Leeds United yearning for midfield key amid Kalvin Phillips nostalgia - Graham Smyth's Hull Verdict

Leeds United nostalgia has been whipped up around a deep-lying midfielder but it's not Kalvin Phillips that Elland Road is currently yearning for.
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Life in football moves at such speed that it never takes very long for a dreamy nostalgia to set in around people or events.

Take Gaetano Berardi, who was back at Elland Road for Easter Monday's clash with Hull City. It's less than three years since Leeds United confirmed the Swiss defender would be leaving the club, but so much water has passed under the bridge in the intervening period that he already represents an altogether different era. One of yesteryear's men. His name has rang out around the stadium all season, along with those of various other favourites, in that sort of wistful 'wish you were here' way. They sing about Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich, too, team-mates of Berardi's in that Marcelo Bielsa Championship-winning side.

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A man who was just as influential as any in that squad, Kalvin Phillips, would be forgiven for losing himself in nostalgia of his own at present or even yearning for an Elland Road return. What has passed under the bridge for him as a footballer since leaving Leeds for Manchester City in 2022 has largely been forgettable and his middle-digit response to West Ham fans said it all about the stormy waters he's now sailing.

Outside of the bewildering and predominantly online schadenfreude that exists among some Leeds fans for one of their own, one of their own guilty only of ambition, there is a school of thought that says bring him home. For Phillips, should Leeds go up this season, a return to Elland Road would make so much sense. This is where he last felt properly at home, because it is his home. This is where he last held real importance in a squad and where he last played with that boyish smile on his face. It would be fair to suggest that Phillips might just bite your hand off for such a move, were it offered. Yet for Leeds, particularly with Daniel Farke at the helm, there might not be the same level of desperation.

He's not the type to beg anyone to come to Leeds, and this is a team put together with a complete absence of sentiment. If Luke Ayling seeing out the final months of his Leeds contract at Middlesbrough wasn't proof enough, then look no further than club captain Liam Cooper being dropped for the visit of Hull so Farke could reunite Ethan Ampadu and Joe Rodon at centre-back. And though this Leeds team has suddenly a deep-lying six problem - more on that shortly - the presence of Ampadu and the currently-injured Ilia Gruev means the Elland Road transfer chiefs need not fall over themselves in a hypothetical summer scenario that makes Phillips available to them. A Premier League project would of course necessitate the upgrading of every department in Farke's squad. The back four will be a priority. But a midfielder capable of operating in the top flight would not be a bad addition.

The middle of the park was where all the focus lay as Leeds bounced out of Watford with a rescued point on Friday night. Gruev's injury had led Farke to put Ampadu back in midfield, breaking up the central-defensive axis upon which so much of their remarkable 2024 form had been built. It didn't go so well. Gruev's metronomic passing and calming influence were also undoubtedly missed. So for the Hull game Farke swapped things round a little more comprehensively to facilitate his first-choice defensive pairing. Sam Byram switched to right-back, Junior Firpo came in at left-back and Archie Gray went into the middle next to Glen Kamara.

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Leicester City's win over Norwich City and the last-gasp winner scored by Ipswich Town in their game against Southampton added a little extra edge for the Whites and made it all the more imperative that Farke's new-look midfield worked as it should. The German went with 18-year-old Gray at six, leaving Kamara as his more forward-thinking eight. Yet it was Gray who stormed forward down the right to exchange passes with Daniel James and carve out the first chance, for himself, shooting high over the bar.

On a night of nerves, tension and no little emotion, an early goal is always a good idea and Leeds were 1-0 up inside 10 minutes. Georginio Rutter's magic, Crysencio Summerville's partially-saved shot and Byram's follow-up header at the back post allowed Elland Road to settle into a familiar and comforting scenario.

And though Farke's greed for goals is obvious, so too is his demand for control. In the moments after the goal, as Gray shaped to lead a forward charge and then opted to play backwards to retain possession, the manager's applause was enthusiastic.

Previously this season that would have been that, so miserly at the back and dominant going forward have Leeds been. But it was a different story against Hull, who showed spirit and endeavour far beyond so many previous visitors to Elland Road and played plenty of football.

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Still, they should have been staring defeat in the face when James sent the ball across the face of goal and Bamford met it a couple of yards out with Ryan Allsop beaten. How he found the South Stand and not the net will forever remain a mystery.

And as night follows day, Hull punished Leeds and Bamford for his profligacy. Summerville's choice to press the keeper left space that Hull played into and with Leeds' midfield pair sitting incredibly deep no one engaged the visitors as they crossed the halfway line and drove deep into home territory. Left went the ball, in came the cross and Fabio Carvalho flicked past Ilan Meslier.

There were signs that Leeds and Gray were out to impose themselves with a little more aggression in the second half. The youngster was able to pull the strings, briefly, to start a move that ended in a dangerous Byram cross.

But Leeds were not 'fixed' by any stretch of the imagination, as Hull's counter from an Ampadu giveaway and Jaden Philogene's inches-wide curler proved. And that moment was no outlier, Abdulkadir Omur came equally close from a similar distance.

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The introduction of Mateo Joseph was a spark and he came a lick of paint away from a second goalscoring cameo of the weekend, just about keeping himself onside to turn Firpo's cross onto the woodwork. Seconds later Firpo headed wide. With Hull starting to visibly tire, Farke dipped into his bench again and threw on Joel Piroe, whose first contribution was to give Summerville a chance to run at Regan Slater. The Dutchman's speed took him to the area and his body position did the rest, baiting Slater into a foul that gave Leeds the chance to sneak ahead. Piroe put the ball down and settled himself, then Summerville picked it up and backed himself, telling Piroe to go away. Quite what would have happened had he not scored will, mercifully, remain unknown, because he rolled the ball right down the middle to make it 2-1.

Though Hull refused to give in, attacking to the last and sending keeper Allsop up to join in, Joe Rodon's sheer bloodyminded defending kept them out and when Piroe fed James, he looked up to see an empty net and found it, perfectly, from fully 45 yards.

It was, Farke admitted, a game made complicated by Hull's quality and the various knocks, pains or illnesses in the Leeds team before and during the contest. It was, he also admitted, made more difficult by the absence of Gruev in midfield.

"Ilia dictates our rhythm and is so good on the ball under pressure," said the manager. "It's no coincidence that we lacked a bit of quality in possession, especially in the first half. Archie was excellent I thought but he has to get used a bit to the perfect positioning to develop our game. In terms of dictating the rhythm, calming it down and speeding it up when we need it. He has to learn a bit. We are missing Ilia a lot."

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Coventry, another play-off hopeful, await Leeds next and thoughts will continue to revolve around the middle of the park. The nostalgia Leeds fans are feeling right now is not for a Leeds-made England international but for a Leeds-adopted Bulgarian one. The idea of Phillips coming back is an intriguing one, but almost entirely promotion-dependent you would think. And that hinges, not entirely, but a fair bit on Gruev coming back. The sooner the better.

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