This afternoon, Bielsa must decide if Phillips is in the right condition for a Yorkshire derby after playing more minutes than anyone for the Three Lions in March’s World Cup qualifiers. So important is the home-grown midfielder to the Whites and so fit are their players, it is hard to imagine he will not.
If he does, Heckingbottom, the interim manager of Sheffield United who briefly worked with Phillips as manager of Leeds, must find a way to stop him.
Even though Leeds have had two impressive 3-0 victories without him this season, it is still probably true to say Phillips is their most important player, playing the pivotal role of what is usually a 4-1-4-1 formation, the midfield conductor in a possession-based team and last line of protection in front of the defence.
Gareth Southgate has recognised Phillips’s importance with his first seven caps this season.
Bielsa always tries to be objective in press conferences, which is often why his praise is not as fulsome as that of other managers. Having taken Argentina and Chile to World Cups, he understands a fair bit about international football too.
“To be able to hold onto a starting position in a team as strong as England’s is an important achievement,” he points out. “In a part of the pitch where it’s very difficult to shine he deserves to be very proud of what he has been achieving.”
Others – with Bielsa high on the list – can be proud of helping him achieve his potential.
“I knew him from being a 15-year-old playing for Leeds, he was someone I’d seen in youth teams and I was really interested when he made his debut when Redders (Neil Redfearn) was there,” says Heckingbottom, who managed Leeds for the last 16 games of 2017-18.
“If you are a coach, there’s nothing better than seeing someone you’ve worked with achieving good things. It’s fantastic seeing players you’ve worked with playing for England.
“I wasn’t thinking about him playing for England when he was in the Championship. I know he got a look-in (with rumours he was on the verge of a first call-up before last year’s March internationals were scrapped due to Covid-19) but that shows how well he was doing in the Championship. Generally, you’re thinking it’s (playing in the) Premier League that gets you an England call-up.
“Now he’s made the step up, he’ll feel he belongs. He’s there on merit and if he does go to the Euros it’s down to his hard work.”
Not everyone is convinced.
Holding midfielders are under-appreciated at the best of times and with many England fans unhappy at Southgate’s habit of playing two, Phillips’s selections have not always been warmly received in all quarters. Heckingbottom has seen first-hand he can deal with that.
“I just remember at the time (I was manager) the club was getting a bit of stick with results and him and Ronaldo Vieira were getting it, too,” he recalls. “Generally, local boys are spared from the stick off the fans so it was the first time they’d experienced it.
“Our job was getting the focus back on where it should be – the team-mates, the manager and listening to those people, that’s who you need to impress. The manager picks the team, you want your team-mates’ respect, that’s all you need to focus on and you get the support of your friends and your family.
“Everything else is just background noise, it just gets in the way.”
Heckingbottom encouraged Phillips to play deeper in midfield before Bielsa turned it into an artform. That grounding is helping, too, as playing as one of two holders requires different skills to those he exhibits at Elland Road. At times in Albania in particular, he was more advanced than Declan Rice.
“He originally was a box-to-box midfielder and he has the habits of having played in this position for a number of years,” notes Bielsa. “They are skills which help to improve a player when he can play in different positions.”
That was the player Heckingbottom inherited.
“It was about getting him on the ball,” he explains. “Earlier on in that season, he’d been scoring goals (five before Heckingbottom’s arrival), he’d been the one making the box but we used him more in a deeper role, the one getting on the ball, regaining the ball, really trying to dominate the middle of the pitch and he’s continued doing that but added a bit more to his game tactically.
“Within a game he might have to drop in to make a back three, it just depends what the opposition play up top. His role’s become really prescriptive and he’s become a really big part of how they play. He performs that role rather than one of two, or with a licence to get forward. He has a really strict role there and performs it really, really well, both in terms of his understanding to get himself on the ball or other people and his understanding of regaining the ball as quickly as possible.”
All Yorkshire’s football-lovers should be proud if another one of our own is a key component for England at a major tournament and whilst no-one deserves more credit for that than the man himself, Bielsa and Heckingbottom can take some satisfaction from the parts they played.
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