A midfield recall for Kalvin Phillips? And does Patrick Bamford start? The decisions facing Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa ahead of a pressure trip to Middlesbrough
Leeds United envisaged a scenario where this week began with a six-point gap between them and the rest of the Championship. Instead, the situation as it stands has the makings of a five-way fight for automatic promotion in which Leeds no longer hold the initiative.
Saturday’s fixtures finished with Middlesbrough in fifth place but they are starting to fancy their chances at The Riverside. Boro were 12 points adrift of Leeds on Boxing Day. A win over Marcelo Bielsa’s team this weekend would cut that margin to four with a game in hand. “Of course we can get in the top two and close the gap down,” said a confident George Savile after Boro’s valuable win at West Bromwich Albion.
West Brom are in the mix too – like Middlesbrough, seven points adrift of both Norwich City and Leeds having played one match fewer – and Sheffield United have stuck in gamely, driven into third position and within touching distance of the league’s leaders by 19 goals from Billy Sharp. The table underlined Bielsa’s insistence last week that in the tussle for a top-two finish, no-one should discount anyone.
Norwich’s visit to Elland Road on Saturday was a pressure fixture and having lost it 3-1, Leeds face another away at Middlesbrough in four days’ time. Bielsa likes continuity in his line-up, the polar opposite of a tinkerman, but his comments at the end of a sore defeat against Norwich revealed a rare lack of assurance about the way his team are playing. Issues are creeping in and the form table over the past six matches shows Leeds down in 18th place.
Bielsa has been grappling all season with an attacking line which creates an ample amount of chances but allows too many to go to waste but it concerned him as much on Saturday that his defence was losing its grip.
The loss to Norwich was a tale of deflections, errors and overwhelming possession with nothing at the end of it but none of that was an overnight occurrence.
Leeds shipped 18 goals in their first 22 games. The club have conceded 16 in their last eight.
Injuries have been rife for six months but Bielsa is at a point where almost every one of his defenders is fit. Barry Douglas was on the bench on Saturday – used as a substitute in the second half – and Gaetano Berardi, the only absentee, should return from a torn hamstring before the end of the month. Bielsa has Jamie Shackleton as an alternative to right-back Luke Ayling, whose form has not gathered pace since a knee injury, and a choice at left-back but Kalvin Phillips is the one player who could fundamentally strengthen United’s spine.
Phillips’ role for the past two months has been a by-product of the injuries which peppered Bielsa’s backline.
United’s head coach transformed him into a specialist defensive midfielder, the fulcrum which everything ran through, but Phillips has not played in that position since a 2-0 win over Bristol City on November 24.
He was a centre-back throughout December and has appeared only once following his red card way at Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day. Adam Forshaw is doing Phillips’ old job and was used there against Norwich, to no avail: regular and accurate passing let down by costly mistakes which let Norwich’s frontline in.
Phillips will not automatically cure the problems with Leeds’ finishing – the deepness of his position is shown by the fact that having scored seven times last season, he is averaging less than a shot a game and has produced 12 key passes in total – but the 23-year-old’s strength, aside from his anticipation and combative tackling, has been his ability to work the ball out of tight positions and set attacks rolling with a varied range of passing.
Bielsa admitted on Saturday that Leeds were struggling in that respect. “In one segment of the Championship we recovered the ball well and could play out (from the back),” he said. “But we’ve lost this feature and I think I’m deeply responsible for it.”
Starting Phillips at Middlesbrough need not mean relegation to the bench for Forshaw, who is returning to the club that sold him to Leeds last January. Forshaw was employed in pre-season in a more advanced area and was, in Bielsa’s estimation, the “best player in the team” before he broke his foot late in the summer. Mateusz Klich became the beneficiary of that injury, taking Forshaw’s starting place, but the Pole’s two goals away at Rotherham United 10 days ago were a fillip in an extended period of flat, personal form.
Bielsa’s other big decision concerns Patrick Bamford, who played for the first time against Norwich after his latest knee injury and scored in injury-time. A planned Under-23s outing for the striker was unexpectedly bypassed, leading Bamford to be named amongst the substitutes, and his match fitness might be the only thing standing between him and a start against his former side. Leeds are finding it increasingly difficult to play to the strengths and the feet of Kemar Roofe.
For several weeks, Bielsa has taken to naming his line-up publicly before every match, transparent to a fault after the criticism he received over the ‘Spygate’ controversy. His line-ups can often be easy to second guess but this is one week where it will take the announcement of his team on Thursday for Bielsa’s thinking to become clear. Little tweaks or more substantial surgery after four defeats in six? The dilemma for him is suddenly very real.