One friendly was all it took for Marcelo Bielsa to show that the rigours of Championship football will not bend his principles.
It was all there at Forest Green Rovers on Tuesday: the movement, the fluidity and the concept of players adjusting to positions which weren’t previously theirs.
The traits of Bielsa’s coaching are well defined and well publicised, not least his habit of converting midfielders into centre-backs with the aim of maximising the quality of distribution from the back. When he took charge of Leeds United last month, there was a question of which of the midfielders he inherited would be asked to make that positional shift. The club’s 2-1 win over Forest Green provided the answer.
Bielsa employed Kalvin Phillips as a deep holding midfielder at the New Lawn, in front of a very flexible back four, but over the course of three weeks of pre-season training he has worked with the 22-year-old as an out-and-out defender. Against Forest Green, Phillips dropped in as a third centre-back whenever Bielsa’s full-backs, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas, pushed on or when Forest Green turned over possession in attacking areas. His protective role allowed Adam Forshaw to play beyond the halfway line without much need to look over his shoulder.
Phillips has always been a physical central midfielder and is five games away from his 100th appearance for Leeds. With his fourth full season as a professional coming, Bielsa is attempting to broaden his horizons. United were concerned about their defence at the end of last season and floated the idea of signing Kyle Bartley in May but the club have paid little attention to the recruitment of centre-backs since Bielsa’s appointment, despite a shortage of specialists in that mould. Bielsa wants another full-back but, having realigned Phillips and positively assessed Gaetano Berardi and Luke Ayling, seems largely content with his backline.
Good central defenders have always been crucial and valuable in the Championship. During the 2016-17 season, Bartley and Pontus Jansson both averaged more than 10 clearances a game at Leeds. Phillips, however, feels he has the ability to adapt.
“I’m up for that,” he said. “As long as I’m playing games I’m not fussed where I play but I can play anywhere in midfield and I think I can play at centre-half too. It’s a good thing to be a utility player.
“I’ve played as the deepest midfielder (against Forest Green) but in training I’ve been a third centre-half as well. It’s about trying to work out what my best position is. I think the manager likes players to work out how to play in different positions. Tactically he does that throughout training and you could see it in the game as well.”
Bielsa’s system worked against a limited Forest Green side, who conceded twice early on and toiled for all but the last 20 minutes. Bielsa put the 11 players who started the first friendly of the summer through 90 minutes and encountered no issues with their fitness. The rest of his squad, including new signings Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman, are due to take part in tonight’s game at York City.
“He’s pushed us loads and pushed us to the limit,” Phillips said. “The last three weeks have been interesting; very hard fitness wise but with the way we’ve showcased ourselves, I think we look a lot fitter than we have in the past. That’ll work in our favour.
He’s pushed us loads and pushed us to the limit.Kalvin Phillips
“I’ve lost quite a bit of weight and gained quite a bit of muscle. I’m happy with that and I’m trying to get myself in the best shape possible. Your first 90 minutes are always tough but I felt fairly comfortable out there.”
Bielsa speaks little English and brought a dedicated translator, Salim Lamrani, with him to Leeds after signing a two-year contract. His ideas, nonetheless, were evident in Tuesday’s performance and the language barrier has been broken further by the presence of Spaniards Samuel Saiz and Pablo Hernandez in United’s squad. Phillips said Ronaldo Vieira had also been able to help transmit messages.
“It’s not really hard to understand him (Bielsa),” Phillips said. “After three weeks of being with him you kind of understand what he’s saying. I’m not saying I speak fluent Spanish but you understand what the gist is.
“It varies. You can be sat there for half-an-hour when he’s speaking or you can be sat there for 15 seconds. It’s just as long as he needs to get his point across. From the glimpses you’ve seen I think the messages have come through quite quick. I feel like we’re getting there. We’ve only been training for three weeks but the stuff we’ve been working on you could see.”
Bielsa is famously demanding but also withdrawn in his demeanour and personality. He cut a quiet figure in the dug-out at Forest Green and carried out no media duties after full-time. He has not spoken publicly since his first press conference.
“To be fair, you don’t see him much,” Phillips said. “The only time you see him is on the training ground. The reputation he has and what we’ve heard about, that’s the type of guy he is. But he’s very supportive and very hardworking. That’s what he expects all the time – 100 per cent of us all.
“He’s never negative. He’ll tell you when you do something wrong but he’s never negative about it. He always pushes you and supports you to do what he thinks you should be doing. There’s still work to be done but I feel like the only way is up.”