There was some suggestion in the quiet weeks of summer of Marcelo Bielsa making a centre-back of Kalvin Phillips. Instead, Leeds United’s head coach is creating a metronome.
The first two weeks of this season have danced to the ticking of Phillips’ industry, busy in the background while Leeds conduct a concerto around him.
Versatility is at the root of much of Bielsa’s work with his players but Phillips, in a guise which redefines the concept of deep-lying, finds himself in the most clear-cut of jobs. Bielsa creates squads with a choice of two players in each position but two games into the Championship year, his holding midfielder is the one he would struggle to replace like-for-like: specific, tailored and indispensable.
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Bielsa watched highlights of Leeds until the small hours before taking the job at Elland Road in June and he was quickly drawn to the strength and simplicity of Phillips’ game.
The 22-year-old has shown those traits from the day of his debut – a player who famously covered more then 13km on his fourth start at Bristol City in 2015 – but Bielsa has prised him out of a generic midfield mindset and reinvented him as his lynchpin, behind a ruthless attacking mob.
Between the incessant tackling, short-and-sharp passing in tight areas and positioning which allows Bielsa’s full-backs, Luke Ayling and Barry Douglas, to tear forward blind, Leeds have depended on Phillips’ presence. No frills, no nonsense but a level of effectiveness which Bielsa doubts he could substitute perfectly if Phillips was to pull up injured.
It was no coincidence that in a team showing eight changes for Tuesday’s League Cup win over Bolton Wanderers, the midfielder retained his place.
“He’s a practical player who plays simply,” Bielsa said. “He’s good from a defensive point of view, he has a very good long pass and he has good orientation of the game.
“He’s very good at getting the ball and putting it into another space, a better space. He’s very good when he has to cover the team when our full-backs go in attack. And when we are outnumbered, he is very good with his defending.”
Bielsa made a habit in previous jobs of transforming midfielders into centre-backs, his way of raising the standard of passing from the back. The most successful example is Javi Martinez, the Spaniard who Bielsa manipulated successfully at Athletic Bilbao and who Bilbao sold to Bayern Munich for almost £40m. Phillips’ conversion has been more partial: a midfielder still but one who drops into Leeds’ backline when Bielsa’s side are committed up front.
On Tuesday, at points in the first half, United had everyone bar goalkeeper Jamal Blackman in Bolton’s half. Phillips took up position on the halfway line and directed other players forwards; the last man rather than a central defender.
For a while last season, when Thomas Christiansen was head coach and before the early zip of Christiansen’s tactics disappeared, Phillips found goals in his feet scoring five times in the first three months.
“He has the skills to play further forward and he has the capacity to score goals,” Bielsa said. “But at the moment he allows us not to receive (concede) goals, which is as good as scoring a goal when you are protecting your team.
“One of the new things football has which is not common yet is that we celebrate when a defender or a player saves a goal. But let’s hope that we will always celebrate the real goals, the goals scored.”
Bielsa is devoid of other midfielders but as he made clear in his press conference yesterday – a gathering which began with the Argentinian apologising for arriving all of three minutes late – there is no ideal alternative.
Mateusz Klich, in Bielsa’s view and on the evidence of the first fortnight of the season, is more offensive in his outlook. Likewise Lewis Baker. Adam Forshaw, currently out with a foot injury, lacks the same physique as Phillips. Conor Shaughnessy is young and unproven, a player who struggled in a midfield role away at Birmingham City last season, and Ronaldo Vieira departed Leeds for Sampdoria before the season began. Bielsa joked that if all else failed, Ayling could “solve every problem.”
Almost out of sight, Phillips’ consistency has been impressive. He have averaged more than 50 passes a game – 101 across two league matches – and maintained an accuracy level of more than 80 per cent. He is part of the mechanism in United’s half which moves possession, finds runners in space and provides the basis for the counter-attacks which drove Derby to the wall last Saturday.
Leeds have yet to sign any cover for Vieira, who Sampdoria paid £7.7m to sign. It is not clear if they will before the end of the transfer window.
“It’s hard to find another player who can do the same job at Phillips,” Bielsa said. “Maybe in that sense we haven’t drawn our team perfectly.
“Vieira was the player most similar to Phillips but I think Klich, Forshaw and Shaughnessy, with different profiles, could play as number fours.
Klich has the capacity to score goals and he has less predilection for defensive play than Phillips. Forshaw is a complete player but he doesn’t have the physical dimension that this position requires.
“If we take into account the fact that the full-backs are very offensive players and in our case, our number eights are very offensive too – Klich, Baker, Forshaw, they are very offensive – then we need a defensive midfielder with a lot of experience. The best thing for us is if Phillips can play all the games. Or otherwise we have Ayling who can solve every problem!”
Phillips and Ayling are the only two players to have played every minute of the season so far and both will start against Rotherham United at Elland Road tomorrow. From Bielsa’s comments, it is obvious that he sees the pair as consummate professionals with the stamina to match their attitudes. Bielsa flogged his players hard in pre-season but said the strain of those days, when the squad were spending 11 hours at Thorp Arch, was easing off with the season in full flow.
“We train less, we train with less intensity and the sessions are not that long,” he said. “If they last the same amount of time as before, we have more pauses for dialogue, talking to the players.
“Until now, nobody has played twice a week apart from Ayling, Phillips and Saiz. But Saiz didn’t play 90 minutes (against Bolton) and Ayling played in a position (centre-back) that is less demanding than his original position.” Man-of-the-match Phillips carried on regardless, the pivotal cog in Bielsa’s machine.