Leeds solved their previous attacking midfield issue with the signing of Rodrigo last summer. However, the Whites now have a new challenge: finding cover for star man Kalvin Phillips.
The “Phillips cover” conundrumEmbed from Getty Images
Time and again, when Leeds United are missing Kalvin Phillips, Bielsa has to make a series of “square peg in round hole” changes to field a team. In the Championship, this was fine. Leeds were comfortably good enough to still out-class teams with these changes. However, the Whites’ opening day 5-1 defeat to bitter rivals Manchester United really did display that Bielsa may have to bite the bullet this season and bring in more depth.
Kalvin Phillips plays an extremely niche role for Leeds. A role that they always struggle to provide cover in. Pascal Struijk was used there sporadically last season, but you could easily see he isn’t a midfield player. He wasn’t offering the pass as Phillips does. Jamie Shackleton played there against Aston Villa, where he seemed to play well. However, this was more due to the team’s performance in that fixture. Shackleton looked out of his depth there against Wolves the following week.
Who do Leeds try there next? Mateusz Klich. Klich played here with limited success in Leeds’ 2019-20 Championship campaign. But again, Klich is a number 8/10, and offers little defensively, other than the odd tactical foul.Embed from Getty Images
Towards the end of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, Robin Koch slotted into the deep midfield role in Phillips’ absence. He showed promise in the position when Leeds beat Tottenham 3-1 convincingly. He kept the opposing midfield under control and played a peach of a pass through to Raphinha for Leeds’ 3rd goal. However, in Leeds’ opening game, he was tasked with marking Bruno Fernandes. Yes, he’s the one who scored a hattrick. This was largely due to the midfield set-up. Rodrigo and Klich were the more offensive midfielders, Koch was often tasked with stopping Pogba, Fernandes and McTominay. This had him looking like a Rabbit in headlights, as it would with anyone given the quality of that team.
Leeds have spent very little in this transfer window compared to their Premier League counterparts. A Combined £26 million on new signing Junior Firpo, the permanent signing of three-time loanee Jack Harrison, and young backup goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson.
Furthermore, Leeds have been linked with a move for Huddersfield Town’s Lewis O’Brien. A good, young, hard-working midfielder. I have no doubt that this would prove to be a fantastic signing in the long run. However, Phillips is now firmly in the England fold in terms of selection. He is Leeds’ star player, so will be starting as soon as Bielsa deems him fit enough to start. He will need a break, and Leeds need a player that is already able to slot into this role.
Leeds cannot look at another ball-playing defender, who can play there when called upon. They already have that in Koch and Llorente. They need a player who is a defensive midfielder by trade. A player who can perhaps play elsewhere, but primarily plays in that role. Or, as an alternative, a player who is primarily a central midfielder, who can play deeper. Leeds really lack a player there who can create like Phillips can, and who can stick to a man like Phillips can.
A few names spring to mind.
Yangel Herrera – The pragmatic optionEmbed from Getty Images
Manchester City’s Yangel Herrera spent his last season on loan at Granada CF. He is a central midfielder with an admirable work rate, who loves a tackle and at times has played in that deeper role. He is still at Manchester City, and with no clear route into the first team, it looks like he could be on the move. Leeds are reportedly interested, and City also reportedly would sell the player for around £20 million according to GOL Digital. Leeds could easily offer the player regular game time as improvement is needed in the number 8 position regardless. This could see Mateusz Klich and utility man Stuart Dallas dropped to the bench, with one of them slotting into that box to box role in the absence of Phillips, so Herrera can play deeper. This would probably be the best option as Bielsa rates versatility and work rate very highly when it comes to recruitment.
Teun Koopmeiners – The specialistEmbed from Getty Images
Another option Leeds could pursue is AZ Alkmaar’s Teun Koopmeiners. Primarily a defensive midfielder, Koopmeiners can also operate as a centre-back, or in central midfield. He is a Dutch international. On opening day in the Eredivisie 2021-22 season, he produced a particularly notable performance. Manager Pascal Jansen brought Teun off the bench in the 60th minute, after resting him following a deep European Championship run. He won 100% of his ground duels, only lost one ariel duel, and created a clear cut chance in that time. He accurately placed 8/10 attempted long balls. This spells out Kalvin Phillips’ game in a nutshell. AZ reportedly value the midfielder at €20m. Leeds desperately need someone for this role. The only issue they may face here is if Koopmeiners is wanting to be a guaranteed starter. This is something United could offer Yangel Herrera more easily than they could for Koopmeiners.
Jorman Campuzano – The left field optionEmbed from Getty Images
Jorman Campuzano is a 25 year-old Colombian international who plays for Boca Juniors in the Argentinian Primera División. The player lacks experience playing in Europe’s top leagues. However, this could prove beneficial for Leeds. Especially given it would mean they wouldn’t have to give a guaranteed starting place. So far in the 2021 season, Campuzano has managed an average of 3.5 interceptions and 4 tackles per game. Those numbers sound familiar, don’t they? Boca often play a 4-3-3 formation where the midfielder operates as a single pivot, much like Phillips. He only has a market value of £2.7 million according to Transfermarkt, so Leeds could pick him up at a bargain price.
To conclude, I think the only realistic way out of this pickle is in the transfer market. If Leeds invest in a backup in this position, it will relieve a lot of pressure that Kalvin Phillips currently shoulders, and mean that in his absence, Leeds may pick up a better record than their current 2 wins in 9 games without him.