Kalvin Phillips: The ‘Yorkshire Pirlo' shines for England after questionable team selection

The Leeds United midfielder was a bright spark in the centre of the pitch, and it was fitting that he assisted Raheem Sterling's lone goal of the evening.

Kalvin Phillips celebrates after England's opening match at Euro 2020; Cedit: [email protected]

Kalvin Phillips, who was not even playing in the top tier of English football at the start of 2020, being a part of the national team in a major tournament and starring in their first match, is nothing short of a fairytale run. He was tenacious and energetic, demonstrating his quality by assisting Raheem Sterling for the only goal of the match. With the pre-match talks filled with head coach Gareth Southgate’s peculiar team selection, Philips’ sparkling performance might bring the limelight back on the pitch. His midfield partnership with Declan Rice helped England control the tempo of the game well against Croatia.

He was playing in the second tier at the start of last year. It goes without saying that the midfielder was not in the reckoning for a starting berth with the Three Lions. Things changed midway through the coronavirus affected year when Leeds United secured their promotion to the Premier League. It was the beginning of a dream run for Phillips. He quickly established himself as an important member of a fearless Leeds team that was not afraid to take on the league’s heavyweights.

Their fabulous season culminated with a top half (ninth) finish and Phillips’ eye-catching performances with the club, did not go unnoticed. The 25-year-old midfielder, who made his international debut on 8 September 2020 against Denmark in the UEFA Nations League, appears to have found his place in the national team.

A new role

Phillips, called the “Yorkshire Pirlo” by Leeds fans, expectedly started alongside Rice in their opening match of Euro 2020. With Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson still not at his 100% in terms of fitness, the 25-year-old was touted to partner Rice. However, he did not play in his usual deep-lying position. Rice sat behind in his normal holding position, while Kalvin assumed the role of a box-to-box midfielder. It is not the position he plays for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds.

Phillips began his career as a box-to-box or central midfielder, but Bielsa converted him to a defensive midfielder before the start of the 2018-19 season. He is known for his short sharp passing range, long ball distribution, and ability to start attacks from the back without compromising on his defensive duties.

Kalvin can smell the danger well as he takes up good positions in the defensive third, most often to cover the spaces left vacant by their overlapping full-backs. He is good at intercepting passes, closing down the opponents and winning the ball back from an opposing player. His defensive ability also convinced Bielsa to play him as a centre-back at times.

A stellar performance

On Sunday, Southgate made him play in the position he used to play in his early footballing days. The positional tweak did not have an effect on his performance as Phillips was England’s best player on the night. His first 20 minutes saw him recover possession high up the pitch, sneak into dangerous areas, and contribute to England’s attacking play on a regular basis. 

Despite the fact that it was not Phillips’ usual position, the 25-year-old, who was stationed alongside Declan Rice, appeared to be a natural fit for the role. He provided great balance in the midfield and provided the right spark. It was fitting that Kalvin was heavily involved in the only goal of the match. Phillips skipped past a couple of challenges before reversing a pass into the path of Sterling, who scored England’s first goal of the tournament.

“Kalvin is a fabulous boy to work with. So unassuming and I thought his performance was outstanding. Two passes behind the defence in the first half were top level and the contribution for the goal summed his day up,” Southgate said after the match.

“We know that we are asking him to play in a slightly more advanced position than he plays for his club. But we know he’s got the technique to do that. He gives us a bit more solidity in midfield and allows us to effectively play four attacking players with Mason in midfield as well.”

Questionable team selection

Southgate started right-back Trippier on the left of a back four despite having Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell in his squad. The Atletico Madrid full-back was playing next to Tyrone Mings, who was making his debut appearance at a major tournament. The decision raised a few eyebrows as both Shaw and Chilwell had an exceptional domestic season with Manchester United and Chelsea.

Southgate told BBC Radio 5Live about his decision to play Trippier on the left, “We felt that his talking across the backline and his ability to get out and stop crosses quickly and his experience on a day like today – alongside Tyrone Mings, who is relatively early in his international career – would be a good stabilising element.”

Since England had won the match, not many might question the decision now, but the same cannot be said about the future. Another surprising decision was to see Sterling start ahead of in-form Marcus Rashford. However, Sterling, who had a mixed season for Manchester City, ended up rewarding his manager for his faith in him by scoring the game’s lone goal. Had Sterling not scored, Southgate might have been bombarded with more questions about his inclusion in the starting line-up. But, for the time being, Southgate can leave the stadium with a big smile!

Karthik Raman

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