Leeds United: Phillips developing a specialist role for first time under Bielsa

Kalvin Phillips hits the post against Brentford recently. PIC: Simon Hulme
Kalvin Phillips hits the post against Brentford recently. PIC: Simon Hulme
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Kalvin Phillips’ record of being substituted before half-time twice in the space of six league games is not so far behind Jake Livermore’s record of being substituted at half-time twice in the space of four humiliating days.

There is never any hiding from decisions like that but Marcelo Bielsa was apologetic in trying to explain why the buck had stopped with Phillips during recent matches against Swansea and Birmingham.

Jake Livermore. PIC: David Davies/PA Wire

Jake Livermore. PIC: David Davies/PA Wire

“The last thing I want is to hurt a player as noble as Phillips,” Bielsa said. “He’s very generous.”

Phillips lasted for 28 minutes against Swansea and 34 against Birmingham with Leeds in disarray by the standards of their head coach but the rougher patches fell in amongst considerable amounts of smooth.

The midfielder has been one of Bielsa’s big hits this season; a player around whom so much of United’s football rotates.

Away at Swansea, a match which ended in a 2-2 draw, Leeds were 1-0 down when Phillips left the field, already hamstrung by an early yellow card. At home to Birmingham, his withdrawal was purely tactical; a reaction by Bielsa to a system which wasn’t working and had allowed Birmingham to score two quick goals.

Leeds United head coach, Marcelo Bielsa. PIC: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

Leeds United head coach, Marcelo Bielsa. PIC: Richard Sellers/PA Wire

Phillips admitted he “should have played better” against Birmingham and it surprised the 22-year-old that Bielsa blamed himself for the tactical disorganisation which forced an early rethink.

United’s head coach said he had blundered by choosing a back four over a three-man defensive line and claimed Phillips was “not responsible for the problems the team had.”

“Obviously I was gutted,” Phillips said. “Coming off after 30 minutes is never good but I don’t believe the manager should be apologetic for that.

“It’s down to me and I should have played a lot better in that game but things happen in football. I just had to keep my chin up and get on with it.

“The manager tells you how it is. He tells you if you’ve played well or if you haven’t played well and if he had to make a substitution, he tells you why. If I’m ever taken off after 30 minutes I’ll never take it in a bad way. I’ll always come in the next day with a smile on my face, wanting to learn.

“That’s the key about most of the players in this squad and it’s what the manager wants. If we give the manager what he wants, he’ll give us the time of day to make us better players.”

Livermore, in 2011, was a veritable dud for Simon Grayson but Phillips is arguably the player who has improved most under Bielsa and undoubtedly the player who has changed the most. Bielsa gave him the ‘Busquets role’, the deep position from where so many of Leeds’ attacks start.

And it has – perhaps for the first time in his career at Elland Road – allowed Phillips to find a specialised position. On occasions Bielsa has gone further and asked him to play as one of three centre-backs.

But midfield is the zone where the Argentinian needs him and, if Phillips’ form and fitness hold up, he can expect to play in every one of United’s league games. The speed of his transformation has taken him aback.

“Yeah, it’s surprising,” Phillips said. “I never doubted I could do something like this, I’ve always had confidence in myself, but it’s the fact of getting confidence from the manager. He’s brought that to me.

“It can be tough but it’s all about experience of playing that position. I haven’t played there much so with more experience I’ll get better and better.”

One defeat in 12 league games leaves Leeds third in the Championship with the season set to start up again at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.

On the other side of the coin, two wins in seven is less than Bielsa would want – and the reason why United are no longer top – but he managed without numerous injured players last month and hopes to have Pablo Hernandez, Kemar Roofe and Gaetano Berardi ready for Ewood Park.

“It’s gone really well so far,” Phillips said. “It’s early days yet and we’ve a lot to work on but we have done really well. I just hope we can carry it on.”

There is an additional incentive at Blackburn this weekend, over and above the usual aim of registering another win.

Leeds were given a ticket allocation of 6,800 by Rovers and took another 850 seats in the Darwen End after their initial batch sold out.

All remaining tickets went last week, guaranteeing United the biggest away attendance in the Championship so far.

“I don’t feel much pressure when there are Leeds fans there,” Phillips said.

“It always feels like they’re all behind us. With the trip to Blackburn, it’ll be good to see what they’re like.”