There have been plenty of great debates among football supporters, from Pele versus Maradona to Messi versus Ronaldo. However, the latest debate to spread from south to north in England is admittedly not a question of who is the greatest of all time, no matter how much Leeds fans adore Kalvin Phillips and West Ham fans love Declan Rice.
But when supporters question who England’s best holding midfielder is, the pair - who will be on opposing sides tonight - are considered above all others. With both already receiving regular national call-ups, now is the perfect time to put forward as definitive an answer as possible.
Leeds United have been a marvel to watch since their promotion to the top flight, standing by their free-flowing, attacking brand of football regardless of the scoreline. West Ham United, meanwhile, have utilised a more structured approach to the new campaign, and their switch to the 3-4-3 formation now sees them occupying a healthy top-half position.
Phillips and Rice have had key roles to play in their respective sides, and much of the clubs’ successes so far this season are a result of their excellence in the vastly different systems. Since they are both vying to become first team regulars at international level, Gareth Southgate himself is likely among those working out who is better.
As Phillips has contended with injury this season, he has played eight games and wracked up 720 minutes to Rice’s 11 games and 990 minutes. Subsequently, the statistics below are shown at a 90 minute average, covering defensive and distributive qualities.
No matter how well they pass, a central defensive midfielder needs to do what it says on the tin: defend. The different roles Phillips and Rice play in their respective teams need to be taken into account.
While Phillips sits as the lone holding midfielder, often dropping in between the two centre-backs behind him if necessary, Rice plays in front of a three-man backline, and is required to cover plenty of ground as well as shield the defenders.
Leeds’ attacking intent compared to West Ham’s somewhat more conservative approach is also likely to impact certain statistics.
The numbers here lean decisively in favour of the Yorkshire Pirlo, who boasts a tackle success rate of 68 percent compared to Rice’s 56%. Indeed, the Leeds midfielder has completed more tackles every 90 minutes than his West Ham counterpart attempts in the same timeframe.
This is impressive given that the Whites sit third in the average possession table, keeping 59.7 percent of the ball on average compared to the Hammers, who - with an average possession of 40.2 percent - sit third-bottom.
In fairness, though, Bielsa’s side work tirelessly to win back possession, and have won 235 tackles in total so far this season compared to West Ham’s 154. Something else to keep in mind here is that West Ham have completed more passes in the opposition half (1,707) than they have in their own half (1,680).
Phillips’ ground duel success rate stands at 56.67 percent, while Rice’s sits at 50 percent. Ground duels are far more common for the Peacocks, who have contested 894 in total this season, while tonight’s visitors have contested 700. This difference is less significant between the individual players, though; Phillips has contested 75 to Rice’s 68.
Again, this is likely due to Leeds’ tendency to constantly press the opposition, while East London outfit prefer to sit back and hit their opponents on the counter-attack. Along with Rice’s tackling stats, this suggests that the Chelsea academy product’s role in the West Ham team is less physical than Phillips’ job at Elland Road.
Predictably, aerial duels favour Leeds’ opponents; although Phillips (31.58 percent success rate) has contended for slightly more of them, Rice has a much better success rate of 45.83 percent. This foreshadows one of the major problems the Yorkshire side will face this evening. Only Leicester have conceded more goals from set pieces (5) than them this season, while West Ham have scored the same number of goals from such situations.
Defensively, Rice is the more prominent aerial challenger, standing at 1.85 metres, but in truth is not among the players at the London Stadium who contend for the most duels in the air - similarly to Phillips at Leeds.
Clearances, blocks & interceptions
While not as productive in the tacking or ground duelling departments, Rice is still delivering the numbers in other defensive areas. The pair are almost even on clearances and blocks, but the West Ham midfielder has completed 14 more interceptions this season than Phillips.
This is a defensive action that Rice has excelled at this season; only four players in the division have made more interceptions per 90 minutes. It is interesting that, despite Phillips enjoying more success with tackles, ground duels and overall pitch coverage (as implied by the heatmaps below), his 21-year-old counterpart has swept up opposition passes on a more regular basis.
To be England’s best holding midfielder, you cannot solely rely on your defensive abilities. Having the distributive skills to dictate the tempo of matches is also a highly valuable asset, and something that England have missed in recent international tournaments.
- Phillips’ and Rice’s long and short passes per 90 minutes so far this season. Josh Ramsbottom (stats: Squawka)
- Phillips’ and Rice’s passes in the opposition’s half and their own half per 90 minutes so far this season. Josh Ramsbottom (stats: Squawka)
- Direction of Phillips’ and Rice’s passes per 90 minutes so far this season. Josh Ramsbottom (stats: Squawka)
Although Phillips has attempted and completed more passes in the average game, Rice boasts the best overall passing accuracy with 87.2 percent to the Yorkshire Pirlo’s 85.63 percent, perhaps a result of Rice taking less risks with his distribution due to West Ham’s style of play.
The pair are practically inseparable in their short passing game, but Phillips breaks away when it comes to long balls, something which does not come as much of a surprise. Attempting 35 more long passes than Rice in three fewer games, the Leeds midfielder’s role under Bielsa is plain to see. He also boasts a 64.29 percent success rate in this category, compared to Rice’s long pass accuracy of 61.22 percent.
To his credit, Rice has completed the majority of his passes in the opposition half, highlighting his importance in the West Ham side as more of a roaming midfielder compared to Phillips at Leeds.
In terms of the direction of their passing, the Whites maestro was criticised on social media while on international duty for passing the ball sideways too often, and although he makes slightly more forward passes on average than Rice, he also admittedly makes a much larger proportion of sideways passes.
This is likely due to the passing lanes Leeds utilise, which heavily involve the full backs and wingers, while players in central areas spend more time finding and creating space for potential goalscoring opportunities.
Assists and chances created
Although Chelsea fully deserved their comfortable victory over Leeds last weekend, there were still positives for the Whites to take away, and one of them was Phillips’ second assist of the season.
His first - which led to the Peacocks’ maiden goal back in the top-flight via Jack Harrison - was exquisite, but his second arguably trumped it. A perfectly weighted long ball from the halfway line had just enough pace on it to give Patrick Bamford the perfect opportunity to take the ball around the goalkeeper and pass it into an open goal.
Kalvin Phillips’ assist for Bamford’s goal >>>>>pic.twitter.com/h62KOov98T— (@F1avs) December 5, 2020
Phillips is undoubtedly the more dangerous player when it comes to creating chances; indeed, he creates just short of two per 90 minutes, almost double the number Rice is currently producing.
This, of course, comes down to their respective roles at their clubs. While Phillips is primarily a defensive player, he still has an important role to play going forward, and his range of passing is one of the deadliest tools Bielsa possesses at Elland Road. Rice, who completes far fewer long balls, is more focused on his defensive duties than creating opportunities further up the field.
Defensively, it is difficult to separate players who each offer something different. While Phillips wins more tackles and ground duels, Rice wins more balls in the air and registers more interceptions. In a strange way, they compliment each other, but Gareth Southgate has done more than enough to ensure England fans that a double-pivot may not be the way forward.
They both deliver promising numbers in their defensive duties, and in this regard they are practically equals; it is difficult to come to any other conclusion without digging far deeper into match analysis and statistics.
Kalvin Phillips on Rice:— West Ham News (@WHUFC_News) December 8, 2020
“Declan’s obviously a very good player. He is younger than me as well. He has got a lot of experience in the Premier League, as I have not. For him to be playing for England so young is unbelievable for him. It’s very good for him.” pic.twitter.com/vS6aRbtftE
Distribution is where the difference lies, and while Rice is more than capable of doing the simple stuff, Phillips is the player you want if you are looking for the more adventurous passer of the ball to inhabit the holding midfield position.
The West Ham midfielder may boast the better overall success rate, but Phillips is completing more passes per game, and poses more of a threat with his greater range of distribution. Both are capable of crossfield passes, but the Yorkshire Pirlo earned his nickname because he does it more often.
Rice is undoubtedly a solid defensive option, and is more than sound regarding his distribution, but Phillips is the more rounded player, perhaps due to his origins as a box-to-box midfielder.
So, if England are 1-0 up and looking to hold on for the final ten minutes, Rice is arguably just as suitable as Phillips for putting in a solid defensive shift in midfield. But if England want to score goals, regardless of the scoreline, then the choice becomes simpler.
What is your prediction for tonight’s match between Leeds and West Ham?
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West Ham win
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