Kalvin Phillips: EFL Championship to European Championship

Kalvin Phillips

There is the possibility that, on Sunday evening, Kalvin Phillips could have gone from the EFL Championship to the Euro 2020 Championship in a single season. A meteoric rise of epic proportions. Phillips is most certainly the man who has gained the most from the postponement of the tournament a year ago, but boy has he earned it. Three years under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United has led to Three Lions on his shirt. Yorkshire is proud, and so it would seem is most of the nation, and beyond.

Kalvin Phillips Rises From EFL Championship to European Championship

Universal Praise for the Yorkshire Pirlo

Henry Winter of The Times is a fan of the new England man: “Phillips is the current embodiment of Leeds — homegrown, hard-working, tough, and an intelligent warrior”.

He has even managed to win Ashley Cole over, despite early doubts: ”I had to get Kalvin Phillips here and say big respect. I think he’s been tremendous in this tournament, so solid and integral in this England team.”

Fabio Capello shut down the Pirlo comparisons but still had high praise for the midfielder: “At Leeds with Bielsa, Phillips has really grown a lot and today he is the best modern midfielder I have seen on the pitch.”

And even Jose Mourinho has enjoyed his impact so far: “I think he was very, very good. When you see one of these young guys appearing in these big stages and performing the way he did, it is fantastic.” Praise indeed from some of the biggest names in football, but how did this happen?

The Early Days at Elland Road for Phillips

Leeds through and through, Kalvin Phillips was brought into the academy set up at 14 after his time with local club Wortley. Good reviews at youth level as a box-to-box midfielder led to a first contract and a breakthrough season in 2014-15 under Neil Redfearn. Redfearn, the former youth team coach, was keen to promote youth from within. This suited Phillips and other future stars such as Charlie Taylor and Lewis Cook no end.

But the ever-chaotic managerial merry-go-round at Leeds United created problems. This meant that it took until the 2016-17 season and a host of midfield injuries for Phillips to really cement his first-team spot, now under Garry Monk. This would mark the start of an impressive run, where he would make over 40 appearances for Leeds in each of the next four seasons.

More ups and downs ensued, until in 2018 he arrived, and everything changed.

The Bielsa Effect

When it comes to the impact that Marcelo Bielsa has had on Kalvin Phillips, there is much to be said. There was a time when rumours swirled of an early £250,000 move away from the club. But as soon as El Loco walked through the door he had a project in mind for Phillips. He knew even before that, in Bielsa’s initial meeting with Victor Orta. He stated there and then that he would make Kalvin Phillips the best central midfielder in the Championship. Maybe he was aiming a little low…

Initial impressions were confusing for Phillips: “When the manager first came in, we had a meeting where he went through the names of each player telling us which number we’d be wearing. I thought I was going to be No 8 or something like that, but when he got to me, he said No 4. It surprised me because it hadn’t crossed my mind that I might be playing there. After that meeting, he told me he wanted me to be a defensive-mid and that I’d have to get better defensively and in the air.”

“I started working on it straight away. Up until then, I probably thought of myself as box-to-box. If you’d asked me, that’s what I would have said. I wasn’t a defender and I didn’t think of myself as one. I’d scored a few goals in the previous season. So, when I first got told to play defensive-mid I thought, ‘What’s going on here then?’” But now both Leeds United and England are reaping the benefits of this decision, and Phillips has never looked back.

The Phillips Project

Bielsa has 15-minute meetings which each of his players before every game to ensure absolute clarity of their role. Presentations, diagrams and detailed instructions are the norm for Leeds players every week. But Adam Crafton of The Athletic noted that: “In the case of Phillips, the challenge extends beyond video analysis and attention-to-detail as Bielsa’s man-management encourages his player to imagine the game differently, and imbues the player with fresh belief.”

Phillips’ meetings with Marcelo Bielsa are known to go on much longer, such is his importance. Such is the lynch-pin position he holds. For a long period of time, Phillips was seen as irreplaceable; he still is to some degree. But there would be genuine panic amongst the fans if he was not in the team, and results certainly suffered in his absence, for Phillips is not you’re a-typical destroyer, he creates too. As likely to get a goal or an assist as he is a red card.

From EFL Championship to Euro 2020 Championship

Gareth Southgate lives in Yorkshire and has done for some time now. His presence at Elland Road over the past few seasons has become a regular occurrence. One could say it’s more surprising when he isn’t there. There’s Patrick Bamford, there’s Luke Ayling, there was Ben White too for a time. But there was never any question of who he was really checking in on. Kalvin Phillips was on Southgate’s radar even in the Championship and talk was that even that would not hinder his potential selection.

Luckily for Phillips, and perhaps Southgate, a full season in the Premier League has allowed him to prove himself to the masses. There are always questions over players selected outside of the ‘big six’ but imagine the headlines if he had still been in the Championship? Can Phillips go from the EFL Championship to Euro 2020 Championship?

Star-Struck but in Good Company

Phillips has admitted on more than one occasion to being star-struck when he first joined up with the England national team. Sharing training sessions and the Wembley turf with the nation’s finest must take some getting used to after years in the lower leagues: “It’s still surreal. I still feel like a fan wanting to know who we’re going to play next, so it’s the same as it always has been. Obviously, I’m in a different situation where I’m actually playing for England, but to be honest I don’t let that get to me.”

But the Yorkshire Pirlo is not alone in the camp. “Harry Maguire, John Stones, Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips are doing, as we say ’round these parts, a grand job at Euro 2020” states Richard Sutcliffe in his excellent “Strong Yorkshire, Strong England” piece for The Athletic. The Yorkshire contingent is strong. And the late call up for Phillips’ ever so tanned promotion pal Ben White just added that extra level of comfort. White is another who benefited from that delayed tournament, and the Bielsa effect too of course. Fewer big stars and more of a team collective seems to be the approach this time around.

Wembley Waits

And he hasn’t let it get to him at all. Kalvin Phillips has become the athletic centre of this England team. Against Denmark, he ran for over 15.3 kilometres and recovered the ball nine times, despite a slow, nervous start. The Phillips-Rice partnership is the core that this team is built around. The trust is building, the belief is there. Italy have been excellent this tournament, but England haven’t been too bad either. One. More. Win. Please.

And at the end of all this, no matter the result on Sunday evening, Phillips will make his way back to Yorkshire. Back to Leeds United. He’ll be coming home. But the question remains with England, is it com…ah, you know the rest!


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