“One Short, One Deep” — A look at the singularity of Kalvin Phillips & the tactical significance of Mateusz Klich to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United.

“Since QPR he’s had two very important performances, against West Brom and this one — when he plays well the level of the team increases greatly.”

Leeds United Manager Marcelo Bielsa on Kalvin Phillips, Pre-Reading FC (Away)

In the wake of such succinct, yet equally emphatic praise from Marcelo Bielsa. Duly followed by then being named in the Championship 2018–19 Team of the Season, it would be tempting to pursue a binary narrative of Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips having “turned a corner” or now being a more “matured new player” as the cliche goes, to try and help underpin the strength of this piece.

Having been subbed off before the half-hour mark earlier in the season against Swansea away from home (& again in a 1st half for non-injury related reasons at home against Birmingham City). The story would flow perfectly with respect to a growing role, and an enhanced importance in the eyes of his manager.

However, truth be told Phillips has always been a vital player to Marcelo Bielsa’s Master Plan. Moreover one who is crucial towards the strength of the principals he likes to employ as well.

So much so that it was already way back in August. Prior to a home match against Rotherham, that the Argentine tactician exalted the young midfielder’s virtues, in again an unashamedly concrete fashion:

“He’s a player who plays simple. He is good from a defensive point of view. He has a very good long pass, he has a good orientation of the game, he’s very good to get the ball from one space and put it into a better space.”

Although over and above even the technical-tactical virtues, Bielsa was (albeit perhaps not by his exceptional standards) also uncommonly sincere about Kalvin Phillips’ singular importance within what is a competitively constructed Leeds squad overall.

In his managers own words, Phillips’ ability to be that “3rd defender”, both with and without the ball, has proven to be crucial to the team in a variety way’s.

[N.B: My personal focus on this occasion though, will be centred on the attacking context.]

For starters; Kalvin Phillips’ singularity is something that has been evident to see by on the one hand how he has adapted his position, in relation to how the opponents have lined up in attack/pressed the Leeds defence.

Perhaps the most common of which, has been reflected as per Bielsa’s suggestion in how as an accomplished midfield lynch-pin. Phillips has still been able to drop effortlessly into the back. Giving his team an invaluable 3rd Defensive Man support when playing out from defence, yet in the most natural of manners in terms of alternating positions.

The instant assessment from the footage would be to conclude that aside from showcasing the on the ball (attacking) qualities previously declared. Phillips dropping deeper gives Leeds a perceivable Numerical Superiority when playing out. This for the most part would be factually correct — but still only a partial explanation.

Made conventionally famous by Bielsa’s compatriot Ricardo La Volpe. The “Salida La Volpiana” as it has been christened, was originally intended as a workaround for the demands of when teams pressed a defence with more than one of their forwards.

The initial idea was of course to create a 2 vs. 1 in the team on the balls favour, while still allowing both full-backs the licence to stay in advanced positions. Equally when shifting the ball from side to side, this approach contributes to the coverage across the back-line being more fluid.

Within the “Bielsaball” idea, the latter point takes on greater significance, as the team actually employs said circulation of the ball primarily to create a flat line of opponents in-front of them.

Ergo, this would look like the occasions when two or more players arrive at the same level of play on the pitch. Bielsa himself has referred to these in the past as “Gates”. With the intended benefit being that a straight, and when from the back — vertical pass, eliminates two or more opponents + give his side the ball behind one of the lines of play as well.

The Evolution to the Revolution

Marcelo Bielsa though, is not one who wants his sides to play on the back-foot. His well-known predilection to adopt differing tactics (within his markedly pronounced strategy) to improve the quality of his sides play when in possession is evidently reflected through his team on the pitch.

A reason why in part Kalvin Phillips having played previously in advanced role earlier in his career, would have appealed so much to his manager.

Concurrently, when analysing Leeds’s games this season, the pattern has been to progressively see that as the season has gone on, the tendency has been for teams to not press them as high in the build-up, or as much… Or at least as vigorously, as they did at the start of the campaign!

This in turn has impacted on how they have decided to build the play/where they like to attract the opposing players. Then factoring in Gianni Alioski’s subsequent introduction at Left Back, have all combined to see Phillips take a somewhat more pronounced position. One that his manager would in all likelihood notionally prefer — ahead of the defensive line and receiving the ball behind the opposition forwards.

The key as demonstrated by the video, especially in the clip against West Bromwich Albion, is how Phillips situates himself behind the initial press/at the midfield level, so he can then also influence the opponent’s forward(s) location.

This invariably leads to a notional cue, which engages the adapted, and nowadays more frequent notional back 3 in the build-up of: Luke Ayling dropping back, alongside Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper. To take the initiative of shifting their side up the pitch, by way of one of said defenders generating the progression.

Either by driving forward with the ball at their feet and looking to break lines this way. Or alternatively, with an early pass into preferably an inside channel when possible. If not, then instead via the well-known diagonal switch of play to the opponent’s weaker side. (“Overloading to Isolate”.)

Therefore, while in Phillips’ positional modification spending greater time ahead of the defence, some may (again) see an evolution to the much-touted early stages of the Bielsa Revolution at Leeds. As alluded to, it is in truth just as much a part of a simply an unheralded example of tactical flexibility, in the shape of one the favoured components of the Marcelo Bielsa brand of football.

So much so, that it sits directly alongside some of the most versed examples, from the now fabled coaching idiosyncrasy.

The “How” behind that footballing “What” and “Why”

Famous for his training primarily consisting of repetition, of high intensity movements and focus on explosive, intense, Pre-directed actions. The prized Analytical Method as it’s known in certain circles, and specifically the unopposed nature of it, is not always to the liking of all in the coaching community. But it is in all certainty the default method of choice that “El Loco” uses to indoctrinate specific patterns into his players Working Memory.

Not to mention also it’s also the one that Marcelo Bielsa has utilised to educate the player in the defensive pivot (“№6”) position — as evidenced on the training ground in a great many, if not to say all of his previous coaching stints.

One of the most interesting things to take note from the various seemingly similar, yet subtly different drills. Is the position of the stacks/mannequins, and the player practicing the Pivot location and his movement in relation to these. (Acting as a form of educating the players in the importance and recognition of Spatial Relationships also.)

The intention is that said “dummies” replicate different formations the opposition will set up in. With the variations of the player movements designed to factor in for the predicted level and type of press.

By rehearsing these combinations, such as say in the last few examples; receiving on the blind-side of the opposition, albeit starting the run from the level of their midfield. There are clear cues for the players, that Bielsa expects to firmly embed so they are subsequently recognised as quickly, and as efficiently as possible within the game.

A Deadly Duo — The Key of Rotating to Interchange

With a more advanced position, Phillips has in turn also had to adjust to a set of different specific movements. In this respect Marcelo Bielsa’s famous “Rotations & Interchanges” come into play in the midfield area as well.

It’s here where the ability of Mateusz Klich in particular, has been essential to both his teammate(s) and the flow of the high-paced Leeds game overall.

The “Mixed-Midfielder” is, as Bielsa himself has stated an almost innumerable amount of times, what he believes to be the most difficult role in football (& undoubtedly so within one of his sides!).

Therefore, the serendipitous manner that the Poland International remained in the squad this season aside. His tactical value, and duties within the team have been hugely valued and clearly proclaimed by his manager:

“He has to know how to attack and defend, on both sides of the field and in the middle too.

Some players attack like Klich, some players defend like him, some players make movements to be free like him and some can play on both sides of the pitch. We have a lot of players who can do these different things — but to find all of these things together in the same player is so difficult.”

Leeds United Manager Marcelo Bielsa on Mateusz Klich, Pre-Millwall FC (Home)

Coincidentally as well for the purpose of brevity in this piece, there has already earlier in the campaign been some top coverage on Klich, and his own considerable individual relevance to the team as whole — Via an@lufcblog_ article back in January.

To build upon this though, alongside Kalvin Phillips especially — and notwithstanding the Championship’s best player this season: Pablo Hernández, Klich’s versatility to affect the length and breadth of the pitch has been indispensable to get the best out of the dubbed “One Short, One Deep” tactic.

The move that ended with the second goal versus Swansea at home for Leeds, is for my money, one of the better examples of the impact Mateusz Klich has in motivating the overall interchanges ahead of him. Even if arguably the outstanding allegorical example in relation to Phillips — Klich duo in particular, can be found in their game against Bristol City away

Nonetheless, when specifically looking at how this directly translates in the attacking the rotations, the Swansea example provides a broader picture of the synchronisation that’s attempted as a team unit. Again, to provide a methodological example of how this can potentially be engendered, we can once more refer to some of Bielsa’s previous coaching.

The eye-catching element to this, for me is how coordinated the movements are. To the point that the rotations are almost choreographed, for want of a better term. With commands being shouted in terms of what (Positional Number) movements need to take place!

The above is an example more relating to the initial building phase. With Bielsa’s time in Chile allowing us to take a look at more vertical focused, movement patterns he employs to interchange and break the opposition lines in a coordinated fashion.

(Overall it would be fair to say it’s eminently well known by now on the social media scene, in terms of the ease in finding the clear similarities showcasing how said coaching style has the influenced the team — in terms of parallels with some of his previous sides.)

When looking at all 3 examples of Bielsa’s coaching, one thing that is consistent throughout is the desire to ensure continuous movement, to underpin the indispensable rotation. Allied of course to a predilection to play through the thirds as much as feasible, and without need of the opposing teams complicity to do so.

At this point, I think it’s important to note when considering the methodology, that not All (coaching) Roads Lead to Rome.

A disclaimer of sorts would be to forewarn that when embracing Marcelo Bielsa’s style, it must be understood it requires an exceptional amount of detail, timing, dedication and concentration combined from coaches and players.

It is similarly paramount to make the distinction, as Bielsa has himself a great many times in the past, that the idea is not as is often purported to “Mechanize” certain conducts. After all his footballing ideology places a distinct value in improvising in the final third.

But instead to influence those under his tutelage in a structured/rehearsed imitation of solutions the game provides, yet is not always consciously reflected upon by the vast majority of (that Bielsa calls “normal”) players.

If with this in mind, you as an individual are keen to discover more of this school of coaching method. Then in my opinion one of the most relevant sources in this scenario would be @Tiki_TakaLeeds.

There are though, to reiterate, other equally valid ways a coach could try to engage a loosely comparable style of play. Ones that go down a path that tends to for example “Front Load Cognition” more. The key in my opinion (without wanting to excessively pontificate any further) as is the case with much in football, is finding a healthy blend that resonates, and at the same time can be forged into a cohesive strategy.

Nevertheless, irrespective of the selected method of choice, in conclusion the goal for any team would surely be for an outcome fomenting a playing behaviour that is consistent — which Bielsa’s Leeds have to an extent, enjoyed throughout the season. In terms of enhancing and at the same time sustaining their style.

Within that, the player’s qualities have in equal measure grown (in confidence) as the season itself has progressed. In that their individual ability of: Messrs Phillips, Klich et al, has helped provide and moreover *sustain* a platform for at times some of the best football in the country.

“I’ve finally accepted myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hand’s outstretched… & when it happens, I give thanks for it!”