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Phillips will face tough challenge in replicating Croatia display against Scotland

The Yorkshire Pirlo earned widespread praise for his man-of-the-match performance against Croatia, but the potential return of Kieran Tierney to Scotland’s first team would provide a tougher test.

England Training Camp - Euro 2020
Kalvin Phillips trains ahead of England’s match against Scotland at Euro 2020.
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for Leeds United fans to question whether Gareth Southgate was failing to utilise him in a way which benefitted the squad as Kalvin Phillips took the first steps of his international career. Those fans, including myself, have since been handed a piece of humble pie as Phillips’ role with the Three Lions manifested in the 1-0 win over Croatia.

As highlighted in this piece in The Athletic, Phillips exploited the space left behind by ex-Leeds target Josko Gvardiol, who was drawn out of position by Phil Foden on multiple occasions last Sunday - including in the move that saw Phillips brilliantly assist Raheem Sterling for the winning goal.

Gvardiol, who opted to join RB Leipzig despite interest from the Whites, is yet to make an appearance in the Bundesliga having been loaned back to his hometown club Dinamo Zagreb, and he was earning only his second cap at Wembley. He was at left-back in Croatia’s back four, and England’s refusal to overlap with their full-backs made it easy for the hosts to create pockets of space to exploit. This formed the foundation of Phillips’ man-of-the-match display.

But will he enjoy the same fruits of labour against Scotland? England’s oldest rivals field a back three in possession (which turns into a back five defensively), operating with wing-backs. This immediately spawns doubt over whether England’s use of deep full-backs will do enough to create the same sort of space that it did against Croatia, particularly considering the defensive influence of holding midfielder Scott McTominay.

A more worrying prospect for Southgate’s side will be the potential return of Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney - who was desperately missed in their 2-0 loss against the Czech Republic - to Steve Clarke’s starting 11. Naturally, the former Celtic defender is a left-back by trade, but played eight matches as a centre-back with the Gunners last season and plays centrally far more frequently with Scotland.

This usually results in the Scots creating opportunities from deep, with Tierney’s passing ability a vital component of their attacking play. He has also formed a fruitful relationship with Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson, who often fills in for his Arsenal counterpart when he operates as an overlapping centre-back.

With England expected to keep more of the ball, they will probably spend most of Friday’s match facing a back five. Should Southgate stick with Kieran Trippier at left-back and utilise the same tactics that resulted in victory over Croatia, Robertson would be the player to be drawn forwards by Foden. But the likes of McTominay may be tasked with tracking Phillips, while Tierney would likely drift wide to close the gap left by Robertson.

Scotland will obviously be conducting a deep analysis of England’s performance in their opening match, while the Three Lions will also require some tinkering to deal with an extra defensive opponent. How much wiggle room there is with Southgate’s current approach at Euro 2020 is yet to be seen, but it does seem probable that Scotland will be better equipped to avoid falling into England’s trap, and subsequently threaten to limit Phillips’ impact on the match.