the table meet in what already looks like a huge night in the promotion race. Leeds have made an excellent start so far, with Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival bringing excitement back to the club. Meanwhile, Middlesbrough have bounced back from a play-off defeat last season to make a great start to this campaign.

The pair have taken very different routes to the top of the table, but they’ve set up an incredible clash of styles this weekend. We’re looking at how the two differ in approach ahead of this game, and why their tactical mismatch makes for compelling viewing.

Also See: Leeds vs Middlesbrough Betting Tips and Predictions

The Pulis Agenda

Tony Pulis Middlesbrough

Like us, many are looking at this huge clash and comparing the styles. That’s something which has aggrieved Tony Pulis, who snapped back at a question from the press about the effect Bielsa has had so far. “I think his style is very direct,” Pulis said at his pre-match press conference. “They play through the pitch quickly and get bodies up.”

Pulis put the belief that there was a big change in styles down to perception. However, there’s much more to it than that. The pair have made the same number of successful long passes this season – 130 – but that doesn’t mean that the legendary Argentine can be lumped in with Pulis-ball. Leeds are certainly more than a hit and hope side; their total of 1761 passes to Middlesbrough’s 961 shows the difference between the pair.

While you can say that Leeds are more concerned about getting the ball forward than keeping it, they don’t just punt it long. On average they’ve dominated matches, with 56% possession for the season so far. Meanwhile, as usual Pulis and his men are on the back foot, keeping the ball for just 45% of their matches.

Pulis can talk about perception being the reason behind the praise for Bielsa. Or, it could be that the Argentine has been pushing this style for years, and now that it’s in vogue he’s among the most adept at coaching it.

The Bielsa Bounce

Leeds were seen as a side who would need time to click this season. That looked difficult with a manager who doesn’t have a great deal of patience. However, Bielsa has made a huge difference at Elland Road. His players have hit the ground running so far, and that’s taken them to the top of the table. However, they still have plenty of room for improvement.

The new boss hasn’t had an easy start, winning some tricky games. They’ve got excellent movement up front, and we expect that they’re going to become even more familiar with the way their manager wants to play as time goes on. Leeds loss in the EFL Cup is a positive for their promotion push. That brings more time on the training ground, and cuts down the number of games they’d be playing under a famously demanding coach.

It’s a case of so far, so good for Bielsa at Elland Road. His style has shone through their early results, and he’s certainly a boss who puts intensity ahead of possession. However, that doesn’t mean Pulis has a point. This is a side who are more dynamic than direct. On top of their quick passes forward, El Loco works on how his side press and move. Their side is much more flexible out of possession, while Middlesbrough focus on staying compact. You’d imagine that the more limited Middlesbrough side will struggle on the ball when Leeds come pressing.

Polar Opposites with Identical Aims

It’s too far to say that the two clubs have completely incomparable styles. These are two different approaches which are pushing for the same goal. Both are hunting for promotion, while the pair each want to get in to shooting positions quickly and regularly. A direct style can help that; possession for possession’s sake is useless, you have to add in an end product.

However, the different ways they go about it makes this such an intriguing fixture. Can Leeds open up the famous Pulis defence? Will Bielsa’s detailed pressing mean little if their set piece marking isn’t up to scratch? It’s easy to see this battle being one that’s fought out over the course of the season, and the two managers seem to be shaping up like that’s the case.

The fascinating battle of styles has brought a respectful rivalry between the two, as they look to land a huge win in the race for promotion. This is certainly Bielsa’s biggest test since taking charge of Leeds, but will his signature style trump Pulis? Neither are going to change how they play despite the pressure on them, and that should make this a fantastic game.

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