25 August 2020 20:38
Kalvin Phillips has been called up to the England squad for the first time before even making a Premier League appearance. That said, the Leeds captain is one of the main reasons his side will be playing top-flight football for the first time in 16 years next season. Getty Images - Getty 7 Kalvin Phillips is one of the standout players in Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds team Any Leeds fan will tell you their 24-year-old midfield hero deserves this call-up more than anyone. However, much of the reaction to Phillips' inclusion will centre around the exclusion of Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish, whose wait goes on despite creating the second-most chances in the Premier League last season. While England have plenty of similar options to Grealish, they don't have a player like Phillips.
Getty Images - Getty 7 Phillips is adored in Leeds At the age of 24, Phillips is already a Leeds hero, having been at the club for a decade. After impressive for the Whites' Under-18s, Phillips broke into the first team in 2015, but the constant chopping and changing of managers at Elland Road meant he struggled to establish himself as a regular. As recently as 2018, Phillips was drifting in and out of the starting XI, but everything changed following the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa that summer. Leeds were even forced to reject bids of up to £27million for him last season, with Aston Villa among those who tried to sign him. Getty Images - Getty 7 Phillips is very useful over a dead ball Having started out as a box-to-box central midfielder, Bielsa totally transformed Phillips upon arrival at Elland Road two years ago. He now plays as a deep-lying defensive midfielder, and sometimes as a centre-back when Bielsa opts to use a back three. Phillips has become the linchpin of Bielsa's high-octane Leeds side with his excellent positional awareness and passing range. Bielsa trusts Phillips to know exactly where he needs to be, allowing Leeds to send their full-backs charging forwards. Getty Images - Getty 7 Phillips has no problem getting the ball in tight areas Not only does Phillips have the intelligence and dynamism to offer defensive cover, his ability to tackle and intercept makes Leeds difficult to counter, even when they're overloaded. Bielsa has described him as someone who is 'very good at getting the ball and putting it into another space, a better space', hence why he has affectionately become known as the 'Yorkshire Pirlo' by adoring Leeds fans. AFP or licensors 7 Phillips celebrated with fans as Leeds were promoted in July Besides earning Bielsa's praise, we've been raving about Phillips on the airwaves for quite some time. Back in January, when Leeds lost 1-0 to Arsenal, it was Phillips who caught the eye despite the defeat, running rings around the likes of Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil in the first-half. talkSPORT host Adrian Durham said at the time: "In terms of midfield, there was a midfielder for Leeds who outshone everybody. "I think he could play for England as well," the Drivetime host added. "And if he had been in the Premier League this season, I think he would be in the England squad." AFP or licensors 7 Kalvin Phillips impressed against Arsenal in the FA Cup Joining Durham on the show, former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy said: "When the ball is getting knocked about between the back four and the keeper, that holding role is really, really important. "It was really disciplined – didn't want to be the star of the show by hitting 50-yard pings all the time. Jamie O'Hara explains why Declan Rice, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden would be in his England XI West Ham's Declan Rice is the only other England player who offers what Phillips does. Southgate has used both Jordan Henderson and Harry Winks in the holding role, but both of them are probably more suited to the roles on either of the midfield. While Phillips is unlikely to oust Rice in the starting XI, here's how a Three Lions team with the Leeds captain might look, based on the most recent squad. Kalvin Phillips: 'The Yorkshire Pirlo' that England can thank Bielsa for The 24-year-old has earned his first international call-up despite having never played a Premier League game after impressive showings for Leeds At the end of the 2017-18 season, had two homegrown midfielders who were beginning to hold down regular places in the first team. The other was Kalvin Phillips, a frustratingly inconsistent figure who, though having provided a handful of goals, was regarded by a number of fans as expendable should the Elland Road outfit need to raise funds. Phillips, meanwhile, was retained to form part of new manager Marcelo Bielsa's first squad in English football. Since the legendary Argentine coach arrived at Leeds, Phillips has been transformed from a much-maligned squad member to on-field leader for his boyhood club. Leeds were promoted back to Premier League from the Championship last season and now Phillips has become the first Leeds player to earn a call-up to the senior England squad since Alan Smith in 2004. That meteoric rise is largely down to the work Bielsa has done to mould the 24-year-old from being a box-to-box player to the perfect modern-day defensive midfielder who is also capable of dropping in and excelling at centre-back. Dubbed 'The Yorkshire Pirlo' by Leeds supporters, the change of role has turned Phillips' career on its head. "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," Phillips told The Athletic in a recent interview. "Obviously, I thought I was going to be No.8 or something like that, but when he got to me he said No.4. "After that meeting, he told me he wanted me to be a defensive midfielder and that I'd have to get better defensively and in the air. So, when I first got told to play defensive midfield I thought, 'What's going on here then?'" Bielsa twice substituted the midfielder midway through the first half of games during his opening few weeks in charge, but both times insisted that Phillips just needed time to fully understand what was being required of him. By mid-season, he was up to speed as Leeds closed in on promotion, only to agonisingly miss out in the final weeks of the campaign before losing in the semi-finals of the play-offs to. Understandably, given his performances, there was interest from Premier League clubs, most notably, who were willing to pay in the region of £30m ($37m) to sign him in the summer of 2019. Phillips, though, chose to remain at Elland Road and signed a new five-year contract. "To be honest, I was in a situation where I didn't know what to do," he said of the potential transfer. I was on the verge of saying I wanted to leave, but at the same time I didn't want to say it. "Aston Villa had been in touch and they'd gone into the Premier League, so I knew I could play in the Premier League just like that. And us losing in the play-offs killed me a bit. "I came in one day and Victor [Orta, Leeds' director of football] said to me, 'Listen, if you want to leave, then just let me know. Orta's intervention has paid dividends for Leeds, with Phillips growing in stature throughout Bielsa's second season in charge. Despite missing nine games of the season, he still ranked among the top 10 midfielders for attempted passes in the Championship with 2027, of which 82 per cent found their intended target. No midfielder in the second tier of English football can claim to be better than him across those categories. Such displays meant that England boss Gareth Southgate, who lives in nearby Harrogate, became something of a regular at Elland Road as the season wore on before coronavirus stopped him from attending games in March. The Three Lions are not blessed with defensive midfield depth as they look forward to the rearranged European Championships. Declan Rice is arguably the man in possession of the shirt right now, while both Harry Winks and Jordan Henderson have experience of playing the role. But while those players are forced to switch between positions, Phillips has been able to perfect playing in one of the most challenging positions in football under the tutelage of one of the game's outstanding tactical coaches. "I don't find him scary – not anymore!" Phillips told BBC Sport of Bielsa earlier in the year. After Leeds' promotion to the top flight was confirmed in July, Bielsa travelled to Elland Road to celebrate with his squad. Bielsa pulled away before telling his young charge he was "the best", repeating the sentiment twice more before other players came in for a hug from 'El Loco'. Phillips has the chance to show the Premier League – and now England fans – that his manager knows what he is talking about.