Leeds United’s unravelling at Manchester United: How much did it have to do with Kalvin Phillips’ absence
Nine months ago at Old Trafford, Leeds United suffered defeat by a four-goal margin that was no guide whatsoever to what was to come.
The Whites were lambasted as naive in some quarters, patronised in others, after losing 6-2 to Manchester United. Marcelo Bielsa still bristles at the idea that it was a turning point but, in their next 24 Premier League games, newly-promoted Leeds conceded only 24 goals and finished ninth.
So, getting carried away by Saturday’s disheartening 5-1 defeat would be almost as unwise for the losers as the winners.
That said, it did expose issues – especially one – that unlike the league tables published before every team has played, should not be completely ignored.
The danger in reading too much into one game is that Bruno Fernandes, who scored a hat-trick, and Paul Pogba, who created four goals, were so good in the areas Kalvin Phillips normally patrols it is hard to measure how badly he was missed. It was Phillips, after all, given the runaround in December, hooked at half-time with his team 4-1 down.
It is hard, though, to believe it would not have been better with him on the field.
Fitness concerns saw Leeds voluntarily do without two of their three best central midfielders as their new season kicked off.
Stuart Dallas was restored to the centre when Bielsa decided new left-back Junior Firpo had 45 minutes in his legs despite missing the last two pre-season friendlies. Inside four minutes Dallas teed up an equaliser although the quality and distance of Luke Ayling’s strike hogged almost all the credit.
Dallas was powerless to fight the avalanche of four goals in 16 minutes the thump of Ayling’s shot on netting triggered, one United powered by a vibrant stadium, the other not buttressed by their own fans’ determination to sing like they were winning.
To see Phillips no closer to the action than a few stretches on the sidelines felt more costly.
They might have been the right big-picture calls. Bielsa is fastidious about the fitness he demands before picking players and the results are almost superhuman athleticism. He has evidence we do not, statistical and visual, to tell him Phillips and Firpo’s readiness.
Phillips will not be the only Euro 2020 performer who does not start the season or does so slowly. Only five people played more minutes at the tournament and two were goalkeepers.
But it does raise questions about the drop-off in quality when he is not there. Last season 10 league games began without Phillips, 28 with. Leeds lost seven without him, eight with, conceding 26 times when Phillipsless, 28 when he started.
Playing without your best player is difficult for any team, as is covering for him when he plays a specialist position like the pivot in Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1. Anyone close to being as good is not going to only want to play when the main man is injured or suspended, so the deputy probably has to be worth a place elsewhere.
Centre-back Pascal Struijk had most cracks at the job despite being substituted 21 minutes into his first. Midfielder Mateusz Klich, who provided much of Leeds’s sporadic first-half threat when moving in to out, was used and late in the campaign it was Robin Koch, there at Old Trafford as in pre-season.
“I also played in Germany sometimes as a midfielder so for me it’s nothing completely new,” said Koch, referring to international as well as club football on Thursday. “My main position is centre-back but for me it is not a big problem.”
On Saturday it was. Manchester United effectively played two part-time No 10s. Fernandes started there but as soon as Koch attached himself in the opening seconds he tried to take Koch on a tour of the pitch, sometimes deep, sometimes at centre-forward, often on the left wing.
Pogba, whose position the last one allegedly was, naturally abhorred the vacuum and regularly filled it. His four assists showed he was no touchline-hugger. It looked like he had more chalk in his hair than on his boots until you realised this was Pogba and that was fashion.
But the fluidity added to by Bradfordian Mason Greenwood, Scott McTominay and Hull-born Dan James seemed to leave Koch wondering at times how far to follow the Portuguese. At no point did he look confident.
Bielsa thought “he was a dynamic player, he was present, he was willing, committed. He made lots of effort and he had presence throughout the game.” He knows more about the game than probably everyone reading or writing this combined but it smacked more of psychology than reality. By the time of Koch’s excellent pass which ultimately led to the disappointing Raphinha missing a good chance, the horse had bolted and was trotting around the winner’s enclosure.
McTominay then Pogba found Fernandes for the opener when Illan Meslier’s goal-kick picked out Aaron Wan-Bissaka. It was Pogba’s exquisite pass Greenwood ran onto and buried, Fernandes’s shot Ayling thought he had cleared off the line only for technology to show otherwise, Fernandes Ayling very narrowly played onside for his hat-trick.
The fifth goal was the odd one out, made wide by Pogba for Fred. As in December, Leeds must think but not panic about what they learnt.
Are their options to replace Phillips good enough and, if not, can they find one?
Playing at Euro 2020 did wonders for Phillips’s reputation but so often with defensive midfielders not playing shows their value.