Leeds United fell to defeat for a second time this season as Liverpool ran out 3-0 winners at Elland Road on Sunday, September 12.
The Whites were reduced to ten men with an hour on the clock when Pascal Struijk saw red for a strong tackle on the Reds’ Harvey Elliott.
However, that did little to alter the complexion of the game, given Liverpool were already two goals to the good and actively looking to add more.
Ultimately, a third did come from Sadio Mane, in stoppage time at the end of the second half – 3-0 a fair, perhaps even complimentary, scoreline on the day.
Marcelo Bielsa was similarly complimentary of Jurgen Klopp after the final whistle, whilst also humbly accepting blame for the result.
A key component of Bielsa’s coaching philosophy is man-marking, which for the most part Leeds are extremely adept at carrying out.
However, much like links in a chain, if one man fails to fulfil his duty, weaknesses in the system can be exposed with damaging consequences.
Leeds United reporter Joe Donnohue has dissected where it went wrong for Leeds, shedding light on one particular area concerning Liverpool defender Joel Matip.
On Sunday afternoon, Leeds’ inability to track centre-back Matip on numerous occasions led directly to goalscoring opportunities for the visitors.
In fact, the Reds’ first goal came from one of Matip’s purposeful saunters forward.
The word ‘surge’ would suggest he was pressured before he reached the Leeds penalty area, but that was not the case, Matip allowed to amble through and join the forward line with relative ease.
He subsequently played a one-two with eventual goalscorer Mohamed Salah, before putting his foot on the ball once more 20 yards from goal, picking out Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right-hand side.
The centre-back’s presence on the ball in an advanced area of the pitch allowed Liverpool’s more attacking players – Alexander-Arnold included – to find a portion of space to drift into, some occupying defenders, others stretching the fabric of the hosts’ buckling structure.
For the England full-back, his preferred arena is the right-hand channel, where he can bend, whip, drive or float crosses into his forwards.
As the ball was squeezed out to the right-back, Liverpool activated their muscle memory, executing a well-choreographed move to open the scoring.
Regrettably, neither Stuart Dallas or Rodrigo were able to prevent the Cameroonian from playing an influential part in the opening goal of the game.
Going one-nil down against yesterday’s opponents is a considerably tougher mountain to climb than some other Premier League incumbents.
Only minutes later, Liverpool believed they had gone two goals up as Thiago Alcantara headed home at the back post.
Fortunately for Leeds, the assistant referee raised his flag against Mohamed Salah in the build-up, but yet again Matip was a dagger to the heart of Bielsa’s man-marking system.
The 30-year-old sensed the space and the opportunity to create a numerical advantage in a dangerous area, and went for it.
This time though, he was tracked by Patrick Bamford who did his level best to disrupt the central defender.
Rodrigo on the other hand remained rather static, disappointingly so after his statuesque response to Matip’s earlier foray.
Nevertheless, the 30-year-old still managed to feed Alexander-Arnold out wide, who in turn clipped the ball over Leeds’ defensive line for the marginally offside Salah.
It was a let-off, and symptomatic of Leeds’ loss of control having gone a goal down.
Matip’s marauding was a constant throughout the match, made simpler in the latter stages as Leeds naturally took on a deeper starting position following Struijk’s expulsion.
Man-marking, in principle, is a sure-fire method to prevent the opposition from utilising the requisite time and space on the ball to create something dangerous.
But just as football matches are not played on paper or on computers, nor is any system human-proof.
Players can make errors, wrong decisions or lose focus momentarily – all of which can be costly at the pinnacle of elite sport.
In practice, the failure to track just one player leaves a teammate caught in two minds: ‘Do I engage the ball-carrier, or stay with the man I have been prescribed?’
On Sunday, Leeds’ inability to contend with Matip’s progressive carries was just one fault among a litany of issues Marcelo Bielsa and staff will seek to rectify ahead of Friday’s trip to St James’ Park.
Liverpool registered an xG total exceeding 4.00 at Elland Road according to InfoGol. That means the Reds were expected to score four times based on the quality and regularity of the chances they created.
To anybody who witnessed Sunday’s fixture, Liverpool had more than enough opportunities to plump up their goal difference, suggesting this calculation is particularly accurate.
What is perhaps most sobering is the fact that across Europe’s top seven leagues (Premier League, Serie A, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Primeira Liga, Ligue 1, Eredivisie) on the weekend of 11-12 September, no team registered an xG total as high as Liverpool’s 4.28.
Bayern Munich came close with 3.87 against RB Leipzig, while the next-highest in the Premier League was Manchester City’s 3.02 versus Leicester.
Whilst that is partly a reflection of Liverpool’s quality and potency, evidently Leeds’ current setup is faltering at the back. That is not to say it is a flawed system, rather it is not quite operating at its optimal level currently.
Bielsa has four days on the training pitch until Leeds visit Newcastle this coming weekend.
He may need to tweak a few defensive nuts and bolts in the meantime, in order to avoid a result as deflating as the 1-1 draw with Burnley, or the side’s latest defeat.