Defensive midfield is by no means a glamourous position. It lacks the pace and adrenaline of playing down the wing, and the creativity and flare of operating in attacking midfield. But even by a defensive midfielder’s standards, Kalvin Phillips - and to a certain extent his West Ham United counterpart Declan Rice - was criminally underrated going into this summer’s European Championships.
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson had captained his club to Premier League and Champions League glory in the last three seasons, while Jude Bellingham had established himself as one of his country’s brightest young talents after stepping up at Borussia Dortmund. The former hadn’t kicked a ball since February and the latter lacked even the international experience of fellow 2020 debutant Phillips, but both were preferred to Leeds United and West Ham’s midfield generals by many England supporters prior to the Croatia game.
I regret to inform you that they are at it again. A high proportion of these saying that Henderson ‘has to start’ and taking Kalvin out. Bad nonsense. https://t.co/jTQT0Fjq3A pic.twitter.com/kh0RVsFvtw— Josh Hobbs (@JoshAHobbs) July 2, 2021
Despite being the only outright defensive midfielders by trade available to Gareth Southgate, a holding midfield containing both Rice and Phillips was seen as far too restrictive, with fans eager for the Three Lions to pack their starting 11 with as many exciting attacking stars as possible. Even Leeds fans were sceptical of Southgate’s early use of Phillips, who did not seem as effective in a double-pivot as he did on his own at club level.
However, as has been the case throughout the tournament, Southgate’s refusal to bow to public pressure has been vindicated in the greatest possible sense. Rice and Phillips have formed a partnership that screams solidity and midfield control. It is only a double pivot on paper; in practice, Rice sits between the central defenders to offer England adaptability in their formation, while Phillips ventures further forward in a tireless box-to-box midfield role.
England’s record with Kalvin Phillips:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) July 4, 2021
1,001 mins played
10 clean sheets
2 goals conceded (1 from open play)
England have conceded 1️⃣ goal from open play and kept clean sheets in over 1,000 minutes with Kalvin on the pitch. #ENG pic.twitter.com/eddl9yqQBo
Flanked by the impressive Harry Maguire and John Stones, Rice has shone defensively for England, consistently winning duels, registering interceptions and completing the majority of his passes. Clean sheets have become a regularity for England since he made his debut in March 2019. That record has only improved since Phillips made his international debut despite him technically still being a Championship player; England have only conceded once from open play in his 13 appearances so far. The Yorkshire Pirlo’s slightly more advanced role has seen him cover more distance, carry out more pressures and complete more recoveries than any other England player throughout the tournament.
It comes as no surprise that the only time neither Rice nor Phillips have been on the pitch at the Euros was when England were comfortably leading Ukraine, and when both midfielders were one booking away from suspensions. Had they not been at risk of missing the semi-finals, Henderson may still have been one of the few players to make over 50 appearances for England without scoring a goal. However, the 31-year-old was introduced, and he did score, finishing the match alongside Bellingham. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for some sections of the England fanbase to demand that the Liverpool captain takes up a place in the first team now that Phillips and Rice have done the hard yards.
Surely it is now time for Southgate to play Henderson from the start.— The Anfield Talk (@TheAnfieldTalk) July 3, 2021
It will be a tough blow on Rice/Phillips who have been great however England need not only Hendo’s quality but his big match experience in these games if they want to win the whole thing. #ENG #EURO2020 pic.twitter.com/JrwkwFrNKF
Supposedly, Henderson’s experience winning trophies with the Reds is invaluable now that the Three Lions are 90 minutes away from a major final. But to suggest he should start ahead of either Rice or Phillips is to blatantly ignore the effectiveness of England’s best midfield partnership in recent memory. It is easier said than done for Henderson to swoop in and take over from either of the holding midfielders; he lacks the defensive solidity possessed by both Rice and Phillips, and couldn’t hope to cover half the distance travelled by the Yorkshire Pirlo. Southgate has moulded two particular roles readymade for the Whites and Hammers’ midfielders, and he wouldn’t have substituted both players off against Ukraine if he weren’t planning to start them both against Denmark.
England have not just found themselves a midfield partnership for Euro 2020. This is a duo that Southgate should build his team around for the years to come. They have provided the concrete base that has seen the Three Lions reach the semi-final stage without conceding once, and that has allowed the players ahead of them shine as the squad has grown into the tournament. The same can be replicated at the 2022 World Cup and beyond. Henderson may have been vital for Liverpool’s domestic and continental success, but he will have to take a back seat on the international stage if England want the best possible chance of lifting their second major trophy.