Leeds United have suffered successive damaging defeats inside the past week, losing 4-1 at home to Leicester City last Monday night before going down by the same score-line at Crystal Palace this weekend.
The loss of influential central midfielder Kalvin Phillips has undoubtedly been a huge blow, as he is arguably the team’s most important player.
However, it should also be noted that Bielsa has been without club record signing Rodrigo for each of those games too; the forward is currently self-isolating due to a positive Covid-19 test.
Signed from Valencia this summer, Rodrigo has impressed in his early weeks at Elland Road and has also been excluded from this month’s Spain squad due to his health situation.
The 29-year-old has fitted in seamlessly into Bielsa’s side’s attack and played an increasingly prominent role prior to his absence – striking the equaliser in the 1-1 draw against Manchester City before putting in a starring role in the 3-0 victory at Aston Villa.
While the headlines at Villa Park were grabbed by Patrick Bamford and his magnificent hat-trick, Rodrigo – who did not provide a direct assist in the game – also played a significant part in the convincing triumph.
As per Whoscored.com , the encounter was the only time this season Bielsa has set up his side in a 4-4-1-1 formation rather than the favoured 4-1-4-1. That meant that Bamford played the role as a lone striker but, slightly removed from the usual system which is conducive to a fluid attacking setup, Rodrigo played exclusively in the role behind Bamford – tasked with finding pockets of space and providing the foil to Bamford.
This is a similar role to the one in which he rose to prominence for both Valencia and Spain; utilising his energy in hustling and harrying opposition defenders into mistakes. For Los Che, his strike partners included Alvaro Negredo, Paco Alcacer and Maxi Gomez – primarily players who stick to the penalty area, and who do not offer much movement. The same is true at national level, where it has often been Diego Costa or Alvaro Morata used as a central striker, with Rodrigo providing the industry.
The formation at Villa Park appeared to be one that was primarily designed to maximise the strengths of Rodrigo whilst minimising disruption to the rest of the attack. It worked a charm in terms of the result and the impact on Bamford, who netted a treble.
Whoscored.com’s analysis of that match illustrates the success of the ploy – Leeds registered a whopping 27 shots on goal during the match, more than double that of their opponents and did not allow Villa to play one counter-attack throughout the game.
That counter-attack information is of particular relevance, because this is where Leeds struggled so much in the subsequent defeats to Leicester and Crystal Palace. The attacking shape and structure of pressing was slightly off, allowing their opponents to pick off loose passes and break through the press.
Leeds United suffered a second consecutive 4-1 defeat on Saturday as they fell to defeat to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Pablo Hernandez didn’t even make the matchday squad and has since issued a statement about a gesture made in his last appearance against Leicester City
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Not only is Rodrigo now a key component of that press, but he excels in retention of the ball – his 79.3 percent success rate exceeds that of other attackers Bamford (72.3), Pablo Hernandez (76.4), Jack Harrison (75.5), Ian Poveda (67.5) and Tyler Roberts (66.2).
Under Bielsa, Leeds are not a side who abandon their style nor their true principles, so significant defeats should not come as a surprise. This is a newly-promoted side who play an ambitious and expansive brand of football.
However, there will be an awareness that a balance must be found after successive 4-1 defeats and the loss of influential players are being felt.
The international break comes at a convenient time from a Leeds perspective as it allows Rodrigo to recover and return to fitness ahead of a run of matches which will help define the side’s campaign.