Jamie Carragher: Breaking down Leeds' man-marking system

Jamie Carragher analyses Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds after their first day back in the Premier League lived up to expectations

Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa gets his point across against Liverpool
Image: Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa gets his point across against Liverpool

On the first Monday Night Football of the new Premier League season, Sky Sports' Jamie Carragher assessed the defensive system deployed by Marcelo Bielsa in Leeds' 4-3 defeat at Liverpool...

We could have done an hour of analysis from this game - and that's just on Leeds. A lot has been made of how many tackles Bielsa's side made in the game, getting bodies forward - and once they had seven in the box when they almost got a penalty before half-time - but I wanted to look at Leeds defensively.

If you go back to the late 1980s and Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, he was known for changing football with a side that pressed all over the pitch through zonal marking. He changed things from the days of man-to-man marking, but what we saw on Saturday with Leeds was a throwback.

It was not just in certain areas - it was man-to-man all over the pitch. I do not think people like coming up against this system, but there are pros and cons to it.

Where man-to-man marking works

Liverpool's midfield three are pinned by Leeds inside their own half
Image: Liverpool's midfield three are pinned by Leeds inside their own half

This is an example of the extremes of man-to-man marking. Liverpool have a throw-in in the right-back position - and here is the midfield three of Liverpool and the three of Leeds (inside box). That's man-to-man - wherever my man goes, I'm going to make it difficult for him to get out.

Man-to-man marking is a lot easier when the ball is stopped and you can organise. In free play when people are moving around constantly and you've just got your man, it's really difficult.

The one thing that shocked me watching it was just how far Luke Ayling (circled) was willing to go with Sadio Mane. Look where they end up...

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Luke Ayling (circled) man-marks Sadio Mane at the Liverpool throw-in
Image: Luke Ayling (circled) man-marks Sadio Mane at the Liverpool throw-in
Ayling follows Mane (on the ball) into the Liverpool right-back area
Image: Ayling follows Mane (on the ball) into the Liverpool right-back area

But Ayling successfully stops Liverpool from getting out as he gets a foot to the ball. It works because with the game stopped, the system can be a lot more organised. But this shows the extremes Leeds will go to when one man is on the other side of the pitch.

System leads to Leeds' third goal

Leeds' man-marking system from a dead ball situation leads to their third goal
Image: Leeds' man-marking system from a dead ball situation leads to their third goal
Leeds had four players in the box while the scorer Mateusz Klich enters late
Image: Leeds had four players in the box while the scorer Mateusz Klich enters late

The man-to-man system actually leads to the goal which gets Leeds back into the game at 3-3. Again, you can see the three-v-three in midfield (inside box).

Stuart Dallas just gets in front of Mo Salah to intercept the clearance, they then get numbers into the box, there's energy to get forward. When the ball is stopped, man-to-man works.

The pitfalls of man-to-man marking

Kalvin Phillips
Image: Kalvin Phillips tracks the run of his opposite number Georginio Wijnaldum

In the first clip, this is from the first minute of the game. Kalvin Phillips - Leeds' holding midfielder - tracks Gini Wijnaldum all the way and stays with him.

As the ball gets moved around, you have got Liverpool full-back and Leeds winger (bottom of screen), the two midfielders together (second circle), Leeds' right-back that's come inside with Mane (third circle), you have got Roberto Firmino with the centre-back (fourth circle) and Liverpool full-back vs Leeds winger (top of screen).

Leeds deployed a regimented man-v-man system without the ball
Image: Leeds deployed a regimented man-v-man system without the ball

But if one man breaks it, as Naby Keita does in this clip, does the centre-back go to the ball or does he stay with Firmino? As soon as one man loses his man, Liverpool are in.

Naby Keita (on the ball) runs through and the man-to-man system breaks down
Image: Naby Keita (on the ball) runs through and the man-to-man system breaks down

System leads to Liverpool's fourth goal

Kalvin Phillips (circled) is not focused on stopping the straight pass forward
Image: Kalvin Phillips (circled) is not focused on stopping the straight pass forward

If you look at where the system fails, I think it costs Leeds for the fourth goal. We saw a clip in the first minute, and here's one in the last few minutes. When the ball comes to Joe Gomez (in possession), Kalvin Phillips (circled) has no interest in stopping the ball from being played inside, as almost every central midfielder would.

All he is worried about is pressing Curtis Jones, which is what Bielsa wants him to do - he hasn't got it wrong as this is the system that they play.

Phillips is more concerned about pressing his opposite man Curtis Jones
Image: Phillips is more concerned about pressing his opposite man Curtis Jones

When the ball comes into the feet of Mo Salah, what you have got is a line of Leeds players which is their back four. Conventionally, you would say that is a mess. I don't like man-to-man because I have always been brought up on the other system, but there are pros and cons to it.

Leeds' back line (diagonal line) shows how the system can be broken down
Image: Leeds' back line (diagonal line) shows how the system can be broken down

Leeds' left-back is in midfield (second circle inside), the centre-back is in midfield (third circle), Leeds' right-back has come across with Mane (fourth circle), and we have got the two wingers in full-back positions (circles bottom and top of screen).

The man-to-man system can be unpicked during free play as Liverpool did
Image: Leeds' man-to-man system can be unpicked during free play

But if one man beats his man, I think a lot of it falls down. Salah goes past his man. Yes, it leads to a corner but it should lead to the winning goal. They get the corner and that's where the second penalty comes from. But it was a fascinating watch and Bielsa said before the game he was not going to change his tactics.

Roberto Firmino breaks free and sees his shot saved by Illan Meslier
Image: Roberto Firmino breaks free and sees his shot is blocked but leads to corner

Jurgen Klopp mentioned the man-marking system several times before the game. Liverpool trained for it and Klopp said it felt so alien for both teams in training - the players doing it and the ones receiving it.

It will not be easy to play against it this season, but the way around it is if one man beats his opposite man. As soon as one man is beaten, that's where the system falls down.

Neville hails Leeds' Premier League return

Bielsa crouches down on the touchline at Anfield on the opening day
Image: Bielsa crouches down on the touchline at Anfield on the opening day

Gary Neville expressed his excitement at Leeds' return to the Premier League after their 16-year absence.

"I think they'll do really well, I think they'll scare the living daylights out of some teams," he told MNF. "They will take a lot of teams, like they did with Liverpool's defenders, to a really uncomfortable place.

"I don't think that group of players could have been managed by anybody else and gain the outcome that they did on Saturday, where they took Liverpool to the point where they conceded three goals, Virgil van Dijk was unnerved, Trent Alexander-Arnold was too and these are some of the best defenders in the world.

Liverpool Leeds highlights 2:59
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool's win over Leeds

"I thought it was a thing of beauty to watch. I think Leeds fans will get exceptional games this season, particularly once they get back into the ground, the atmosphere will be absolutely electric.

"For me, I think it's the fact they made Liverpool so uncomfortable, there's no doubt that they're going to concede goals at the other end of the pitch.

4:52
Graeme Souness and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink discuss Leeds' return to the Premier League after they almost held the current champions, Liverpool, at Anfield.

"I imagine it's thrilling as a Leeds player every single day going into that training ground to work under that man [Marcelo Bielsa], to play the game in that way, to have that fearless approach where you're told to go after your man, win the ball back, duels, one versus one - it's a throwback but absolutely outstanding. I haven't got one negative thing to say.

"Liverpool haven't been beaten at home in 60 matches and those players will have come off the pitch on Saturday and they would have thought, 'what was that? What on earth have I just played in?', and they won't have a clue what happened.

"There was no shape in the game and nothing you would ordinarily recognise in a game of football. It was brilliant."

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