In a super-physical era when so much importance is put on rest and recovery, some in English football have been crying out for years for the country’s top players to get a breather during the notoriously helter-skelter season.
But if there is one thing some footballers enjoy even more than a rest, it is an excuse. Brace yourself for the Premier League managers coming back from a first mid-season break this weekend complaining their teams were rusty.
In the Championship, rest is a dirty word. Leeds United play their 36th match of the campaign at home to Reading today. Just the 13 to go – provided they do not end up in the dreaded play-offs.
Some have found their own ways of getting a break. Whites midfielder Kalvin Phillips picked up a three-match suspension for January’s red card against Queens Park Rangers.
Phillips thinks the break refreshed him for the important matches to come but his head coach, Marcelo Bielsa – often accused of running his players into the ground – disagrees, detecting a rustiness on Phillips’s return.
He did, though, believe Phillips was back to his best against Bristol City last Saturday, and he should be in good shape to follow that important Elland Road afternoon with another at home to Reading today.
“I didn’t want to get the red card,” says the 24-year-old, whose holding role is so pivotal to Leeds’s play.
“But I think the break that I had has kind of let me regenerate physically and mentally.”
Different players need different things, and away at Brentford last week, Bielsa detected a player wiping away cobwebs. Along with the Pole’s excellent fitness, it explains why Phillips’s midfield colleague, Mateusz Klich, has not failed to kick off a Championship game since 2017-18.
“Against Brentford he had few opportunities to touch the ball and organise the play,” was Bielsa’s evaluation of Phillips.
“Only from the 30th minute to the 45th he was in contact (with the ball), the rest of the match he was not but he made good recoveries when danger was in front of him.”
This being Bielsa, he can back up what he says.
“Normally Kalvin makes double or triple the high-intensity movements of our centre-backs, at maximum speed,” he points out. “Against Brentford, he didn’t do double or triple, just half what the centre-backs did, but last match he came back to his normal levels. That he didn’t play three matches made him worse. After he started playing, he improved.
“There are some players for whom the accumulation of matches makes them weak and others improve.
“Klich’s numbers, he cannot do better. He is a player who runs more, makes more intense movements and more at maximal speed. His numbers are linked to how he prepares for matches mentally. The more angry he is, the more he runs.”
Pablo Hernandez, by contrast, has had his flow disrupted by injury this season, and widely regarded as below the high standards he set last.
“There are differing ways of measuring the level of a player,” argues Bielsa, reassuringly contrary as ever. “You can measure how many goals he’s scored, how many final passes, how many matches he played.
“In this sense, maybe, he’s not at the same level but his impact on the team is high. When he plays well, the team plays well. If he’s injured he needs time to recover and come back at a good fitness level.”
The statistics suggest Bielsa is right about Phillips but perhaps what matters more is that the midfielder feels better off.
Particularly playing for a big club in a title race, so much is in the mind. In many ways, last week’s 1-0 win over Bristol City was typical of some of the performances Leeds was criticised for in the autumn – high on chances, low on goals – but because it had been so long (12 games) without a clean sheet, because it was only the third win of 2020, and because results elsewhere went their way, it felt much more positive. Following it up or not today will change or harden perceptions.
“We’ve had two good results in the last two games so hopefully we can keep it going,” says Phillips.
“We hadn’t had a clean sheet in a while. We had conceded too many goals from after Christmas so it was massive for us and we were very happy with it.”
More important to be happy – or angry – perhaps, than rested or rusty.