Alongside a complete rebranding of his game, Marcelo Bielsa has made an elder statesman of Kalvin Phillips.
The 22-year-old took Leeds United’s debutants in hand on Saturday, negating their age and inexperience with the canny play of a seasoned professional.
Leeds toiled through the first half of their victory over Bristol City, unable to catch fire in the drab moments of a 2-0 win, but Phillips ruffled the feathers of City’s midfield, keeping Lee Johnson’s side away from the weaker pillars in Bielsa’s defence.
Seven tackles and four clearances had Phillips in his element.
Behind him and to his right were goalkeeper Will Huffer and centre-back Aapo Halme, two players who are two years Phillips’ junior but light years behind the maturity of a midfielder who is growing in the traditions of Leeds’ academy.
Bielsa was forced into fielding Huffer and Halme by untimely injuries in positions where he was short already and Phillips’ performance was empathetic.
“I’ve been there and it is nerve racking,” he said afterwards. Bielsa’s approach to Saturday’s match might be the best example of the faith he has in the squad at Leeds and it shone some light on his reluctance to go wild in the winter transfer window.
Leeds offered him the chance to sign a spare defender in the summer but Bielsa said no. In his head he was happy to fall back on someone like Halme if his resources became stretched.
The club looked as emergency goalkeeping options late last week having lost Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Jamal Blackman but a relaxed Bielsa preferred to give Huffer a go. United’s head coach said he would make no excuse for a poor result against Bristol City, regardless of the players who were absent, and in the end no excuses were needed.
As January approaches and Leeds – too often guilty of failing to make enough of the mid-season transfer window – think about potential signings, it is increasingly clear that Bielsa’s plan involves making the best of the team he has, and the players who will return from injury in the future.
To date he has used just 24 players in the Championship. That number would be lower had selection issues like those on Saturday not forced his hand so deep into his squad.
“When you’ve got confidence under a manager like that, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go out and play the best football you’ve played,” Phillips said.
“I think we’re all doing that. “We’ve still got January to come and we’ve got Izzy Brown to come back. We’ve got Pat (Patrick Bamford) too and we haven’t really seen much of him.
“Once our injured players come back we’ll feel a lot more confident but the confidence is flowing anyway and you could see in the second half [against Bristol City] the way we were passing it about. I thought we did it exceptionally well.
“It’s all going well, touch wood, but it’s very hard under Marcelo Bielsa. He’s very demanding but young players like me and the young lads who’ve played need that. They need a manager who’s going to push them to their limits. That’s what he does and that’s how he gets the best out of us.”
Saturday was less of a routine win than it looked on paper, a slog which finally opened up when Bristol City’s Josh Brownhill was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 55th minute.
Bielsa has never quite rediscovered the sparkle of the first month of this season but Leeds have been highly consistent under him and remarkably tight at home. Nine matches at home have come at a cost of only one defeat and five concessions. United are there again tonight, against another meandering team in Reading.
Reading’s results have been so poor that their sequence of three games unbeaten constitutes a surge of sorts but they are likely to approach the fixture as Bristol City did, by camping deep and trying to hold Leeds back.
And Phillips said: “Every game at home is very important. We spoke about making this place a fortress and making people fear it. As we get wins under our belt I think that’ll happen. We’re looking forward to getting back here and getting another win.”
Like everyone else in the Championship, Leeds are working to keep up with the pace of Norwich City. A team they wiped the floor with at Carrow Road in August have hit a seriously hot streak and Norwich’s 4-1 trouncing of Swansea City on Saturday extended their run of consecutive league wins to six.
Despite that form, Leeds are only three points back amid a clutch of clubs who are vying closely for position. Middlesbrough’s victory at Brentford over the weekend knocked United down to third, with West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United, Derby County and Nottingham Forest lodged closely behind them.
Three wins back to back have brought Aston Villa into contention and this campaign looks like being a mammoth test of stamina. Phillips admitted he is aware of Norwich’s results and the jostling in the table.
“They’re doing very well and we’ve always got an eye on other teams,” he said. “But really, we just focus on ourselves and focus on getting results. “Whatever happens happens but we’ll know we’ve done our very best here to compete for first spot.”.