England boss could learn from Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United advice after Kalvin Phillips injury

By Joe Donnohue

The international break evokes a unique footballing tedium in plenty of spectators, but especially those of a Leeds United persuasion.

For obvious reasons, many United supporters are also England fans and following this summer's European Championships, saw their love for the national team rekindled, largely due to the side's success and a certain individual: Kalvin Phillips.

But, England as an international footballing entity are often viewed as stuffy, reserved and regimented; everything Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds are not.

Nevertheless, a team which feels younger, more diverse and unshackled from inter-club politics has been able to deliver some of the finest and - to a point - successful football the English national team has ever seen.

A first major men's tournament final for over half a century in July was evidence of that, but during this October's international break, even the slightest hiccup against Hungary has some questioning the method and the process, still.

Gareth Southgate's side toiled to a 1-1 draw with the Hungarians at Wembley Stadium, the first time England have failed to win a home qualifying fixture - Nations' League aside - since 2012.

There are obvious conclusions to be drawn: Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane's form, a post-Euros hangover and a slight tactical tweak could all be reasons why England appeared more turgid than usual.

Kalvin Phillips' absence is one factor which Leeds United fans in particular drew attention to yesterday evening.

The England midfielder withdrew from this month's camp due to a minor injury but is not expected to be ruled out for this weekend's Premier League fixture with Southampton.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say the 17-cap international's absence was certainly felt as England lacked bite and the freedom to commit multiple bodies forward; Kyle Walker in particular making up a back three at times instead of mirroring Luke Shaw's marauding runs on the opposite flank.

Much in the same way that Phillips launches Leeds attacks with his secure and organised positioning, that also applies to England.

Phillips' ability to cover space with his outstanding work-rate is one which mitigates the need for a more reserved approach.

Despite popular opinion which dictates England are too boring when starting both Declan Rice and Phillips, it is hard to argue with the fact that the side reached a first major final in 55 years with both in midfield.

Similarly, it is hard to argue with the statistics either: England have kept 11 clean sheets in Phillips' 17 caps, and did not concede a single goal from open play during the entirety of EURO 2020.

Admittedly, last night's concession to Hungary was from the penalty spot, but the point stands: England are better with Kalvin Phillips.

Kalvin Phillips applauds the Leeds United fans (Marc Atkins)

Marcelo Bielsa spoke in a recent press conference about Leeds' defence which has faltered at the beginning of the 2021/22 season.

The Argentine believes his side attack better when the team's structure is founded upon a more disciplined defence.

"We attack of course but it's not a product of our attacking that we are defending poorly," he told journalists ahead of the team's first win of the season at home to Watford.

"I would say the total opposite: when we don't manage to attack, that is when we defend worse."

When this crop of England players struggles to compete physically and defensively - areas in which Phillips excels - their attack suffers; they find it more difficult to build moves and dominate the thirds.

This is something of an inverse reality to Leeds and Bielsa's comments about his own team.

At Wembley on Tuesday night, Hungary completed twice as many tackles as England, according to FBRef.com.

While tackling data is not the best barometer of success - mainly because more tackles usually signifies a team has forfeited the ball to their opponent more often - there are differences to the 4-0 victory in Budapest last month.

Namely, Kalvin Phillips started and completed more tackles than any other player on the pitch. His four were two shy of the Hungarian team's total of six.

He may not possess the flair, style, goalscoring prowess or individual match-winning ability of a Phil Foden, Harry Kane or Jack Grealish but it is unavoidable the impact Phillips has on one of the most talented England teams in living memory.

This month, there was little Gareth Southgate could do to mitigate for Phillips' absence.

However, it has been a quirk of his time at Leeds under Bielsa that his value increases more when he does not feature, compared to when he does.

Despite not kicking a ball for his country throughout October, the 25-year-old's importance to the Three Lions has only become clearer.


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