It was apt it was Kalvin Phillips who said after Monday’s FA Cup exit Leeds United did not need to “blow their own trumpet”. Phillips had a whole brass section serenading him that night.
With their passing football and energetic pressing, Marcelo Bielsa teams can normally expect pretty good reviews from the critics, and at Arsenal’s Emirates home, they were gushing about Leeds.
Traditionally, the most a holding midfielder can realistically expect is praise for a best supporting role, but the position is fundamental to the Bielsa philosophy which influences the likes of Pep Guardiola, and against Arsenal, Phillips was a leading light.
Former Leeds manager David O’Leary picked him out as a player who always impresses, while Danny Murphy drew comparison with Michael Carrick. Radio host Adrian Durham called him “the player Granit Xhaka dreams of being”.
As Phillips was quick to point out, there is no need to get carried away. It was one game, and lest we forget, a defeat. Facing pretty Arsenal in a cup competition the Whites could take or more likely leave this season is one thing, rugged Sheffield Wednesday, today’s visitors in a Championship promotion race Leeds desperately want to win, quite another.
But the way Phillips forced World Cup winner Mesut Ozil to adopt the ineffective side of his Jekyll-and-Hyde persona was a great advertisement for how Bielsa is teaching his players to become better. The process is slower but the rewards should last longer and feel more satisfying.
It was Neil Redfearn who handed Phillips his professional debut, and current Owls manager Garry Monk who handed him a three-year contract as one of his first acts on taking charge at Elland Road, but Bielsa appears to have taken Phillips’s game to another level.
Plenty of clubs over the years have tried to buy their way into the Premier League, some successfully, some not. You suspect that even if Leeds had the financial firepower – the long-mooted Qatari buyout has still not happened – Bielsa would resist. He gets his kicks from creating top footballers as he has with Phillips, not picking them off the shelf.
Monday’s primetime game was shown on the BBC, opening Leeds’s football up to a new audience of casual armchair viewers. Phillips’s name might have rung a bell with some from the gossip columns which linked him with Manchester United earlier in the campaign, but with no Championship football on terrestrial television, many would not have seen him play before.
Outside of West Yorkshire, Luke Ayling, Ben White, Ezgjan Alioski, Mateusz Klich and Jack Harrison were far from being household names this time last week. Even most Leeds fans will not have seen debutants Robbie Gotts and Illan Meslier until Monday.
But Bielsa does not just look like a slightly eccentric PE teacher, he thinks like an educator. Although, as he points out, he has managed at the top end of the world game, you get the impression he is more comfortable developing future stars than honing A-listers.
“Some managers look at players and use them to win matches,” he says in what initially sounds like a stunning statement of the obvious. “But you have another type of manager that tries to correct them and make them better.
“To improve a player you have to consider his willingness (to learn) and try to correct (his weaknesses). If the player is able to evolve, it will improve the team. Neither kind of manager is better or worse.”
It is pretty clear which one Bielsa is, though.
“The top managers in the world use players to win first of all because they have the best players in the world,” he argues. “What they have to do is very difficult, to create a group to win matches.
“Normally those managers take advantage of the skill of the players, they don’t consider the weak points because they don’t have a lot of weak points. Normally they win by playing well. They try to build a nice style of play.
“If you don’t have those top players, the other way is try to play well within the limitations of the players, to win without worrying a lot about their development.
“The big teams have all those options.
“The average teams play according to their resources and try to improve their resources to improve the play.
“All this is good and possible. There are different ways to achieve something.
“I coached big teams like Marseille, America Mexico, an important club. Argentina, the players were top players. I also coached another kind of team where the resources were different. Every place I felt comfortable.”
At Leeds, Phillips is one of his top pupils and Bielsa was another who gave him a glowing report.
“Kalvin’s playing excellently,” he comments. “He always plays (missing just one match in all competitions this season, through suspension), he always plays well.
“He makes a lot of effort for the team.
“He’s a character player, with a good personality. He takes risks
“Responsibility doesn’t inhibit him. In the last match, against Ozil and (Joe) Willock, he performed very well in this examination.”
He clearly has a good teacher.