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When Marcelo Bielsa sat at home in Argentina analytically studying endless videos of Leeds United performances before he had even taken the head coach role at Elland Road there was something obvious that stood out to him, even if the rest of us had not seen before. In Kalvin Phillips, Bielsa thought saw a potentially world class defensive midfielder. He took him under his wing, made him his personal project and so his initially assessment of Phillips has been proved absolutely correct. From an average box to box Championship midfielder, Phillips has been transformed into one of the best holding players in the country, catching the eye of Gareth Southgate even whilst he was till plying his trade out of the top-flight of English football.
In August last year Phillips was called up to the England squad for the first time, still having never made a Premier League appearance, his debut came on 8th September 2020 against Denmark in the UEFA Nations League. Phillips became Leeds United's first England player since Alan Smith 16 years before. Holding players are not always appreciated by people who do not watch them week in week out. They do not see their work off the ball, how they break up play, set the tempo and dictate the game. But Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United fans know how important the role is and they know how important Kalvin Phillips. It seemed Gareth Southgate also realised how important Phillips could be and as the tournament got closer it was clear Phillips would be in the squad.
Whilst Arsenal and Manchester United criticised Phillips for “only passing backwards”, Leeds and West Ham fans were busy debating whether Phillips or Declan Rice was the best English holding midfielder. But it was a debate we needn’t have had; Southgate clearly sees the ability of both players and perhaps still sees a bit of the old box to box midfielder in Phillips. And so Phillips lined-up alongside Rice in midfield against Croatia for England’s opening game of Euro 2020, the first Leeds United player to start for England in a major tournament since both Rio Ferdinand and Danny Mills against Brazil in the World Cup quarter final in 2002.
The questions about whether the pair could play together answered with certainty. Rice breaking up play deep and mopping up in front of the defence whilst Phillips pressed higher up the pitch and bossed the midfield. Veteran Luka Modrić, with over 100 appearances for Croatia, hardly got a look in. With 44 touches, 31 successful passes, passing accuracy of 94% and 7 ball recoveries Phillips ran the show for England. Let off the leash, playing higher up the pitch he also made two successful take-ons and tested the Croatia goalkeeper with a crisp volley in the ninth minutes, the only shot on target by either side in the first half.
Most importantly though was his assist for Raheem Sterling. After 57 minutes Phillips evaded one defender to latch onto Kyle Walkers ball wide our right, before skipping past another then beathing another two with his perfectly timed pass for the Manchester City striker to put away and give England the lead. Phillips is the first Leeds United player to assist a goal at Wembley since David Batty against Luxembourg in 1999 and the first to assist an England goal in a major tournament since Jack Charlton assisted Roger Hunt against France in the World Cup 1966 group stages.
Kalvin Phillips certainty proved any doubters wrong on Sunday afternoon and won a few admirers in the process. Alan Shearer lead the praise on the BBC coverage; "He was Man of the Match for England today. He was superb for us from start to finish. He had an energy, he had a maturity, he had everything you need from a midfielder. The pass for the goal was superb and was protecting the back four at times." But praise came from across the world, Mesut Özil tweeting “What a player Kalvin Phillips”, with Michael Ballack adding “Phillips [On Fire]” and former Dutch international and World Cup runner-up Nigel de Jong saying “Can we talk about the performance of Kalvin Phillips so far? Absolute beast on that midfield. Breaking plays up and linking between the lines. Baller.”
The Yorkshire Pirlo has done himself and the city of Leeds proud. With not one of the papers rating him less than an 8/10 it was a man of the match performance indeed. Even if UEFA saw fit to give it to Sterling for some mind-boggling reason! Finally, everyone else is realising just how good Kalvin Phillips, even if Marcelo Bielsa realised it three years ago.
Stats from LUFC Stats and LUFC Data
It says so much about each of them and their relationship, that right now one is the best manager in the English tip flight and the other is the best English player.
Kalvin is undoubtedly a star and will prosper as long as Marcelo is with us.
I can only hope we have more of the Great Man.