Bullish midfielder Kalvin Phillips insists the squad ‘won’t take anything less than the play-offs’ in spite of a suprise draw with Preston and a ‘tough ask’ coming up against Fulham tonight.
Separating Leeds United and Fulham last season, on individual nights and across 46 matches, was a near impossibility until April forced the issue.
As the victims of that spell, Leeds were left to question how an eight-point advantage on the first day of the month became a three-point deficit by the end of it.
Prior to that, the clubs clung onto each other by their fingernails at times: Chris Wood snatching a 1-1 draw at Elland Road in August with an overhead kick in the third minute of injury-time and Tom Cairney striking even later, through the eye of a needle from 20 yards, to salvage the same result for Fulham at Craven Cottage in March. Over 90 minutes Fulham dominated both games but the tussle between the teams was one of the Championship’s more vivid rivalries.
Kalvin Phillips, Leeds’ young midfielder, played in those fixtures last season, incurring a red card for a second bookable offence in the last minute of normal time at Craven Cottage. Despite his dismissal, Leeds were 1-0 to the good and on the verge of shifting 11 points clear of Fulham until Cairney – forever a thorn in the side of his old club – found the top corner of Rob Green’s net with a dead-eye finish.
Phillips admitted he still questions how it was that Leeds came to finish a place behind Fulham, in seventh and narrowly outside the play-offs.
“You always think like that; we just didn’t get the right results at the end of the season,” he said.
“Last year Fulham were one of the best teams I played and they went on a really good run. There’s always regrets and stuff like that but you’ve just got to carry on.”
Fulham come to Elland Road tomorrow evening for a fixture which should provide the best measure yet of where Leeds are and how successful their close-season business has been.
Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham’s single-minded boss, will find a different head coach in the home dug-out and a changed squad in front of him. There a similarities too, but while Fulham’s blueprint remains largely unchanged from last season, Leeds have diverted down a very different path.
Thomas Christiansen’s side opened their campaign with a lively win at Bolton Wanderers, a side who look likely to spend the year in the bottom half of the league. On Saturday they contested a goalless draw with Preston North End, a club who are widely-tipped to finish in mid-table. Leeds were frustrated by Preston’s tactics at Elland Road but Fulham, whose first two league fixtures yielded draws against Norwich City and Reading, generally come to play.
Phillips insisted that Leeds had long-since put the disappointment of finishing seventh behind them.
“The new manager mentioned last season to us but said ‘forget about it’,” Phillips said. “That’s what we’re trying to do and I think we’ve done it. Last year was still a great starting point, to have the belief in the squad. We know what we can do now and we know how high we can get in the table.”
The midfielder claimed that 10 signings this summer had made Leeds a stronger squad than they were during Garry Monk’s year as head coach, despite Kyle Bartley’s return to parent club Swansea City and Charlie Taylor’s defection to Burnley.
United have followed a specific plan of recruitment and kept Christiansen happy. Jokanovic, in contrast, was quoted last month as saying: “My list (of transfer targets) is completely ignored. In this moment we decide to follow one way (in which) I didn’t find so much sense.”
He and Fulham have been at odds over their transfer policy before.
Asked if Leeds were a better side now, Phillips said: “I believe so. We’ve got all the new signings and Pontus (Jansson) and (Hadi) Sacko too. There’s more confidence in the team knowing that they (Jansson and Sacko) are here permanently and will play week in, week out.”
The influx of players has given Christiansen several means of changing his side after a draw against Preston which United’s head coach accepted as a “fair” result.
Phillips, and Christiansen’s midfield in general, might be vulnerable on the back of a dogged afternoon on Saturday and Leeds have more resources in that area than any other part of their team. Ronaldo Vieira replaced Phillips for the last half-hour against Preston and Samuel Saiz – the scorer of a League Cup hat-trick against Port Vale last Wednesday – was thrown on after North End lost Ben Pearson to a red card on the hour.
Christiansen is expected to be without injured defenders Matthew Pennington and Gaetano Berardi again, but Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is expected to be fit despite picking up a minor niggle in the closing stages against Preston.
Three matches into the term, both Leeds and Fulham remain unbeaten. The Championship has four perfect records intact – held by Cardiff City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town – and is throwing up enough unexpected results to convince anyone that the unpredictability of the division this term will be no different to any forerunner.
“In this league, everything can happen,” Christiansen said after United’s draw with Preston. “The smaller team may be able to win against the biggest one. That’s the beauty of this sport.”
Phillips, nonetheless, admitted promotion was as much a priority for United as any other club in the division. He said: “That’s always the target at Leeds. We all want to get the club back to where it should be. We won’t take anything less than the play-offs.”