Premier League know all about Kalvin Phillips and Leeds United but still face huge questions from Marcelo Bielsa's Whites
The end of last season showed us what Leeds United had learned about the Premier League but the start of the next one will show us what the Premier League has learned about Leeds United.
Manchester United, the Whites’ opening-day opponents and hosts, discovered in April that the team they faced at Elland Road was different to the one they thumped 6-2 at Old Trafford in December.
The four changes to the Whites starting line-up were not the major difference that helped Marcelo Bielsa’s side shut down an attack that ran amok in the previous encounter.
That game, the trip to Manchester City and the visits of both Spurs and Liverpool, showcased a much more stubborn defensive side to Leeds and an improved understanding of what it takes to cope with world-class forwards.
Kalvin Phillips was key to the clean sheet, perfectly treading the fine line between aggression and discipline and giving supporters of his club’s fiercest rivals a glimpse into what the rest of the country has started to take note of.
His effort for England against Croatia might have given even Bielsa a little food for thought, in a more advanced midfield role, but the qualities that helped him put together that display are the same qualities that have made him so vital to Leeds and so popular with Whites fans.
The tough tackling, the body position, the dominance of opposition midfielders, the knack of coming out of tight areas with possession and an eye for a pass were all evident in that man-of-the-match performance.
It certainly went a long way towards silencing the doubters who, without the benefit of watching Leeds every week, felt he was the wrong choice in the centre of midfield for Gareth Southgate.
Phillips has done his international reputation no harm whatsoever, earning plaudits from Mesut Ozil, Michael Ballack, Nigel de Jong and the European media, and, in his home country, his stock has risen significantly thanks to just 90 minutes of football.
His time in the England camp has put him in constant contact with players who, armed with an even greater understanding of his game, will once again try and get the better of him when the Euros gives way to the 2021/22 Premier League season.
If anyone kicked off the top-flight campaign in 2020 operating under any disillusions or ignorance about the Leeds-born midfielder, they won’t make the same mistake come this August.
The same can be said of Leeds United. They entered the Premier League as an intriguing newcomer, but a newcomer all the same, a team without the squad size to match the ‘big boys’ and without the superstar names.
It wasn’t long before they had all and sundry sitting up and paying attention, the problems they caused defending champions Liverpool in the opening game made sure of that, but it still felt at the end of the season like teams were playing catch up to exactly who Leeds are and what they can do.
That, of course, is chiefly because Leeds evolved throughout their return to the Premier League, but the insistence of opposition managers and players that Leeds prefer a ‘basketball game’ showed there was a misunderstanding of what Bielsa wants from each game his team plays.
He wants control, he wants to win the ball high up the pitch and to keep the action as far from his goal as possible. A constant flow of lightning-quick one-way traffic, not end-to-end football, is the ideal.
There was still a feeling that Bielsa and his team were something of an oddity, discussed in a different way to other outfits clearly considered by pundits as more serious top-10 candidates.
The apparent resignation of opposition managers to Leeds’ superior fitness hinted at a reluctance to at least try and match the physical capabilities of Bielsa’s men.
What will be interesting when the new season kicks off, is how opposition teams decide to treat their games against the Whites and whether or not they take steps to run as far and as fast.
As Bielsa himself would be keen to highlight, the success or otherwise of Leeds’ second season amongst the elite will not be dictated by what happens in the first few games, or even in the first couple of months, but they might tell us just how seriously everyone else is taking them, as a side eyeing possible European qualification.
There are few secrets in football and all 19 of Leeds’ rivals will know plenty about Phillips and his team-mates, old and new, well in advance of August 14, but what they won’t know is what the next stage of the Whites’ evolution will look like.
If he can strike the right balance between the defensive solidity showcased late last season and the attacking menace that so often made Leeds such fun to watch, it will ask even bigger questions of the biggest clubs who failed to win at Elland Road.
No longer the newcomers, Leeds will surely be taken dead seriously.
The oddity tag might well be replaced with a target.