Leeds United’s equaliser at Middlesbrough was a rare goal in terms of its timing and it was fitting that it came from the most unlikely of sources.
There are goals in Kalvin Phillips’ game when tactics allow him to roam but he has left that job to others at Leeds since Marcelo Bielsa took him in hand.
Phillips pinched a couple in the final two games of last season, scoring in dead rubbers against Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers, but they were his only goals in the whole of 2018.
Before burying the header which forced a 1-1 draw against Middlesbrough with 100 minutes on the clock, he had produced just three efforts on target this season: fewer than Gaetano Berardi who has been injured for the best part of five months.
On Bielsa’s watch, Phillips’ finish was a collector’s item.
There were weeks under Thomas Christiansen when Phillips went actively looking for goals, committing beyond the last man and chipping in regularly, but Bielsa has made an authentic holding midfielder of him and the 23-year-old was back in that zone on Saturday for the first time in more than two months.
Even without his dramatic equaliser, Bielsa would have been tempted to keep him there for Swansea City’s appearance at Elland Road tomorrow.
Few players in the Argentinian’s squad are more pliable than Phillips and Bielsa said earlier in the season that he would feel happy using him in almost any area of the pitch.
Phillips – the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ as the crowd have dubbed him – grew up as a midfielder in Leeds’ academy and has never looked more accomplished than in the deep-lying position Bielsa set aside for him but his versatility was what took him away from that role before Christmas.
Phillips played as a centre-back for eight straight fixtures before his red card at Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day and it took a knee injury suffered by Adam Forshaw last week to open up his natural spot.
Bielsa got a robust display from him at Middlesbrough but a sharp one too, underlined by the best accuracy of passing on the pitch. Forshaw is in with a chance of being available to face Swansea but Phillips has been a calming influence for Bielsa, much as his goal on Saturday generated bedlam at The Riverside. That finish at the death was the mark of a player who rarely seems rattled.
Phillips has put no pressure on Bielsa to play him in his preferred position. Bielsa’s authority is such that no-one at Thorp Arch demands much of him.
“I’m not bothered where I play, as long as we’re winning,” Phillips said.
“I’m really not fussed. I just hope we get on a decent little run and make sure we’re up there at the end of the season. I think that’s what this squad is all about. We fight for each other every day and it’s always good to play in a team like we have. You feel good about yourselves when you go to places like (Middlesbrough) and put on a performance like we did.”
Phillips’ header – scored during 12 minutes of stoppage time which was awarded by referee Darren England after Leeds’ winger Jack Clarke was taken ill in the away dug-out – came so late and with a 1-0 defeat on the cards that the draw United claimed felt like a victory. All the same, the club have been short on victories by Bielsa’s standards recently and two from seven matches has changed the structure of a division which was under their control at the turn of the year.
Norwich moved two points clear at the top of it by routing Ipswich Town on Sunday and Sheffield United, in third, are within three points of Leeds. More significantly, West Bromwich Albion hover four points behind United with a game in hand having won a tight game at Stoke City on Saturday evening.
United, though, held their nerve when the 101st minute came at The Riverside, fashioning a clever set-piece which saw Liam Cooper meet Gjanni Alioski’s outswinging corner with a deliberate header back across goal. Phillips was surrounded by Boro players but had enough space to nod the ball in.
“I was happy and it was a bit of a mix in the box to be honest,” he said. “It’s always good to get a goal and rescue a point and I think it’s good to go to Middlesbrough and at least get a point. But we’re going into every game wanting three points.”
Forshaw, the former Boro midfielder, was the only one of Bielsa’s key injury doubts who failed to recover in time for the trip to Teesside – Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich were both passed fit ahead of kick-off – but he could be back in the squad tomorrow night.
Barry Douglas, however, is on the sidelines again after a continuation of the muscular problems which have hampered him over the winter. The left-back missed a month of the season after picking up an injury in Leeds’ New Year’s Day defeat to Forest but returned during a 3-1 loss to Norwich City 10 days ago.
Bielsa said: “We’ll see if Adam Forshaw can play against Swansea. With Douglas, I think it will be difficult for him to make it for Swansea but he should be available after that game.”
Middlesbrough’s John Obi Mikel, meanwhile, was among the people who sent messages of support to Clarke after the youngster was taken to hospital during Saturday’s match.
Clarke is recovering at home after collapsing in the second half and will miss training this week while Leeds carry out further tests on him.
Mikel, like Boro boss Tony Pulis, refused to criticise the award of so much injury time, saying: “It was a very long 12 minutes but when you look back at the situation that made it happen, you can’t really complain. We just wish the lad has a big and steady recovery. We hope he gets back on his feet as quickly as possible.”