History would have told Kalvin Phillips that his withdrawal at Swansea City on Tuesday was nothing personal. Lille’s 3-0 defeat to Strasbourg last August, a result on the watch of Marcelo Bielsa, is remembered best for three first-half substitutions which forced a striker and a defender to play in goal after Bielsa’s keeper, Mike Maignan, was later sent off.
Two of those changes were forced upon him by injury but a tactical switch late in the first half, leaving no spare replacements in case of an emergency, showed Bielsa’s willingness to take the plunge and do so quickly when games are going wrong. Phillips was on the end of that mindset at Swansea, replaced after 28 minutes in what was his 100th appearance for Leeds United.
The midfielder was rattled by Swansea’s pressure from the kick-off - booked early on, limited to 18 touches, able to complete only nine passes and failing to win a single tackle - but it never occurred to Bielsa to drop him at Norwich City yesterday. “The player makes mistakes and I make mistakes too,” said United’s head coach before the game. “We have to be tolerant when people make mistakes.”
Bielsa’s man-management paid off. Phillips took his substitution with good grace and delivered a telling riposte at Carrow Road, underpinning a 3-0 win which took Leeds back to the top of the Championship.
The quality and range of his passing impressed, rising back to an accuracy level of close to 90 per cent, but the strength of the display was in his defensive work: 10 clearances, four blocked shots, three interceptions and three tackles. One of his blocks denied Norwich's Teemu Pukki late in the first half, diverting the ball narrowly wide of a post.
Bielsa picked him, Gjanni Alioski, Barry Douglas and Pontus Jansson out for plaudits afterwards, making the point that the three areas where Leeds had toiled against Swansea were vastly improved at Carrow Road. Douglas touched the ball no fewer than 116 times, feeling his way into the game after a first half in which Ivo Pinto exposed him defensively.
“The performances of Phillips and Alioski were among the best ones,” Bielsa said. “Douglas is a necessary help for us and the performance of (Pontus) Jansson was good too. The other players could keep the level they already had.”
Phillips’ holding role freed Mateusz Klich to revive his attacking intent and the Poland midfielder - tipped for a recall to the Polish national squad after a four-year absence - came up with this third league goal of the season by breaking the deadlock in the 21st minute. Leeds’ control grew rapidly with a 1-0 advantage behind them, aided by the cast-iron presence of Phillips in front of their defence.
Bielsa’s faith in him was never in doubt. The 22-year-old is the pivot on which his open style of play depends. “It’s hard to find another player who can do the same job at Phillips,” Bielsa said last week. “The best thing for us is if Phillips can play all the games.”