Marcelo Bielsa on Leeds United and corners - Whites coach still a big believer in Kalvin Phillips' delivery
Marcelo Bielsa remains a big believer in Kalvin Phillips’ ability to deliver dangerous corners, even if they are not resulting in goals.
Leeds United found the net from corners in consecutive mid-August games against Salford City and Wigan Athletic but haven’t done so again since.
Sixteen games have come and gone since Patrick Bamford got on the end of Barry Douglas’ corner at the DW Stadium.
The problem for United is not a paucity of corners, they win more of them than any other Championship side – 116 to date and counting.
At Reading on Tuesday night Phillips took 11, spending so much time at the corner flag that it showed up on his individual heat map.
Early on at the Madejski Stadium, it was actually the hosts who benefitted the most from Leeds United corners, breaking twice after winning the first header.
Last month Bielsa pointed out that for a team like his, who don’t score as many goals as they perhaps should, a resource like set-pieces took on extra significance.
Yet still, the issue persists.
According to Bielsa, their inefficiency is neither down to the quality of delivery nor due an absence of players who are good in the air.
“We have a player who is great when delivering and good headers,” said Bielsa, discussing one of the few areas of concern, if you can call it that, for a side sitting second in the Championship, on a four-game winning streak, dominating games more often than not.
“In this I believe a lot, in good deliveries and players running to look for this ball.
“When you have a good delivery it’s a strength.”
The speed of Phillips’ delivery is what the defensive midfielder said was a primary factor in Bielsa’s decision to hand him set-piece responsibility, taking it off Pablo Hernandez.
“Pablo from a dead ball is exceptional but I think the manager likes it a bit stronger ball and Pablo has got more of the lofty, precise ball but he likes a stronger ball. I don’t know, it’s up to the manager,” said Phillips.
And it’s the pace he generates from a dead ball situation that underpins Bielsa’s decision to stick with the current arrangement.
The head coach suggests there are other variables at play when the ball comes in, but the pace of the delivery takes precedence in creating danger.
“When the ball arrives quickly, the other feature in corners could be the size of the player, the arrival co-ordinated, arriving running fast,” he said.
“They are secondary because the situation is dangerous, for the speed of the ball and where the ball falls in the last part of the delivery.”
In midweek, after several failed attempts to make the most of Phillips corners, including the rare sight of a United man getting on the end of one and heading it, albeit well wide, there was at last a variation.
Late on, before Jack Harrison’s eventual winner, Phillips picked out Hernandez on the edge of the area with a delivery low enough for the Spaniard to volley.
Alas, a defender got in the way, deflected the shot and Leeds had to settle for yet another corner, but the wait for a goal went on.
And the longer it goes on, the more it begs the question, why don’t they try something different? Why not play the ball short?
Bielsa has previously spoken of the way in which top teams get into wide areas in open play but then decide against a cross, if the conditions are not right, recycling possession and probing for a different opening.
There is no doubt Leeds have players, like Tyler Roberts, Hernandez and Mateusz Klich, who can operate in tight spaces and find openings, players with the quickness of both thought and feet to unlock defences with one-touch passing moves.
There is also little doubt over their status as one of the division’s smaller sides.
Liam Cooper is a player with aerial prowess but there are no giants at this giant of a club.
The Argentine, with almost predictable humility, points out that his ways are not infallible and pays homage to those, in the English game, who have mastered the art of scoring from corners.
“I insist a lot on the delivery of Phillips, but it doesn’t mean other options, as you say, shouldn’t be considered,” he said.
“When we don’t show this it’s usually because we are having a mistake in the preparation.
“English football has a very good culture about [corners], we can see tall players in English football and very good players who can deliver brilliant set pieces.
“After we make a comparison between the top five or six leagues in the world and English football shows a lot of creativity in this type of situation.
“If you watch you will find great goals in English football set pieces and that shows the manager works a lot on them and more than us.”
Given the way in which Bielsa’s Whites have started the season, the manner in which they pen teams in and the sheer number of attacks they put together, it would feel churlish to major on an area of weakness.
Bielsa’s thoughts on the matter show it is not a blindspot, it is more a work in progress.
It’s testament to the head coach that we’re nitpicking, it’s a little thing. But every little helps when you want to go up.