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Marcelo Bielsa’s Degree of Separation to Tom Thibodeau

If you blame Bielsa for Kalvin’s injuries? It makes believing Phillips can stay on the pitch a viable option.

Leeds United v Reading - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

26 year old Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City in a deal both sides were happy with. Leeds United receive 45M pounds for a key player. Phillips, a talisman on the 19/20 side that secured promotion to the Premier League. We know what happens the next two seasons. Injured 155 days, 23 matches missed. Leeds scantily scurrying away from the relegation zone in the dying weeks of the 21/22 Premier League season. Manchester City are adding a talented cog into the Pep Machine, is what many would say. Kalvin Phillips plays on the England National Team alongside many City players. Phillips even has the same Agent as Jack Grealish. The transition from Leeds to Manchester should be easy on the personal front. The question about Phillips is not who he is as a human, but can he play a whole season without missing serious time?

Phillips’ “injury problem” should not be a worry for Manchester City fans. I would like to focus on the actions of his previous manager, Marcelo Bielsa. As an American fan of European football, I view the sport through a different lens than the average European football fan. The advantage I have is years of watching the plethora of sports the U.S. broadcasts; the 2011 NBA lockout, NFL players fighting for guaranteed money in contracts, or Bobby Bonilla signing a 25 year $1.19 million dollar deal with the NY Mets. American Sports Media has embraced money in sports. At least, more than the English media. Kalvin Phillips and his time at Leeds with Marcelo Bielsa makes me think of NBA Coach Tom Thibodeau.

Tom “Thibs” Thibodeau is a NBA manager currently coaching the New York Knicks. Thibodeau learned to coach from NBA legends like Bobby Knight, Jim Calhoun, and Hubie Brown. He worked as an Assistant under many brilliant NBA minds like Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers. Marcelo Biesla’s 4-1-4-1 formation nods to all time great minds and managers Johan Cruyff and Louis Van Gaal. Biesla created his own coaching style with his time at Newell’s and the Argentinian National team. Admittedly, the personalities of Tom and Marcelo are stark contrasts of each other. A voice like he uses gravel for mouthwash, you will never catch Tom Thibodeau smiling. Thibodeau is a “no nonsense” type of coach who teaches a slow, grinding, defense first style. On top of his playing style, he uses 7 or 8 of his 12 players available. Every game there are no breaks for these players. Thibodeau wants to make every possession count. On offense, his team holds onto the ball as long as possible making the other team’s defense work. On defense, the moment the opposing team steps into the half court, every passing lane is blocked, hands will be in your face, even players leaning on you. As the Assistant Coach, Thibodeau helped the Knicks have the #1 defense and break a record holding 33 consecutive opponents under 100 points in 1999.

In contrast, Bielsa, seemingly always smiling, bringing joy and a flair for theatrics to the game of football, brought a new look to Johan Cruyff’s classic system. He brings offensive dynamism to any team he manages. Bielsa’s influence on football should not be understated or overlooked. Bielsa embraces the offense, while Thibodeau embraces the defense. Both managers have similar expectations out of their players. The problem is not the tactics, the problem in both managers is how they manage their players. Thibodeau is known for his best players leading the league in minutes played per game. In the NBA, a team has 12 players on a game day squad. Games are 4 quarters at 12 minutes a quarter, giving a player 48 possible minutes to play. The league average per player is around 32 minutes a game. Thibodeau got his first coaching opportunity in 2010, coaching the Chicago Bulls. Hoping to bring the grit and success of the Jordan years back to the Windy City, the star players for the Chicago Bulls were Derrick Rose, Loul Deng, and Joakim Noah. In Thibadeau’s first season with the Bulls, their record was 50-12, he was named Coach of the Year, and he broke the record for most wins in a season as a First-Year Coach. Derrick Rose shocked the NBA by winning the MVP trophy. First round exit in the playoffs was the result of a first year that shattered all expectations. If you look at the Minutes Per Game (MPG), Thibodeau played his three stars during the Regular season and playoffs. Derrick Rose played 37.4MPG (40.6 in playoffs). Joakim Noah recovered from knee surgery and missed the first half of the season and played 32.8MPG (33.1 in playoffs). Loul Deng led the team with a knee buckling 39.1MPG (42.9 in playoffs). For the 2012 season Derrick Rose averaged 35MPG while missing 17 games due to injury. Rose tore his ACL in the first round of the 2012 Playoffs, missing the entire 2013 season. In 2014, he made a return only to tear his meniscus. Tom Thibodeau moved to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2016. The team was bad, but Zach LaVine was thought to be the future of the franchise. The previous year Zach LaVine, the second year player, averaged 28MPG. Under Thibodeau his minutes increased to 37.2MPG. The team was last in their division and failed to make the playoffs. During the Summer, Zach announced he needed surgery to repair a torn ACL. In 2020 Tom Thibodeau, now at The New York Knicks, played his two star players, Julius Randle and RJ Barret, who both led the team with 37MPG. Nagging injuries had both players miss 20 cumulative games this previous season.

Marcelo Bielsa took over Leeds United in 2018 from Paul Heckingbottom. Bielsa won his first 6 Championship games as Manager over Leeds, earning him August Championship Manager of The Month. In the 19/20 EFL season, Bielsa led Leeds United to be crowned the Champions of the Championship, earning them a promotion to the Premier League. The 2020 Premier League campaign for Leeds was Bielsea, Kalvin Phillips, and company exceeding expectations. Staying with the patented “Bielsa Ball’’ that was beloved by all, Leeds were becoming the Underdog story of choice for the media and were earning the attention by finishing the season in 9th place. The 2021-22 season for Leeds United almost ended in a Leeds relegation due to massive injuries to key players, Kalvin Phillips being one of those players. How unfortunate that a man who brought Leeds to the Promised Land has not had his chance to fully bask in footballing glory. We all understand that injuries happen. Modern research has shown that proper rest is needed. Tom Thibodeau is my US example of player mismanagement. Thibodeau’s choice to ignore the past led to repeating mistakes. In the 17/18 campaign for Leeds, Phillips played 3360 minutes in 44 games, 76.36 minutes a match. When Bielsa took over for the 18/19 season, Kalvin played 3863 minutes in 46 games, 83.97 minutes per match. Kalvin’s injuries started at the end of the PL Promotion 19/20 season, where he played all but the final 3 games, resulting in 3524 minutes in 40 games, a whooping 88 minutes a game! Leeds were 6 points clear of the 3rd placed team, making Phillips’ absence not a problem. We know Kalvin was not the only Leeds player smited by the injury gods. On February 8th, 2022 the injury list of Leeds United had 8 players listed, 5 of them being starting players, Phillips included. If we compare the Minutes Per Game of Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City’s Rodrigo Hernández Cascante, or as we lovingly know him as Rodri, it should highlight how ill advised Bielsa was in playing Phillips as often as he did. In the last 3 years under Pep Guardiola, Rodri averaged 71MPG in 2019, 67MPG in 2020, and 85MPG in 2021. Last season Manchester City played cool and loose with Starting XI sides during the second half of the season. Rodri had little choice in playing those minutes. His backup, Fernandinho had to play as a defender at the end of the season. Rodri, at his highest usage rate, did not match the workload given to Kalvin Phillips.

It’d be silly to believe Kalvin will be managed the same way in Manchester as he was in West Yorkshire. Bielsa’s football philosophy is the embodiment of hot jazz, where Pep’s could be more described as contemporary classical. Kalvin does need rest, much like many of Manchester City’s players, but rest is not coming as pre-season is under way after multiple FIFA sanctioned competitions and an upcoming World Cup in the winter. Will Pep learn after being freshly removed from an injury plagued season. Is a large contingency of Kalvin’s ability to stay on the pitch time management? Manchester City fans know not to expect incoming players to start and succeed immediately. He may be seen more on the practice pitch or Manchester City’s social media page than playing next to Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne. You should think Kalvin came to the right medical staff under the perfect manager. Now, all there is to do is enjoy his play on the pitch in Manchester Blue.