How Marcelo Bielsa can help Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips when it comes to whiplash-inducing England narrative
In the space of five days Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips went from the most talked-about footballer in England to a scapegoat for a negative formation, a reaction Graham Smyth says we all need to get used to.
One minute you’re cock of the walk and talk of the town and the next you’re ‘offending’ Italian football lovers and hampering your country’s offensive play.
By the time a national broadcaster Tweeted how ‘cringey’ he finds Kalvin Phillips’ Yorkshire Pirlo tag, the one bestowed on him by besotted, tongue-in-cheek Leeds United supporters, the fickle nature of international football must already have hit home for the boy from Armley.
His performance against Croatia was solid with a hint of spectacular, thanks to the unexpected attacking threat he posed and a gorgeous assist for Raheem Sterling’s winner.
The man-of-the-match award guaranteed almost a full week of wall-to-wall coverage for Phillips, including stories, both sympathetic and otherwise, rehashing his upbringing and background.
He was expected to start again when Scotland came to Wembley and Gareth Southgate duly obliged, handing the Leeds man that same midfield role in which he excelled on and off the ball against Croatia.
His performance against Scotland was solid, but it was not spectacular. He did make forward runs into space but was not always spotted or found. When he was, he couldn’t provide the necessary service for Harry Kane or, as Marcelo Bielsa would put it, unbalance the match.
Critics who had gone strangely quiet after the Croatia game were out in force once more, suggesting once again that Phillips is not up to the required level and accusing his admirers of going wildly overboard with praise leading up to the Scotland game.
On the latter front, they may have had a point. In a major tournament, especially when you play for England, one good performance attracts more attention than it otherwise should.
Phillips was excellent against Manchester United towards the end of last season but the eyes of every football fan and sports journalist in England weren’t on that game, so the reaction and the plaudits that came his way, mixed in alongside those who performed for their club that weekend, couldn’t be perceived to be over the top.
There were few standout performances for England against Croatia so Phillips became the story. And when a player becomes the story, he’s set up perfectly for a fall.
Thankfully, he’s worked under a head coach who doesn’t get carried away and, helpfully, points out what could be done better after even the most positive of performances. There is always room for improvement and that keeps players level. When they don’t perform, Bielsa never hangs them out to dry and is measured in his analysis. There is no getting too high or too low at Leeds.
Hopefully, the laid back attitude with which Phillips has addressed football at the highest level will ensure that both over the top praise and over the top criticism are like water off a duck’s back.
If Southgate persists with this central midfield set-up, which worked well against Croatia but not half as well against Scotland, and Phillips produces the goods, the swingometer will be on the move once again, at least outside of Leeds, where it hasn’t budged for three years.
The whiplash-inducing about-face national narrative will ideally register with Phillips as faintly as his Yorkshire Pirlo nickname does with devotees to the Italian one.