Kalvin Phillips impressed for England against Croatia in a more attacking role

This was Kalvin Phillips’ ninth cap for England. He started all three World Cup qualifiers in March and has been praised regularly by Gareth Southgate. And yet, Sunday at Wembley was his true arrival in international football. The game in which everyone bought into what Leeds United fans have long since known.

Phillips is a star.

“He has turned into one of the best holding midfielders in the Premier League,” his Leeds teammate Patrick Bamford told Sky Sports on the eve of England’s tournament opener against Croatia. “I think that Kalvin can definitely offer something special to that England squad.”

It was the second sentence that proved more relevant than the first as England won 1-0 at Wembley, kicking off a European Championships with victory for the first time at the tenth attempt.

This was no holding midfielder.

It was Phillips who produced the decisive moment of the match, quite literally proving the difference between the teams. There he was, driving beyond the opposition midfield, before turning away from his marker and setting up Raheem Sterling to score.

The crowd erupted.

Croatia’s midfield included Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic. This was their strength, the source of their control, the area of the pitch where England were likely to lose the game.

Instead, it was where Phillips helped them to win it.

Any sense that his partnership with Declan Rice represented the cautious option, a defensive double pivot that would hamper England going forwards, was exposed during an impressive opening 20 minutes. England strangled Croatia’s attacks at source with a pressing game that defied the heat.

Inside 30 seconds, Phillips retrieved possession inside the centre circle. In the third minute, he was dashing forwards, England’s most advanced player, more evidence of his intent.

The ninth minute brought a crisp volley that tested the goalkeeper, the only shot on target by either side in the first half. Moments later, he was shrugging off challenges to retain the ball once more.

Twelve minutes in and Marcelo Brozovic was hurried into passing the ball straight out of play as Phillips was upon him in seconds. Sixteen minutes in and he was dispossessing the Inter man outright. Eighteen minutes into the game and he won the ball in the opposition half yet again.

It is ironic given the talk of Marcelo Bielsa’s teams fading as the season wears on due to his exacting demands, but Phillips looked the fittest player on the pitch. He did not give the ball away until the 63rd minute and he was still winning it back for his team inside the final quarter of an hour.

In total, Phillips won possession of the ball six times outside of his own defensive third, more than anyone else on the pitch at Wembley. He was on the front foot throughout, breaking up play and joining in the attacks, mirroring the role of Mason Mount at times in England’s 4-3-3 formation.

Never more so than for the game’s only goal.

Sterling scored it and walked away with the official man of the match award. But Phillips was the architect for the former and – as important as Sterling’s regular runs in behind were – surely the most deserving candidate for the latter.

That one move was the perfect illustration of the breadth of his game. The run from deep. The skill to dribble past his man – he completed more dribbles than any England player on the day. And then the composure to measure the pass with his weaker foot, sending Sterling through on goal. It showed real quality.

It offers real hope for England too, because not everything about the team’s performance was spot on. They did not carve Croatia apart. The margins in this tournament will be small and things became staid as the tempo slowed in the middle phase of the game.

Harry Kane appeared isolated. The full-backs had limited influence in attack with Southgate’s inclusion of Kieran Trippier at left-back putting the emphasis on remaining compact. The onus instead will be on Mount and Phillips to link the team, push forwards and knit this all together. It is a demanding role but one they appear up to.

Southgate himself refers to Phillips and Rice as part of his ‘front six’ – noting that he picked the same six players as he had done for the World Cup qualifying wins over Albania and Poland in March, England’s most recent competitive matches.

The clue was there back then just how important that Phillips had become to this England team.

It took this standout display in the Wembley sun, starring in his country’s first home game in a major tournament for a quarter of a century, for the rest of the country to really embrace that fact too.

Podcast: Southgate calls it right!

Gareth Southgate knows his England side best… who would have thought it?! Kate Burlaga is joined by Pete Smith, Jess Creighton and Gerard Brand to discuss England’s victory over Croatia in their Euro 2020 opener at Wembley, as Raheem Sterling answers his critics with the only goal.

The panel discuss Southgate’s surprise selections and controlling performance, and look ahead to England’s next Group D game against Scotland on Friday. We also preview the Scots’ first major tournament game in 23 years as they face Czech Republic on Monday.

Geraint Hughes also joins us to review Wales’ hard-fought 1-1 draw in Switzerland in Group A on Saturday.


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