Marcelo Bielsa, when describing a matchwinning contribution from one of his players, is not exactly William Shakespeare.
“We have many players who can play in different areas of the pitch. Those who attack can defend as well, and those who defend know how to attack. This allows for the combinations,” he began after a late 1-0 victory over Everton.
“Raphinha is a player who can unbalance. He can play in any part of the pitch with resources to worry the opponent.”
In terms of stirring, inspirational language, this is probably slightly more riveting than the UK Highway Code. But so long as you don’t fall asleep reading it, it’s also an invaluable insight into the qualities that Bielsa favours in an attacker.
Bielsa demands so much of his players, tactically and physically. And wingers, who often have rather uncomplicated roles in modern Premier League sides, are the key to maintaining the integrity of this structure, something that Jack Harrison could tell you about all too well (The Telegraph).
“You sit down with him [Bielsa] and you have a laser and there is this big projector. You have to follow yourself with the laser so he knows you are focused,” he recalls in an anecdote which demonstrates just how much attention to the intricacies of forward movement that the Argentine requires from his wingers.
If waxing lyrical about Tactics Lasers sounds like more of the typical mythos that surrounds Bielsa, there is a practical use to how hard he works ensuring that his wingers are physically and mentally prepared to make the right runs – he wants them to play an exact, but endlessly versatile role in his system.
Simply put, Bielsa asks that his wingers are traditional touchline-huggers, dynamic inside forwards and wide playmakers, all at the same time. Through doing this, they can complete the extraordinary midfield jigsaw favoured by their coach, and make Leeds’ risk-reward ratio pay dividends.
It’s been evident in Harrison’s first season of Premier League football – he kicked off the Whites’ campaign with a blistering strike against Liverpool at Anfield where he cut inside like Son Heung-min, but his match-winning assist against Sheffield United saw him pick up the ball on the flanks from a Rodrigo flick-on and float a wonderful back post cross to Patrick Bamford like today’s wing backs would.
Let’s rewind to Goodison Park, where the plaudits went to Raphinha, the summer signing from Rennes who raised eyebrows with his £17m fee. Pretty hefty for a young player with very little recognition outside of France.
With 10 minutes left in the game, the Brazilian picked up the ball outside of the Everton D, shaped as if to roll it out to the left wing, before unleashing a powerful drive which beat the unsighted Jordan Pickford and took Leeds up the table.
The truth is, at this point Raphinha looked pretty gassed, and when he was substituted for the tricksy Ian Poveda minutes afterward, it looked like a sensible decision. It was the first half where the winger terrorised Everton’s makeshift wing back pairing of Alex Iwobi and Tom Davies, and where he demonstrated what it takes to be a wide man in a Bielsa team.
The most immediately apparent factor to Raphinha’s game was his versaility, and his capacity to play fairly comfortably on both wings – indeed, he switched several times throughout the match.
This versatility extended to the spaces that he was operating in – it was of course common to see him in the wide areas when Leeds recovered the ball, but he also frequently snuck into the ‘half spaces’ between the centre and the wings, nearly scoring after carrying the ball centrally into the penalty area and using an outrageous bit of skill to take Fabian Delph and Richarlison out of the equation.
Another factor where his skill set lends itself to Leeds’ style of play concerns how they look to take advantage of overloads and congested defences.
The Brazilian at times looked like Sonic the Hedgehog with Dimitar Berbatov’s first touch. His instinctive movement whenever a break is on, and his natural ability to control a ball which is moving very quickly means that he is able to maximise the efficiency of Leeds’ counter attacking when they switch play or flick the ball on.
Just look at how he almost scores within the first minute of the match against the Toffees. As the ball reaches Mateusz Klich with the majority of blue shirts in the middle of the pitch, Raphinha is at the halfway line and already running, and is able to take advantage of the space that this congestion has created on the right to get on the end of Bamford’s flicked header.
But perhaps the most important facet of being a Bielsa winger is how you are able to link up with the central playmakers – in this case Klich and the aforementioned Harrison. The Bielsa winger has to be able to be able both to provide the central players with the perfect out-ball, and to find these playmakers inside where necessary.
Klich has been described by Bielsa as a midfielder who ‘can play in all the best teams in the world’, and his and Harrison’s ability to receive the ball and play in Bamford in advanced areas is what gets Leeds ticking.
Raphinha showed an ability to act as the pivot which connects both of these players – responding in the first half to Klich winning the ball in space in his own third, he again showed great pace, giving the Polish midfielder an option, before he found a way to bring Harrison in play inside, curling a nice ball around Ben Godfrey which the Englishman really should have converted.
In this sense, Raphinha can act as the thread that allows Klich to push forward or play others in, and has the skill and versatility to add quality to Leeds and ensure that they continue to remain unpredictable and dynamic.
Like all Bielsa players, the Brazilian has no one outstanding attribute, and perhaps would not drastically improve a lot of teams. But in a side where a player has to submit themselves to the collective, he has the tantalising blend of attributes to become a success.