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Marcelo Bielsa aside, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Leeds more popular than Kalvin Phillips at the moment.
It isn’t hard to see why. Coming off the back of a poor run of form that began in December with a 2-0 loss at home to Hull City, Leeds United had lost their place at the top of the Championship to Norwich City and were in danger of falling even further behind the pack with a tough away fixture to Middlesbrough.
When Lewis Wing put the home side up early in the second half, it looked as though the fabled ‘Bielsa burnout’ was kicking in early for Leeds.
But cometh the hour, cometh the academy graduate.
Eleven minutes into injury time, Phillips found himself in the box for a corner with a deflected header from Liam Cooper sending the ball in his direction. With little time to react, he put forehead to ball and saw it ricochet in off Darren Randolph into the Middlesbrough goal.
Another appearance midweek in a comfortable win against Swansea and the die was cast.
“I’d struggle at this stage to pick out a better holding midfielder in the Championship. At 23, Phillips has become a player who Leeds need to build their team around,” wrote former Leeds player and current Sky TV presenter Dave Prutton in a column in the Yorkshire Evening Post after the Middlesbrough game.
The irony of this situation is the only reason Phillips was on the pitch for those two games was that his teammate Adam Forshaw had picked up a knock against Norwich the week earlier. What was it that Paul McCartney said about Ringo Starr? “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles”?
The debate has rumbled on between fans across the season with the majority siding with Phillips over Forshaw. Crucially, though, the man who picks the team seems to favour the latter.
“Adam Forshaw plays very well as a number four,” the Argentine said in a press conference in January. “He is one of the best players of the team. As a matter of fact, against Stoke, he was the best player. Of course, this doesn’t mean Phillips won’t play as a number four again or Forshaw as a number eight because these are their positions.”
That Bielsa categorises the two according to two different positions is interesting. They certainly show up as different players when you consider their underlying numbers, with the caveat that 12 of Phillips’ 29 Championship appearances this season have been at centre back.
Both Phillips and Forshaw are proficient passers of the ball. In Bielsa’s system at Leeds, the ‘number four’, as he calls it, is expected to drop in behind the midfield to help out with the transition phase as the team looks to play the ball out from the back.
This is reflected in the overall passing stats. Both players are in the 90th percentile among Championship midfielders for accurate passes per 90 minutes with Forshaw (59.94) just shading Phillips (54.49). Yet of the two, Phillips actually makes more forward passes per 90 minutes (20.86) than his teammate (19.8) although. Once again it is close, though.
Where they start to become differentiated in passing statistics is when you compare their open play key passes per 90. Here, Forshaw streaks ahead, producing 1.26 as opposed to Phillips’ 0.44.
This suggests that, although Phillips is moving the ball forward slightly more than Forshaw in 90 minutes, Forshaw’s ball progression is much more effective than his teammate from an attacking point of view.
You might also think that, with Phillips being described as a ‘number four’ by Bielsa, that he is the more proficient defensive player of the two. Surprisingly, though, when it comes to tackling, Forshaw’s statistics are much better.
So far this season, he has made 3.33 tackles per 90 minutes, winning 1.95 of them. Phillips, on the other hand, is down at 2.2 tackles per 90 minutes with 1.16 of them being won.
Phillips is a better interceptor of the ball, however. He's made 1.46 interceptions per 90 minutes this season to Forshaw’s 0.86.
Looking at the data, then, it becomes clearer why Marcelo Bielsa might favour Forshaw over Phillips. Both players are very good defensive midfielders who fit well within his system. But with the Argentine bemoaning his team’s lack of goalscoring threat comparative to other teams in the Championship, it would seem logical to pick the more progressive of the two.
Of course, the common-sense solution to this conundrum might be to play both midfielders in their respective preferred positions. But until Bielsa feels comfortable doing that, Leeds fans should be quietly confident that their central midfield is so well accounted for.