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Return of the general: Kalvin Phillips’ importance at the heart of the Leeds midfield as clear as ever

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The plaudits will rightly gravitate towards the match winner, Raphinha, but the correlation between Phillips’ return from injury, and Leeds’ recent performances cannot be understated.

Everton v Leeds United - Premier League
Kalvin Phillips earned his MOTM award on Saturday, with one of his best performances in a Leeds shirt.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It’s something that most Leeds United fans have been unashamedly aware of for some time now: Leeds are not Leeds without Kalvin Phillips. Are they still a good side without Phillips? Absolutely. Are they still defensively solid without Phillips? Usually. But they are not Leeds... At least they are not peak Leeds.

The fact of the matter is that fans have been aware of this since the day Phillips became so instrumental under Marcelo Bielsa. Having been defined as indefinable under the likes of Garry Monk, Paul Heckingbottom and Thomas Christiansen, Phillips found where he belonged very quickly under his most recent manager, and as he settled into the ball playing midfield general role, Phillips quickly went from indefinable to indispensable.

Naturally - as a combative defensive midfielder - Phillips missed games during Leeds’ two seasons in the Championship under Bielsa, through both suspension and injury, and results reflected the absence of a defensive talisman. in the 2018/2019 season Leeds lost 3 of their 4 games without Phillips. During Leeds’ title winning 2019/2020 season, results didn’t waiver too much, however a reduction in both goals conceded and goals scored reflected an all round more defensive approach to matches, with Brighton loanee Ben White usually deployed in the Phillips role.

Everton v Leeds United - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

This season, with 10 games played, Phillips has featured in 7 games, whilst missing 3 through injury. In the games in which Phillips featured, Leeds’ expected goals against per 90 minutes (xGA/90) was 1.58, and in the 3 games without Phillips, Leeds’ xGA/90 increased to 1.87 - this included 4-1 defeats to both Leicester and Crystal Palace.

His return from injury was, almost ridiculously, announced during a Call of Duty Warzone live stream on Twitch with team mate Leif Davis, who mentioned Phillips’ injury during the stream, asking how he felt.

“It’s still sore mate, it’s been sore for ages. I’m meant to get an injection at the end of the international break,” replied Phillips.

“So you can play against Arsenal?” Davis asked, to which his Phillips replied: “Yeah. Hopefully, anyway.”

Phillips started against Arsenal, and Leeds looked almost instantly more stable. Admittedly, the Gunners offered almost nothing in terms of attacking momentum - even less after the sending off of Nicolas Pepe - but what was important to note, was Arsenal’s inability to either suppress, or advance past, Phillips.

The England international slipped seamlessly back into the starting XI, and dominated both on and off the ball for Leeds, proving pivotal as the Whites kept only their 3rd clean sheet of the season. It was Phillips’ quality on the ball, however, that drew plenty of praise.

And so to Saturday afternoon, and to Goodison Park, as Leeds made their way down to Everton looking for their first top-flight win there since 1990. The late great Gary Speed bagged a goal that August weekend 30 years ago - Speedo is still so fondly remembered both at Leeds, Everton, and throughout the world of football, 9 years after his tragic passing - and the Whites hoped to reincarnate the spirit of Speedo on Saturday afternoon to take all 3 points back up to West Yorkshire.

The game winning goal came from Brazilian winger Raphinha, who’s summer transfer from Rennes for just £17 million is looking more and more astute with each match. But despite Raphinha’s dominance on both wings throughout the game, and resultant winning goal, Kalvin Phillips came away as Man of The Match - and rightly so.

Leeds dominated the game, and produced an xG of 3.37 - according to infogol - compared to Everton’s 1.49. From minute 1, Everton’s inability to pick-up Phillips in his deep-lying midfield position proved problematic, as the England international was allowed both time and space around the halfway line. Carlo Ancelotti’s double-pivot of Allan and Doucoure were constantly occupied by the advancing runs of Stuart Dallas and Mateusz Klich, whilst the Toffees front-line were kept busy by Leeds’ back 4. This allowed Phillips an almost entirely unchallenged role, and he was allowed to spray long balls out wide under zero pressure, as well as pinging short, vertical passes between the lines.

Defensively, Phillips’ presence in front of the Leeds’ back line is crucial beyond belief, and the numbers show it. The Whites conceded 8 goals in their 2 games against Leicester and Crystal Palace, with both opposition sides absorbing pressure before pouncing into a counter attack and catching Leeds desperately out of position. With Everton deploying the widely feared 3-4-3 formation, with a front three of Richarlison, James Rodriguez and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, concerns amongst Leeds fans were that territorial domination would lead to a repeat of previous defeats, as Everton’s pacey front line break onto an inexperienced Whites defence.

The difference was, however, the presence of that man Phillips. Having spent the last 2 and a bit years relentlessly developing his skillset as a Bielsa defensive midfielder, there is no one in this squad - or in the world - more finely tuned to position themselves where opposition forwards will sense vulnerability to counter. Phillips has almost single-handedly turned the Leeds defence from leaky new-boys to impenetrable fortress.

So that’s games against two of the biggest - though not currently the best - teams in the Premier League with Kalvin Phillips back. It’s no coincidence that Leeds have kept clean sheets in both. It’s also no coincidence that Phillips himself has both times dominated the middle of the park on the ball.

So it seems more certain than ever that Leeds are not Leeds without Phillips. One could argue that Phillips is not Phillips without Leeds. I think I can speak for us all when I say I’m just happy that the two can co-exist. A match made in heaven... or, just in Leeds.