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England unlock another side to Phillips

Having excelled in a defensive role for three years under Marcelo Bielsa, England showed that Phillips hasn’t lost his box-to-box instincts.

England v Croatia - UEFA Euro 2020: Group D
Phillips shone in an advanced role as he assisted England’s winning goal in their opening game of the European Championships.
Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images

Last October I questioned whether England were wasting Kalvin Phillips, blaming his ventures forward on Gareth Southgate fielding so many defensive options including a holding midfield partner that restricted his overall freedom on the pitch. However, just as many of the Yorkshire Pirlo’s critics have in the last day, I too must put my hands up and admit I could not see the bigger picture.

While Marcelo Bielsa saw something in Phillips that no one had before, transforming him into a defensive midfield marshal, Southgate saw something more useful to England in Phillips’ pre-Bielsa role as a box-to-box midfielder. And while the Leeds United academy product struggled to define himself under various managers at Elland Road, Southgate has ultimately been successful in cementing Phillips’ specific role within the England squad over the last eight months.

The Three Lions boss has previously been criticised for utilising a double-pivot, but its purpose became clear in their 1-0 win over Croatia yesterday afternoon. West Ham United’s Declan Rice took on the defensive role, providing an extra layer of defensive solidity by guarding the back line. Phillips, meanwhile, ventured further forward and looked to create opportunities for others as well as putting pressure on the opponents’ world class midfield.

Supporters voiced their frustration when Aston Villa star Jack Grealish was left on the bench - a player who can make something happen from nothing. But, to the surprise of many, Phillips took it upon himself to shake things up when play became static. Whether it be a well-placed long ball, one of his many runs off the ball between the centre-back and left-back, or his excellent dribble and through ball that assisted the winning goal, memories of fans slating the 25-year-old for passing backwards were all but forgotten by his critics.

Having registered an expected assists total of 0.14 per match over the last Premier League season, he recorded an xA of 0.4 across 90 minutes yesterday. A similar boost in attempted and successful dribbles was also achieved by Phillips, who completed two out of three against Croatia as opposed to completing 0.63 out of 0.96 attempted dribbles per 90 in the top flight.

Despite a markedly more offensive display compared to his standard duties at Elland Road, Phillips continued to be a menace in challenging for the ball high up the pitch. His five attempted tackles helped to disrupt the likes of Luka Modric in possession, while he also contributed with a block and an interception. It comes as little surprise, then, that the Leeds midfielder earned praise from tough tacklers in Michael Ballack and Nigel de Jong as well as the iconic playmaker Mesut Ozil on social media yesterday.

Phillips’ man-of-the-match display has allowed all of us to cross bridges; Leeds fans will be more understanding when the Yorkshire Pirlo features higher up the pitch, and will not be so quick to bemoan Southgate’s decision to field him in what appears to be a double pivot. Equally, opposition fans will begin to expect to see Phillips’ name on the teamsheet, and not chastise their manager for not instead opting for a seemingly more appealing option in Grealish.

Ultimately, it was refreshing for Leeds fans, and surely even more refreshing for Phillips, to see him so naturally slip into a more advanced role on the international stage. And whether he is surging forward in the white shirt of England or marshalling midfield in the white shirt of Leeds, he will finally start gaining the praise and recognition he deserves.