16 years is a long time and an eternity in football. It is the exact amount of years since Leeds United, watched then by an eight-year-old fan, Kalvin Phillips, playing at Wortley Juniors, last took centre stage in the Premier League. Ironically, it looks now that their long-awaited return to the top-flight of English football may finally be coming with that same boy now the club’s star player.
In the early 2000s, Leeds United were riding high, establishing themselves amongst the ‘big guns’ of the Premier League and competing in Europe. David O’Leary’s talented and expensively assembled young side, featuring the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate and Mark Viduka were regularly beating Premier League opponents and the likes of Lazio, Anderlecht, and Deportivo La Coruna on the way to a UEFA Champions League semi-final clash against Valencia in 2001.
However, defeat in that semi-final and the failure of the club to capitalise on their substantial over-investment with silverware led to their financial implosion. What followed was a host of managers, players, and owners before the arrival two years ago, almost to the day, of ‘El Loco’, Marcelo Bielsa, a man known to many as the ‘godfather’ of the modern game. Since then the club has been transformed under Bielsa’s tactics, averaging 1.79 points per match, with 49 wins, 17 draws, and 25 losses. Not surprisingly the mood in the Yorkshire camp looks better than ever, with a return to the Premier League looking ever more likely.
Before the pandemic, one of the players who was taking the Championship by storm was Phillips, a 24-year-old academy graduate, given his debut in 2015 by his former Academy mentor, Neil Redfern, who operates as a defensive midfielder. Over 150 games later, the man the Leeds fans have nicknamed the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’, who was named in the EFL Team of the Year 2018-2019, is now being tipped as a future England international. He was being discussed in the Media for a call-up to the squad for the March 2020 friendlies before the postponements. Needless to say, Leeds are desperate to keep hold of their rising star at Elland Road.
This tactical analysis will look at Phillips’ strengths, weaknesses, and what he brings to Bielsa’s side, who are nine games away from the Premier League.
Leeds-born Phillips is a deep-lying midfielder, sitting in front of the back four and influencing his side’s attack from deep. Not only is he breaking down opposition attacks, but he can also pull the string going forward as well, showing the signs of a complete midfielder.
Mastering his position
Leeds have frequently lined up in their usual 4-1-4-1 formation under Bielsa, using Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas to provide the width going forward. Phillips often sits as the deepest lying midfielder, in front of the centre-back pairing of Ben White and Liam Cooper. This means he shoulders big responsibility to keep composed in his usual holding role, before progressively joining the attack.
Below we can see a diagram of Phillips’ usual role in Bielsa’s system.
Operating as a deep-lying midfielder allows Phillips to shield the defence closely, whilst allowing Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez to operate with more freedom. Not only that, but his ability to drift into the right spaces and then distribute the ball effectively is also a skill that ties a team together, making Phillips the focal point of everything Leeds do.
Bielsa’s teams place great emphasis on making his team press high up the pitch, with Phillips demonstrating that to great effect. He can be frequently seen bursting up the pitch to close the opposition down if the opportunity presents itself, before retreating to his natural position.
Bielsa’s Style of Play
As previously mentioned, Phillips’ role in the Leeds United build-up is crucial. The 24-year-old always drops deep and receives the ball to his feet from the defenders, before spreading a 35-yard pass to the advancing wing-backs or wingers.
Of course, this has been implemented by the influence of Bielsa. Similarly to his tenure with Marseille, he often used his central midfielder as a pivot to protect the back four in a 3-3-1-3 system. His preference of building his team’s play from the back and constant movement complements Phillips’ style of play, which may explain why he is Leeds’s second-highest passer, averaging a pass completion rate of 82% per game.
In this image, we can see Phillips’ persistence to closely track his man gives Leeds the possibility to win the ball high up the pitch with their high press. This is an important part of Bielsa’s side’s build-up, helping them to win possession and give the opposition little time when in possession.
The image above outlines Phillips pressurising Matheus Pereira closely in the middle of the pitch before regaining possession for his side. The tightly compacted diamond shape shows how valuable Phillips is to Bielsa’s side both in and out of possession, with the 24-year-old averaging 1.4 interceptions per game, the most in comparison to the rest of Leeds’s midfielders.
As the attack starts from deep, Phillips is again present and dropping deep and coming wider to provide a passing option for Liam Cooper.
The next image above also shows Phillips’ movement and anticipation that the ball is being moved across the centre-backs to the other flank.
Bielsa’s instructions for Phillips to drop deep and present himself allow him to control the tempo of the game make him one of Leeds’s most invaluable players. Phillips completes an average of 5.3 long balls per game, an impressive number that allows the likes of Ezgjan Alioski and Luke Ayling to move higher up the pitch.
Not only that, but the 24-year-old has also improved with his number of key passes per game – completing an average of 1.9 per game compared to 0.6 last season. He also completes an average of two crosses per game, the highest in the squad.
The image above also shows Phillips’ versatility to drop back and occasionally slot into a back three alongside Liam Cooper and Ben White, as discussed above.
When labelling a defensive midfield player, the first thing that comes to mind is a physical unit – someone that can break down the play and do the dirty work. Their composure is something that arguably lets them down. The 24-year-old is one of the very few defensive midfielders that have both in abundance. Not only is this shown by his high interception and tackling rates per game, but also his composure to pick a player out from 50 yards. The sign of a top-class player in the making is someone who knows what they are doing before they even receive the ball, which is why Leeds have put a bumper £52 million price-tag on his shoulders.
Leeds’s narrow defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup showcased their talent and ability to compete in the Premier League if they seal their return. One of the stars of the show was none other than Phillips, who helped Leeds to control the game in a dominant first half.
The picture above shows his composure when with the ball to take a few touches, before finding Ayling with a simple pass.
Though, the midfielder’s attention to detail here is another impressive trait in his game. Arsenal are defending narrowly, therefore he ponders on the ball which invites Arsenal to close him down, subsequently allowing Ayling to pick out a cross.
The image above also outlines Phillips’ constant movement, always making himself available for a return pass if Ayling is closed down too quickly. Though the space allowed Ayling to engineer his cross and pick out Alioski at the back-post, his diving header was well-saved by Emiliano Martinez.
Another example from the game shows Phillips anticipating the throw towards Mezut Ozil, therefore tracking his run and putting pressure on Arsenal’s attacking midfielder.
Phillips’ pressure and athleticism allows him to get in front of Ozil and win the ball back for his team, subsequently launching a counter-attack. The aggression of Phillips can be shown through his stats this season, with a total of 1.3 clearances per game and 1.4 fouls, the second-highest behind Klich.
The image above also shows the midfielder’s willingness to join the attack and outnumber Arsenal, before being closed down by Matteo Guendouzi.
Kalvin Phillips is Leeds United’s lynchpin and one of the Championship’s outstanding players, and it has not gone unnoticed at Elland Road amongst the vociferous Leeds United faithful. A product of their academy and one of their own, the 24-year-old has every ingredient to become a top midfielder.
Just to view Phillips as a hard-working midfielder who does the dirty work would be a complete undermining of his qualities. As we have seen through this analysis, he plays a vital role in joining attacks and starting them, spraying balls the length of the pitch which brings the best out of the two full-backs.
This scout report suggests earlier that his game intelligence is a component than he is forever improving under the close guidance of the master-tactician Bielsa. Phillips is forever on the move and always looking to receive the ball. His composure, intelligence, and reading of the game now belies his tender years and relative inexperience.
You cannot help but think promotion is the only way to keep hold of the midfield maestro, with a bundle of clubs likely to make a move for the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ this coming transfer window.
The 24-year-old is a complete midfielder who has been birthed by the brilliance of Bielsa and is more than likely to earn his move to a big club in the foreseeable future.