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How Kalvin Phillips became ‘the Yorkshire Pirlo’ to earn an England call-up

Gareth Southgate has included Kalvin Phillips in England’s squad for the upcoming Nations League fixtures against Denmark and Iceland.

The Leeds United midfielder has been named alongside the likes of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane despite having never played in the Premier League.

The decision has caused a stir among Aston Villa fans, who have been quick to label the Three Lions coach a ‘hypocrite’.

In March of 2019, when many were campaigning for Jack Grealish to be called up, Southgate said the Birmingham-born playmaker needed to play in the Premier League if he wanted an England cap.

So how has Phillips earned a call-up before playing his first game in the top flight?


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Breaking the mould

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Breaking the mould

This is not the first time Southgate has seemingly contradicted his stance on Championship players.

He called up Mason Mount for England’s Nations League games against Croatia and Spain in 2018 after the Chelsea youngster had impressed on loan at Derby.

Mount was an unused substitute in both games and didn’t make his debut until nearly a year later, by which time he’d played a handful of games for Chelsea.

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It’s possible Southgate will apply similar treatment to Phillips, giving him experience of an international squad, and training, with a view to a full debut at a later date.

However, with a major tournament preparations underway, it would surely be counterproductive to include a player for the upcoming fixtures who didn’t have at least an outside chance of featuring at Euro 2021.

The route from Championship starlet to England regular has been established

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The route from Championship starlet to England regular has been established

Perhaps Southgate has had a change of heart because of the dwindling options currently available to him at defensive midfield from the Premier League.

Declan Rice’s international form has wavered after an impressive start while Eric Dier has reverted to playing centre-back in recent times.

Fabian Delph, Lewis Cook and Jack Cork have all played at the base of England’s three-man midfield in the last two or three years without performing at the necessary level to demand a regular spot.

Jordan Henderson enjoyed the best individual season of his career in 2019/20 but he is likely to feature elsewhere in Southgate’s midfield.

England’s need for a error-free, tough-tackling, ground-covering, ball-playing fulcrum has been apparent for some time.

Rice appeared vulnerable in his last outings for the Three Lions

News Group Newspapers Ltd
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Rice appeared vulnerable in his last outings for the Three Lions

Even those who have followed Phillips’ career closely wouldn’t have put him in such a category two seasons ago.

In 2017/18, he was Leeds’ third top-scorer in the league with seven goals, a tally only bettered by strikers Kemar Roofe and Pierre-Michel Lasogga.

Under Thomas Christiansen, he often played as the most attack-minded midfielder, one who aimed to arrive late in the box in a manner made famous on English shores by Frank Lampard.

The fans had a soft spot for Phillips during his formative years because he was local lad who supported the club as a boy and came through the academy.

He even shares the same birthday (and thirst for broken shin pads) as club legend David Batty.

But the jury was undecided when it came to the issues of his overall quality, and which role suited him best.

All question marks were erased the day Marcelo Bielsa was employed at Elland Road.

The much-revered tactician looked at Phillips and instantly saw a linchpin.

Phillips’ development owes a lot to Bielsa

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Phillips’ development owes a lot to Bielsa

El Loco converted Phillips into a defensive midfielder (or Regista) in a 4-1-4-1 formation, one capable of dropping into a back three when Leeds slipped into Bielsa’s famous 3-3-1-3 shape.

The transformation worked from the get-go.

Phillips has bossed games from the base of midfield ever since, combining a combative hunger with masterful anticipation.

And because Bielsa sides dominate possession, he has also honed his deep-lying playmaking and tempo control.

This reinvention encouraged the fans to create a personalised chant, hailing him as ‘the Yorkshire Pirlo’.

As a way of leaning into the flattering comparison, Phillips developed a wicked delivery from set-pieces, which Leeds did not make enough of in the Championship.

Could Phillips and Paul Pogba meet at Euro 2021?

Getty Images - Getty
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Could Phillips and Paul Pogba meet at Euro 2021?

The caveat to all of this is that Phillips has impressed in the Championship.

As proving grounds go, England’s second tier is a good one, but the jump to international football, possibly even major tournament football, is huge.

Perhaps Southgate remembers how Phillips excelled in the first half at the Emirates when Leeds met Arsenal in the FA Cup third round.

The 24-year-old extinguished World Cup winner Mesut Ozil’s threat while simultaneously instigating the visitors’ spirited (though ultimately fruitless) onslaught.

Many Premier League clubs are convinced Phillips could translate his effectiveness to the top tier.

Leeds rebuffed interest from several top-flight clubs in the summer of 2019 – including a rumoured offer of £25million – because Bielsa believed he was integral to the promotion charge.

The former Argentina coach only signed a contract extension once he was promised his midfield enforcer would not be sold.

Phillips signed a five-year contract at Elland Road before helping them secure Premier League status for the first time since 2004.

Phillips was the star of a breathless first half in north London

Getty Images - Getty
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Phillips was the star of a breathless first half in north London

Southgate lives between Otley and Harrogate, which is not the epicentre of Leeds fandom, but close enough to it.

It’s possible Yorksire’s adoration of Phillips has somewhat rubbed of on Southgate.

If you’re agonising over a lack of quality defensive midfielders and everyone around you is telling you how good the local lad is, it may be convenient to believe the hype.

However, the popular coach is level-headed enough to make an objective decision when it comes matters of such importance.

All players included in the squad will be hoping to secure a seat ‘on the plane’ but Phillips has more to prove than any of his soon-to-be team-mates, not least that the Championship can be a worthy measure of English talent.


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