There were two main winners from England’s defeat of Croatia in their Euro 2020 opener: England themselves, obviously, and Kalvin Phillips.
The Leeds United midfielder received widespread praise for his role in the victory, with pundits such as Alan Shearer, Gary Neville and even Jose Mourinho applauding the man dubbed by fans on social media as the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’.
Now, this isn’t going to be a straight comparison between Phillips and Andrea Pirlo because that just wouldn’t be fair on the 2006 World Cup winner.
No, instead our goal here is to understand whether Phillips always plays in the manner of his showing against Croatia – have many people been sleeping on his talents for too long?
The shield becomes the weapon
The short answer to whether that was a typical Phillips display is, technically, no.
For Leeds, Phillips tends to act as the screen in front of the defence, taking the ball off those at the back and distributing it further forward to get Leeds on the front foot.
He fits the role perfectly for Leeds because his excellent athleticism lends itself ideally to Marcelo Bielsa’s intense pressing setup, which is identified by the fact they allowed the opposition fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA) in 2020-21 (9.3) than any other team, meaning they commit bodies to winning possession back earlier than everyone else in the Premier League.
But there is much more to Phillips than his ability to run – he also has significant destructive qualities and is a fine passer of the ball.
Some England fans might’ve been frustrated to initially see Phillips named in the starting XI alongside Declan Rice. The optics of such a duo based on their club roles would have led to some worrying Southgate was being excessively cautious – again – and creativity would subsequently be missing.
Former England midfielder Darren Anderton was among those concerned in that sense.
“I think, sometimes when you look at that, it looks like it’s two defensive midfielders, and I don’t like that too much,” Anderton told Stats Perform. “I think it makes it a little bit one-dimensional. I think central midfielders should be able to make those good passes forward as well, but I think he can do all of that.
“And his energy as well was outstanding on the day. He was the best player for England.”
As it happened, Phillips created the winning goal, and it was in this action that you got the clearest glimpse of just how different a role he was playing, much to Anderton’s satisfaction.
“His moment of quality is what won the game for England,” he continued. “He’s a great player, he was the difference on the day, there’s no doubt about it. He made the surging run forward and he also made the perfect pass for Sterling.
“But he still had a great game getting around the pitch, breaking play up, and was good going forward as well.”
As touched upon by Anderton, the main difference between how Phillips was deployed against Croatia and how Marcelo Bielsa uses him for Leeds is that Southgate encouraged him to play a more advanced role.
There was much less emphasis on Phillips to get on the ball and dictate the play. After all, with Rice alongside him and seemingly having a slightly less well-rounded skillset, why would you have Phillips playing deep as well?
Of course, that will have been the concern of many England fans pre-game, but the fact Phillips’ total passes (33) and touches (44) were actually significantly down on his Premier League per-90 minute averages (52 passes, 69.8 touches) highlights just how different Southgate was asking him to play.
But it doesn’t end there.
Granted, his 20 passes in the opposing half was also down on his average for 2020-21 (23.8), but those were from a much smaller total. When you consider that those 20 equate to 61 per cent as opposed to his usual 46 per cent, the picture becomes clearer still.
Similarly, his tackles and interceptions (one each) were down on his Leeds numbers (2.7 tackles per 90 mins, 1.7 interceptions) because he wasn’t being used to screen the back four, he was operating higher up the pitch.
On top of that, his five recoveries in the middle third of the pitch was a major increase on the 3.6 he records each game for Leeds, while his one in the final third set against the 0.3 he averages in that area normally again showcases a significant change.
It’s also worth pointing out that Phillips was actually caught offside against Croatia, something he hasn’t ever done in 116 matches under Bielsa.
Now, of course a single match is a small sample size to consider, but the data does go some way to showing how smart Southgate’s selection was, and Phillips’ assist for Sterling hasn’t even been the focus here.
However, his work in that instance certainly warrants praise as the move was 90 per cent him – his progressive off-the-ball run into space showed his exceptional spatial awareness, before then beating a defender with a lovely touch and offloading the inch-perfect pass.
It encapsulated his performance perfectly, but it’ll be intriguing to see whether these trends continue or if Phillips thriving in a more advanced role was a fluke.
Those who’ve seen him play regularly won’t have any concerns about him repeating certain feats against Scotland in what promises to be an intense and high-octane rivalry clash, when his all-action approach will surely be vital.
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