Big tackles, a breath-taking passing range and calmness in possession. These are just some of the talents that have earned Kalvin Phillips so many plaudits for his performances over the last two seasons in the Sky Bet Championship. With England manager Gareth Southgate known to be monitoring the midfielder, there is a real possibility that he could make the squad for the European Championships next summer.
Who is Kalvin Phillips?
The 24-year-old is a graduate of the Leeds United academy having made his debut in 2014 vs Wolves. Since then, Phillips has gone from strength to strength, featuing regulary under all of the club's last four managers.
The midfielder - nicknamed the 'Yorkshire Pirlo' by Leeds fans - has been in fine form over the past two seasons at Elland Road, winning the Yorkshire Evening Post Player of the Year and featuring in the Championship Team of the Season.
Where does he play?
The Yorkshire born midfielder was originally a box to box central midfielder. Under Marcelo Bielsa’s guidance at Leeds he has transformed into a combative defensive midfielder.
In only his second season playing the position, Phillips is still developing and showing improvements in every area of his game – as reflected in the statistics below.
How does he play?
Phillips is an all action midfielder with impressive ball recovery skills. He is seventh (11th in 2018/19) highest in the number of tackles in the Championship, which highlights his love for a challenge.
What sets him apart from the rest though is his ball playing ability. At Leeds, he operates as a defensive midfielder that drops in to become a third centre back when his team is attacking. This provides defensive cover for attacking full backs to get forward but also allows him to pick passes and start off attacks from deep.
And the results speak for themselves - Phillips has provided 5.3 accurate long balls per game – the 4th most in the entire division, with a 56% success rate.
The obvious question with statistics like this is always – 'is he just playing easy passes'? With Phillips producing two key passes per game (the 11th most in the entire division – including attackers), it’s hard to argue this is the case here.
Where could he fit into the England team?
Southgate is known to be an admirer of Phillips, with the England manager admitting this week the Leeds midfielder is on his radar for his Euro 2020 squad.
The one certainty in England’s midfield is of course Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson after some superb performances over the last two seasons. With a plethora of attacking talent at Southgate’s disposal, a chance for Phillips may depend on the preferred formation during the tournament.
In the last six England games, Southgate has opted for a 4-3-3 formation, often with West Ham’s Declan Rice sitting as the holding midfielder. In the most competitive of their recent qualifiers, a 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic, a 4-2-3-1 formation was used with Henderson alongside Rice.
Whilst Phillips would have no problems slotting in alongside Henderson, his experience & success as the solitary holding midfielder in a formation similar to Southgate’s 4-3-3 makes him a genuine contender for the defensive midfield role.
The cover he could provide defensively – as he is used to doing at Leeds – would leave England free to exploit the attacking prowess of their full-backs Ben Chilwell and most importantly, Trent Alexander-Arnold. Phillips’ positional discipline means he is a destructive defender England could rely on, with his passing range an option to help open up defences and create overloads out wide.
Rice, Winks… or Phillips?
Ordinarily a player plying his trade in the Championship would not find himself being talked about as a serious option for an England place. But with England’s current defensive midfield options not entirely convincing, the opportunity is there for Phillips.
Since England’s final Nations League game in June of 2019, Declan Rice has played in a holding midfield role in three of six games, and alongside Henderson in another. Tottenham’s Harry Winks has played the role in the other 2 matches against Bulgaria & Montenegro.
Eric Dier has been below par for Spurs in recent times and not selected for England duty, but with the tournament delayed to 2021 he’s still an outside chance for a place next summer.
Comparing the competition
Phillips ranks higher in four of seven categories when compared with Rice & Winks – key passes, crosses, accurate long balls & aerial duels. West Ham midfielder Rice is is better when it comes to tackling & his long ball accuracy – but only marginally.
Stats of course only tell part of the story. We have to remember that Phillips is playing at a lower standard of football, and for Declan Rice, his task of fighting fires in one of the Premier League’s worst defences doesn’t bode well for his attacking stats.
However, what the figures do highlight is this - Phillips has the potential to be a complete all round defensive midfielder. Whilst defensively his stats are very similar to that of the more imposing Rice – he blows him out the water in terms of key passes and the number of accurate long balls he is making.
The question marks
The critics will say Phillips has yet to do it in the Premier League but with big teams such as Manchester United, Tottenham & Aston Villa all reported to have cast their eye over the Yorkshireman in the last 12 months, he’s not short of admirers.
One slight blemish on Phillips’ record is his discipline – with a total of 16 yellow cards and two red cards across the last two seasons, compared with only nine & 12 yellows for Rice & Winks respectively.
Phillips is guilty of the occasional rash challenge, particularly when he or his team are frustrated or up against it. His two red cards in the last two seasons have come during a 4-2 loss against Nottingham Forest – when he was struggling at centre back against the imposing Daryl Murphy – and in the 88th minute of a frustrating 1-0 defeat to QPR.
Coming up against better players in the Premier League is no doubt going to put the Leeds midfielder’s temperament to the test.
Watch this space
With the Premier League near enough a certainty for Phillips next season - with or without Leeds - he'll get his chance to prove to the masses he’s got what it takes.
But with a forward thinking England manager that doesn’t think playing in the Premier League is everything, (Southgate called up Mason Mount whilst he was playing for Derby County in the Championship last season) Phillips will hope he could get his chance with England sooner rather than later.