Marcelo Bielsa's options for replacing suspended Kalvin Phillips in Leeds United XI, including 'good kid' Alfie McCalmont

Kalvin Phillips’ red card at Queen’s Park Rangers has created a problem for Marcelo Bielsa, but also an opportunity for someone else.

Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 11:48 am
Alfie McCalmont is being moulded into a defensive central midfielder, like Kalvin Phillips, by Marcelo Bielsa (Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Leeds United will be missing their midfield enforcer for three games; the visits of Millwall and Wigan Athletic and the trip to Nottingham Forest.

Bielsa, whose side are struggling to score goals, have relied on Phillips to help keep them out at the other end.

He is a player who makes more tackles than almost every other Championship player – 79 at last count, just two fewer than the Swansea’s Matt Grimes, who leads the division.

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He is also a ball player – Phillips is in the Championship top 10 for total passes, accurate short passes and key passes [the pass directly before a recipient has an effort without scoring].

For the next three games, he’s a big miss.

But Bielsa has options, even if the most suitable replacement, Adam Forshaw, is not available.

Forshaw remains on the long-term injury list, a hip problem keeping him out for three and a half months and counting.

“Kalvin is a very important player for us, he never misses a game,” said Bielsa after Saturday’s QPR defeat.

“It is at the same time that Forshaw, the natural substitution, is not available. We know how to find solutions for this.”

One of those solutions has already been discussed at length this season.

When Phillips missed the trip to Huddersfield following his fifth yellow card, Bielsa said he would play his ball-playing centre-back Ben White there.

The experiment didn’t last the 90 minutes, but that’s not to say it won’t be the route Leeds go down again.

There are others to explore, however.

Jamie Shackleton, a speedster who has recently got himself fit again and was named among the substitutes for the last two games, could use his pace and mobility to cover the same amount of ground as Phillips and turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.

The 20-year-old might not possess the same physical presence as his fellow Leeds-supporting Thorp Arch graduate Phillips, however.

Stuart Dallas has played right-back, central midfield and left-back this season, so another position is hardly a stretch of the imagination.

Yet there is a player being groomed by Bielsa for the very role Phillips has made his own.

Alfie McCalmont, 19, made his first-team debut in the Carabao Cup at Salford off the bench back in August, before a full debut the same month in the same competition, at home to Stoke.

The teen lasted 45 minutes before a Bielsa triple substitution, an attempt to fight back from a 2-0 deficit, and although he was among the substitutes at Loftus Road, McCalmont hasn’t played again for the first team.

He has, however, continued to impress for the Under-23s with his tough tackling, ball retention and an eye for goal. He has also made his international debut for Northern Ireland.

On September 5, he came off the bench at Windsor Park in a 1-0 win over Luxembourg with Whites team-mate and Northern Ireland regular Dallas, who sat the game out, watching on.

“He’s a good kid, he’s worked hard,” said Dallas. “He still has a long way to go but his international career had to start somewhere and it’s happened for him so I’m over the moon for him.

“He’s progressing really well. He’s got to keep his head down and keep working hard. Obviously, at Leeds the manager sees something in him, and it’s a big thing for him to make his international debut and I thought he did really well, looked composed on the ball.”

Dallas has put his arm around the youngster, metaphorically and literally; footage released by the Irish FA showed the elder Leeds statesman surprising his young team-mate with a friendly headlock during training.

“I’ll look after him [in the Northern Ireland set-up], don’t worry,” said Dallas.

“I try to do that with any young kid and if I can help them in any way I do, but I feel an extra connection with Alfie because he’s from Leeds and you feel like you’ve got to protect him a little bit.”

There is another McCalmont can also look to for inspiration.

“Playing in that position he can learn loads off Kalvin, whose career has just shot up in the last couple of years,” added Dallas.

A trajectory even close to the one that has made Phillips a player Leeds United miss so badly, would ensure a very bright future for McCalmont, whether or not his chance arrives in the next three games.