Kalvin Phillips can add a new dimension to Leeds United's defence
LEEDS UNITED are banking on head coach Marcelo Bielsa bringing out the best in their current squad.
It is hoped that a combination of some smart player recruitment and top-class coaching works the oracle in the club’s promotion bid.
As far as Sunday’s friendly with Las Palmas went, with transfer dealings still ongoing, Leeds United’s starting XI looked rather similar to the one that ended last year.
New recruit left-back Barry Douglas was gathering his things and saying his goodbyes in the Midlands, Patrick Bamford was preparing for his Leeds medical and there was no mention of Manchester City youngster Jack Harrison signing on loan.
Yet a defensive find might have been discovered from within through Kalvin Phillips who is ready to embrace a potential new role for the free-thinking Bielsa – at centre-back.
Over three years have now passed since a 19-year-old Phillips made his debut under Neil Redfearn in the 4-3 loss at Wolves on Easter Monday 2015.
With Phillips, the five coaches that followed Redfearn have put their eggs in various baskets since with the former Wortley Juniors ace fulfilling various roles in midfield.
The Leeds-born footballer was shifted farther up the pitch by Thomas Christiansen at times last season with Phillips occasionally used as a no 10.
The midfielder bagged a season’s best return of seven goals from 43 appearances to add to the solitary one strike across his other 48 appearances.
But it could well be that the seventh head coach that Phillips has worked under at Leeds provides the most dramatic change to his game yet. After three seasons as a midfielder, Bielsa opted to play the 22-year-old in defence on Sunday as part of three centre-backs alongside captain Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi who himself is also naturally viewed as a full-back.
The returning Pontus Jansson is destined to slot straight into United’s defence once up to full speed after his World Cup exploits but Phillips did not look out of place in his new role against Las Palmas.
Starting at centre-back was not quite what Phillips had in mind for the coming season but the midfielder-turned-defender is more than open to embrace the change.
“Obviously I was surprised with me scoring seven goals last year,” admitted Phillips, asked about being switched to play at centre-back.
“But I’m not bothered. As long as I’m playing, I don’t really care and I felt I did quite well, considering we kept a clean sheet.”
Opening up on what Bielsa has asked of him, Phillips reasoned: “Just to be a ball-playing centre-half. Coops and Berra have done that really well throughout pre-season and I think he wanted to add a midfielder there to be composed when we’ve got the ball.
“Hopefully I showed that and hopefully I can do a lot better and show that throughout the season. I thought I did all right.
“There is still work to be done because I am not a natural centre-half but I don’t actually mind it. You get a lot of the ball which I like and I get to drive forward with the ball. I found it very good.
“It takes a bit of getting used to, but with the training that I’ve had and the confidence that I have in myself I believe I can play there.”
Stiffer and certainly more robust tests await than Las Palmas but Phillips was more than happy with the workout provided and believes there will be a clear identity to Bielsa’s Leeds next term.
“We will be very high tempo,” said Phillips. “At home he wants us not to give the opposition a second on the ball and if we do that then we have got to be compact and we need to do that throughout the season.
“I don’t think there’s going to be many teams that can match us for fitness and physicality and I believe if we do that well in the season then we have got a very good chance.”
Nearly seven weeks into his tenure, Bielsa’s messages are evidently being understood loud and clear through the help of his translator though Bielsa admitted upon being appointed by Leeds that he would try to get to grips with the country’s language. Phillips has been able to provide a promising update.
“It’s not bad to be fair!” laughed Phillips, asked how Bielsa’s English was.
“Obviously he has still got a translator but he did a speech the other day and all the lads were quite impressed with his English.”
Revealing the ways that Bielsa gets his messages across, Phillips smiled: “His interpreter tells us!
“Obviously you get the gist of it but if we are not doing it right he won’t shout at us.
“He will shout at his interpreter. Then his interpreter can tell us!”