England got their Euro 2020 group-stage campaign off to a flyer, beating Croatia 1-0 at Wembley, and there was an unexpected star man on the day: Kalvin Phillips.
As news filtered through of Gareth Southgate’s team selection just over an hour before kick-off, there was a collective roll of the eyes from England fans as Kieran Trippier started at left-back, Jadon Sancho failed to make the matchday squad, and two ‘defensive midfielders’ were selected ahead of Jack Grealish.
However, what appeared a bizarre, perhaps even overly-cautious tactical approach from Southgate before a ball was kicked, proved a masterclass, as he found the right balance, nullified Croatia’s world-class midfield and bravely turned his back on Marcelo Bielsa, deploying Phillips, not as a metronomic tempo-setter (as he has developed under the enigmatic Argentine at Leeds) but instead, as an advanced playmaker.
In tandem with Mason Mount, the duo were England’s creative release valves, given carte blanche to progress up the turf safe in the mind that Declan Rice was stationed at the base sweeping up any loose balls, protecting the backline and recycling possession.
Phillips, playing almost as a mezzala in the subterranean heat, took to his first international tournament like a duck to water, coping with the arid air, energising England’s midfield and exploiting the half space with the grace and creative verve of a veteran playmaker.
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As a player aptly bestowed the moniker the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ at Elland Road, given his effortless ability to dictate the pace and rhythmically distribute, this was a role unfamiliar to the 25-year-old but one he relished and completely bossed.
Such was his performance in the capital that BBC pundit and former England international Jermaine Jenas mentioned during his commentary that the Leeds enforcer has already gone from possible starter, to an absolute starter going forward.
“He’s been brilliant. Gone from a maybe starter, to a must starter,” Jenas commented on during the game.
“He was brilliant at breaking up play. This is what international football is all about, not allowing opposition teams to get into their rhythm, and Phillips breaks up play in a cute way.
“There’s an art to it. The coolness of him is what I love.”
◉ Passing like Pirlo
◉ Tackling like Gattuso
◉ Dribbling like Kakà
Kalvin Phillips is not the Yorkshire Pirlo, he's the entire Milan midfield. ? pic.twitter.com/gYVwPJ6Fi1
— Squawka Bet (@SquawkaBet) June 13, 2021
When asked by Gary Lineker who had caught his eye at half time, Frank Lampard, during BBC’s match coverage, chimed in: “Phillips in midfield, he’s brought the energy.
“It was brave by Southgate to tweak the midfield and play Rice slightly deeper, with Phillips on the right and Mount on the left.”
Indeed Southgate’s bold decision paid dividends and it was Phillips who reaped the rewards, impressing with his forward-thinking approach, in which his driving run and pinpoint pass set up Raheem Sterling for the only goal of the game.
But, beyond his attacking approach Phillips, who flourished in his maiden Premier League campaign, was equally impressive with the defensive aspects of his game, in which he has truly made a name for himself at Elland Road.
Kalvin Phillips was the only player on the pitch not to misplace a pass in the first half vs. Croatia:
◎ 18 attempted
◉ 18 completed
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 13, 2021
Jenas mentioned his “cute” breaking up of play, perhaps underpinned by the fact he committed more fouls than any player on the pitch but did not pick up a yellow card (three), while he also finished the game with a 94% pass completion rate, bettered only by Phil Foden (95%) among starters.
So an assist, a supreme passing range and his typical terrier-like exploits, Phillips was simply everywhere, and against an elite midfield trident containing Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic, this proves the Leeds man is exactly where he should be: on the grand stage.