Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips solution partly in place and a demand Jesse Marsch cannot make

Victor Orta's shortlist of defensive midfielders stands at three but no matter the names on the list, no one can be the new Kalvin Phillips at Leeds United.

By Graham Smyth
Monday, 27th June 2022, 4:40 am

Mercifully, that won't be asked of whoever Orta brings in this summer, in the wake of Phillips' now certain departure for Manchester City.

News of an agreement between the English champions and the Whites was long feared and heavily expected yet still landed like a bombshell, leaving a crater that quickly became filled with sadness and concern.

Losing Raphinha will be difficult because he's such a good player and so much fun to watch. Saying goodbye to Phillips, however, is different and will lead to a grieving process for fans who have watched him grow up from a box-to-box Championship midfielder to a fully fledged Premier League defensive destroyer and England international. Phillips is one of their own. Watching him dump attackers on the Etihad turf in sky blue will be like losing a limb and looking on as someone else picks it up and uses it.

No longer will he emerge from the Elland Road tunnel for the pre-match warm-up with a grin the size of the East Stand, clapping and waving at his fellow Leeds fans, the ones who operate on the other side of the advertising boards. That's where he would be, if football hadn't worked out. That's where his family and friends are on matchdays.

He won't be there to painstakingly make his way around the pitch at full-time, ensuring each section of all four stands get their recognition and their share of him. There will be no more fist pumping and cheerleading in front of the South Stand before making his way back to the dressing room.

The latter aside, those are all things that Orta's new defensive midfielder could do but it wouldn't be the same, because he won't be Phillips.

Mercifully, for whoever it is Leeds can get through the door, Jesse Marsch won't be asking them to be Kalvin Phillips. Where one man once stood, it's highly likely that two now will, so direct comparisons between Phillips and his replacement are not entirely instructive when the time comes to assess this particular signing.

LEEDS TARGET - Tyler Adams, left, of RB Leipzig is a player Leeds United believe can help compensate for the loss of Kalvin Phillips who will soon join Manchester City. Pic: Getty

Phillips, for Leeds, under Marcelo Bielsa, was a one-man wrecking crew. He was an all-action midfielder who, following Bielsa's man-marking requirements, pressured opponents all over the pitch to produce more tackles in the defensive and midfield thirds than the vast majority of his peers in Europe's 'big five' leagues. He chased attackers back into their own defensive thirds and produced a huge volume of blocks, interceptions and clearances. He got on the ball and sprayed it to the wings and got Leeds moving in the right direction. He did it all, because he had to.

Under Marsch, whether he goes with his favoured 4-2-2-2 system or a 4-2-3-1, the new man will not have to do it all himself in front of the back four because he will play next to Marc Roca or Adam Forshaw.

Among the three players to whom Leeds are currently talking is Tyler Adams, someone they feel they can get and afford and someone Marsch has coached at two previous clubs.

Adams' numbers don't quite match up to Phillips' when it comes to tackling, blocking shots, intercepting or clearing the ball. Mohamed Camara of RB Salzburg is a closer match, in his own defensive third at least, showing why he too is liked by the Whites. But the possession RB Leipzig enjoyed and their status as a top-four Bundesliga side will play into Adams' data - simply put the American didn't have to do as much defending as Leeds' England international. What he did with a similar frequency to Phillips was pressure opponents in the middle third. What he did to an even greater frequency than Phillips was block passes.

So when you consider that he could be operating in an area next to Roca, whose Freb.com scouting report shows him to be an intense presser, a successful stopper of dribblers and an excellent intercepter, it paints a picture of a difficult pair to play against or play through.

Marsch wants to play with aggression and intensity, something Phillips excels at, and it wouldn't be outside the gift of either Adams or Roca to do the same. Or Forshaw, for that matter, who took delight in legally smashing several Premier League stars last season.

On the ball, if Marsch's style is to succeed, Leeds need to shift it quickly and shift it well. Plenty will be asked of the defensive midfielders in possession but ahead of them will be the men carrying the biggest burden for creativity, so the key duties will be to get it back and give it.

A look at Adams' profile on Smarterscout suggests he likes to run with the ball and get involved in link-up play far more than Phillips did. Camara, seemingly a more expensive option than Adams, is also much more of a ball carrier than Phillips has been at Leeds. And Roca's passing numbers suggest a high level of technicality and an appetite for getting it wide or getting it forward with a high degree of accuracy.

None of this is to say that a double pivot of Adams, Camara, or another, next to Roca or Forshaw, gives Leeds a guaranteed improvement on Phillips or that they will even secure themselves a like-for-like replacement, but it could give them something a little different and probably needs to, because Marsch's brand of football is not the same one that allowed Manchester City's incoming midfielder to flourish.

This is not some liberation of responsibility for the board, for Orta or for his new man because this signing is absolutely key. It has to be the right one and the player has got it all to do to prove he's worthy of the shirt and the division in a position

But whoever Leeds get and whatever Marsch gets out of them, it won't be Kalvin Phillips and coming to terms with that is not going to be easy because you don't replace characters like him. You can't. You can compensate though. Leeds must.