I cherish Marcelo so much he’s practically family. I lost my grandparents fairly young, so seeing a friendly-faced, gentle-voiced man talk about morality and the importance of certain values feels like he’s filling a gap in my life. It just happens to be that he’s the head coach of the club I’ve loved since a young boy. As such – it feels wrong to point out his mistakes. Not just because of the obvious fondness and admiration I hold for him, but he’ll have forgotten more about football than I’ve ever known.
But men aren’t infallible. Even the best amongst us make the occasional mistake and it’s fair to say we’ve now seen Bielsa make one (proving he is human after all).
The Kalvin Phillips position is a difficult one in this tactical system. You’ll note that I don’t even name the position by its function, but by the player who has made it their own. Whenever Kalvin is unavailable we struggle to cope. We’ve tried Ben White in this role last season and it never worked – centre-backs end up too distracted by the defensive play to be expansive enough to interrupt and control the game higher up the pitch. White was a superb defender for us but easily bypassed in the defensive midfield role. More recently we’ve seen Pascal Struijk moved from a successful spell at centre-back into midfield and struggle for the exact same reasons as White.
It’s odd. White and Struijk are both confident on the ball, happy to stride out of defence and demonstrate a range of passing. But placed into midfield they’re either too defensive to be useful to our relentless attacking, or too bamboozled by the multifaceted role that they’re ineffectual in all phases of play. It’s something that Adam Forshaw would presumably deputise in (were he not still waiting on illegal leg transplants arranged on the dark web).
This might have been part of the plan when signing Robin Koch – knowing he has played as a deeper-lying midfielder before.
The problem with Kalvin being injured is that it forces Bielsa into more changes than are strictly necessary. We’d finally found a settled back-line in Ayling, Struijk, Cooper and Alioski. A midfielder ahead of them being unavailable shouldn’t mean radical changes ripple through the entire team. But they do. But they did against Arsenal.
Bielsa pushed Struijk forward into midfield, leaving a gap in defence. Ayling gets moved into the middle and Jamie Shackleton gets played at right-back. This is a stacked form of misery because Ayling’s wing-play with Raphinha has been crucial to our attacking threat – which we lose when he’s pushed into the middle. Jamie Shack isn’t a natural right-back either; certainly not against Premier League talent. And we’ve proven a number of times that Struijk is wasted in the Phillips position because it just doesn’t work.
So instead of retaining a settled back-four and getting Dallas/Klich to sit deeper, and utilising either Shack, Pablo or Roberts to take on attacking midfield duties – we decide to completely imbalance the side.
This is a mistake. For a side that struggles to defend and look confident, we’d started to look assured at the back the last few games. Predictably – Arsenal found it unreasonably easy to slice through this unfamiliar setup. It looks like we’ll be attempting a similar thing tomorrow against Wolves.
I hope that Wolves is the game where it comes together. Where we finally see why Bielsa believes such heavy disruption of a working formula is worthwhile. I know that our tactical system revolves around effective use of the Phillips role, but surely Stuart Dallas can do that effectively? Or Klich. That frees up Pablo/Roberts/Shack for being used further up the pitch.
But then again, Marcelo knows best. It just hurts to see something that even from my perspective is obviously not working be tried again and again.