Kalvin Phillips voiced support for Caleb Ekuban and backed the striker to correct his finishing after another bad miss cost Leeds United the chance of a result at Fulham on Tuesday.
Phillips defended Ekuban’s ability and said the forward was failing to take opportunities he converts “nine out of 10 times in training” following the dramatic sequence of events which led to a 2-0 defeat at Craven Cottage.
Ekuban passed up a glorious chance to level the game at 1-1 when Fulham goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli denied him one-on-one in the 63rd minute, and Fulham reacted to that save by scoring immediately on the counter-attack, killing a game which Leeds were starting to dominate.
United are already resigned to a mid-table finish and the result at Craven Cottage was of little consequence to their position in the Championship table, but the drama of the second half focused fresh attention on Ekuban, who passed up two glaring chances in a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday before the international break and failed to make anything of two one-on-one situations in last week’s victory over Bolton Wanderers.
The clash with Bolton, however, yielded Ekuban’s first Championship goal, eight months into a campaign which has been disrupted badly by injury, and head coach Paul Heckingbottom has effectively moved him ahead of loanee Pierre-Michel Lasogga in the pecking order during the past month.
But the Ghanaian’s reaction to Tuesday’s miss – hiding his face with his shirt – revealed his own awareness of how glaring the opening had been.
If he screws his head on and is more confident, which he should be because he’s a great player, then I think he’ll be a very good goalscorer.Kalvin Phillips on Caleb Ekuban
Leeds took a gamble on Ekuban by financing a £500,000 release clause and signing him from Chievo last summer, tempted to bring him to England by a season on loan in Albania where he scored 17 times for Partizani Tirana.
Heckingbottom admitted after Tuesday’s match that the forward’s conversion rate needed to improve and Fulham’s breakaway goal provoked a furious reaction from Samuel Saiz, who ran and kicked United’s dug-out in frustration, but Phillips said Ekuban’s form in training had given him confidence that the 24-year-old would come good.
“Obviously it’s deflating for us but with Caleb, nine times out of 10 in training he sticks that in the bottom corner,” Phillips said. “I just think it’s luck.
“If he screws his head on and is more confident, which he should be because he’s a great player, then I think he’ll be a very good goalscorer.
“That’s what we need with all the strikers.
“Once you get the chances, if you stick them away then it gives us confidence to get results.
“We’ll keep creating and we’ll keep trying to create. If we don’t do that then it’s something we need to work on.”
Ekuban’s opportunity dropped to him during a sustained spell of pressure from Leeds.
Heckingbottom’s side had fought to gain control following a first half in which Fulham struck a post, opened the scoring through Kevin McDonald and outplayed United.
But a second goal from Aleksandar Mitrovic left no way back. Leeds have taken just five points from 11 games against the Championship’s current top six.
But Phillips, who stepped off the bench at Craven Cottage after an early injury to Eunan O’Kane, was encouraged by Tuesday’s display, against a side who are third in the Championship and unbeaten in 18 matches.
The loss left United, down in 13th, with two wins in 10 under Heckingbottom’s management, but Phillips said: “I think we proved we’re a very good team.
“When you come to places like this you’re kind of expecting Fulham to do very well against us but I thought we brought it to them. We just couldn’t quite get the chances we needed and the chance we got was obviously missed.
“They then countered, which they’re very good at.
“We came here and put on a good performance.
“It’s just down to the fact that we didn’t take our chances and they did. That’s the only reason they beat us.”
Heckingbottom is two months into the job at Elland Road but has, so far, failed to bring about an improvement in United’s results or significant changes to their style of play. Ten matches in charge have yielded nine points and speaking after Tuesday’s defeat, the former Barnsley boss said: “The last four games sum it up for me.
“The performances have been decent but we’ve missed lots of opportunities at key times.
“That’s why we’ve not got the points we deserve.”
Phillips admitted that the club’s form was limiting any improvement and insisted he understood the criticism of United’s post-Christmas slump.
“It’s hard but it’s part of football,” the midfielder said. “If you’re not doing well then you’re going go get criticised. If you are doing well then you don’t get criticised.
“It’s very difficult (to show improvement) right now obviously because the games and the results aren’t going our way, but we come in every day trying to get better and better.
“That’s what the manager wants us to do.
“He wants us to be ready for next season and we need to go out on a high this season so we can plan for next season.”