Why Jesse Marsch should floor the accelerator as Leeds United returnee presents fresh selection dilemma

Leeds United fans were delighted by the sight of Kalvin Phillips getting stuck into the Wolves bench as tensions boiled over in the latter stages of the Whites’ dramatic Molineux victory.

By Flora Snelson
Saturday, 26th March 2022, 6:00 am

But you can be sure that no-one enjoyed it more than Phillips himself.

To have watched on from the sidelines as the season fell apart – unable to help the manager who had championed him, while everything he had built for his boyhood club was in peril – must have been agonising.

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As the clock ran down on a potentially season-defining match in the West Midlands, Phillips’ inability to resist the fracas – prowling about the dugouts with all the swagger of the travelling fans – served as a timely reminder of the strength of the Wortley lad’s allegiance to the club.

If he wasn’t convinced already, Phillips’ touchline performance at Molineux gave Jesse Marsch an even greater incentive to put the freshly-recovered Phillips straight onto the teamsheet for the visit of Southampton.

After the Wolves victory, Marsch deflected credit for the result by highlighting the character shown by his players. The suggestion that pure grit, over and above tactical prowess, had secured Leeds’ back-to-back wins means Marsch is unlikely to take the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach which has churned out identikit starting line-ups week on week for large parts of this season.

And if grit alone can drag Leeds United through the last gruelling weeks of this season, then Phillips can be depended upon more than most.

Leeds United midfielders Kalvin Phillips and Adam Forshaw. Pic: Bruce Rollinson.

While it seems unlikely that Phillips’ rumoured Elland Road exit will come to pass this summer, the intensity of speculation forbids the thought from ever being far from the midfielder’s mind. But you’d have to have a short memory to imagine that the prospect of a career-defining move will bridle his trademark aggression.

Last summer, Phillips jeopardised his participation in Euro 2020 by going in for a full-blooded tackle on Grady Diangana in the dying minutes of an already-wrapped-up win over West Brom and was lucky that the shoulder injury he suffered didn’t rule him out of what turned out to be a life-changing tournament.

With his head in the game and the badge on his heart, Phillips will come flying out of the traps like the cavalry Leeds forgot they needed, and not a moment too soon – though he must exercise some caution in the uncorking of a half-season’s worth of pent-up passion, since the last thing a very green Kristoffer Klaesson or patched-up Illan Meslier needs to see is James Ward-Prowse standing over a free-kick.

But who does Marsch drop to make way for Phillips?

Leeds United midfielders Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich. Pic: Bruce Rollinson.

Where once was a gaping chasm is now an embarrassment of riches. With Mateusz Klich, Adam Forshaw and Phillips all now fit and healthy, the question of which two pair up in the middle of the park is a wonderful problem for Marsch to have after the American despaired to watch an injury crisis unfold in double time at Molineux.

The rejuvenated Rodrigo, bucked after scoring in successive games, will be looking to take advantage of a Saints defence which have leaked eight goals in their last three games and if I were him, it is Klich I would want behind me, as the Pole can more reliably serve up creative, incisive balls than his Liverpudlian counterpart.

A more defensive duo of Phillips and Forshaw would give Leeds their best shot at preventing a repeat of the two-goal half-time deficit at Wolves which, for all the ecstasy of the heart-stopping comeback, Whites fans would prefer to avoid.

Though whispers of Sam Allardyce were largely ridiculed, wasn’t it for this – the desperate need for a shored-up defence – that Marcelo Bielsa simply had to go?

Leeds United head coach Jesse Marsch. Pic: James Baylis.

But with the dust settled on that ill-fated February week and Leeds’ rediscovery of their shooting boots – netting as many goals in their last two as their previous seven – comes a reshuffling of priorities. As he heads into the Southampton game, Marsch shouldn’t too-highly prize a watertight defence at a time when his players are full of the drive and energy to go for the win.

With the security of a seven-point cushion, fans could well forgive Marsch if he opted to inch forward, point by point, toward the finish line.

But after three defeats on the spin, Southampton are on the ropes while Leeds are in the ascendancy, and dropping Forshaw for Phillips will give Leeds the best chance of building on that momentum.

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