An in-depth tactical and analytical look at Kalvin Phillips and how he would fit into Gareth Southgate’s England. Rumours have been circling lately about Kalvin Phillips being in Southgate’s plans for the upcoming friendlies vs Denmark and Italy. Sky Sports and other big newspapers reporting that this is the case. That’s why, in this article, we are going to look at England’s system, Phillips’s playstyle, His competition in the defensive midfield spot and the likelihood of him actually receiving a call-up.
Throughout England’s European qualifiers, and most of Southgate’s tenure, they have played a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-4-1 formation. Leeds also mostly play using these two formations. With Phillips in that pivot role in midfield. England try to dominate the game and possession when they play. In the European Championship Qualifiers, England averaged 62.9% possession and Leeds have averaged 61.9% in the Championship this season. There are many similarities between the two systems. Southgate also opting for an attacking style of play with fullbacks playing high and wide in players like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Chilwell or Saka. These similarities in play will allow Phillips to have a seamless transition into the England team as the structure is the same, meaning there will be little transition time.
The step-up in quality does mean the game will be played at a higher pace with England completing on average 18.66 passes per minute and 7.45 passes per possession which is higher than Leeds at 16.93 passes per minute and 4.32 passes per possession. In possession, the ball will move quicker. But, out of possession, the game will slow down for Phillips as Leeds press with more intensity averaging 6.38 passes per defensive action (PPDA) compared with England with a 9.45 PPDA.
Kalvin Phillips Play Style
Phillips is fast becoming a complete defensive midfielder. His job is to sit in front of the two centrebacks and protect them. While being able to keep possession and recycling the ball to more creative players. He wins the ball back very effectively averaging 11.5 recoveries a game and averaging a big 9.1 defensive duels per 90. The statistical radar shown above clearly shows you how dominant he is defensively, ranking very highly in tackles and interceptions. This shows his ability to read the game very well anticipating where the ball will go and intercepting, as well as knowing when to step in and make those crunching tackles.
However, this radar doesn’t demonstrate his great passing range and how good he is in possession. He makes the 7th most long passes out of all championship centre midfielders. This shows his incredible passing range, often switching play with 40 yard passes out wide to Harrison or Costa. This has become a hallmark of his play. Pulling opposing teams side to side by playing these pinpoint switches. Phillips can dictate the tempo of the game by speeding up play and going long with accuracy when needed, and also slowing down the game with short passes to keep control. He has an excellent sense of the rhythm of each game. He is the metronome for his team.
Below is Kalvin’s tackle map this season and his heatmap. As you can see he gets everywhere. This is due to Leeds United and Bielsa’s tactic of using rotations. It shows his ability to cover marauding full-backs. His positional intelligence is second to none and he subconsciously plugs in gaps on the pitch. This skill is perfect for England as Trent Alexander Arnold will be very far away from the positioning of a traditional full back. Phillips is also very adept at creating a three at the back in possession which is something England might do.
Phillips’s England Competition
Kalvin’s main competition in the holding midfield role is Declan Rice and Harry Winks. As Southgate tends to use Henderson in a more advanced centre midfielder role, not as the holding midfielder. Southgate has previously stated he picks players based on form. Phillips is the only one who is playing regularly in a winning team at a consistently good level. Winks has played nearly a thousand less minutes than Phillips and more than a thousand fewer minutes than Rice. So Winks isn’t even playing regularly for Spurs so doesn’t deserve the same opportunity as Rice and Phillips. Rice, on the other hand, is playing for a lacklustre West Ham side who are only not in the relegation zone due to goal difference. So on form, Phillips is surely the best option. Rice also is used to playing in a two-man midfield, not as the solo holding midfield. As well as a team that averages 48% possession. The system England play is best suited to the Leeds United man who is better than Rice in possession and better than Winks out of possession.
Below is a comparison between the three players using a website called SmarterScout. The website compares players at a benchmark level so its all the same and comparable. This compares them at Premier League level.
If we look at the big red highlighted area we can see their defending output. Phillips, although playing in a system with 10% more possession than both Spurs and West Ham, is more active defensively than both of his counterparts. This is due to the high press implemented at Leeds. Not only does he do more than the others, he also does it more effectively with a high defending quality ranking than Rice and Winks. The disrupt and recover metric has also been highlighted. This further emphasises his quality defensively. He has an incredibly high recover number at 91 and this is due to his reading of the game and positioning. Which makes him able to pick up second balls and loose balls to keep his team in possession and on the front foot. He also has a much higher disrupt number which is evident when you watch Phillips. He is excellent at slowing down the opposition in transition by blocking passing lanes and using his body to close down the opponent without giving him and easy pass. His pass to goal number is also much higher than the other two showcasing his passing ability which makes him able to create from deep.
Likelihood of the call-up
The only real argument against Kalvin Phillips is that he plays in the Championship and is untested at the top level. This is a fair argument too. However, Southgate broke this rule when he called up Mason Mount last season in his first championship season with Derby County. Mount did have experience in the youth setup with England, unlike Phillips. However, Phillips has far more of a case than Mount did at the time of his call up. He has worked under one of the most highly-rated managers in the world in Marcelo Bielsa. Who may lack trophies but more than makes up for that in his reputation with player development.
Phillips could also be playing in the Premier League if he wanted too, with Leeds receiving bids of £20million in the summer for his services. Instead, he chose to sign a new long term contract with Leeds and he shouldn’t be punished for his loyalty. He is playing in by far the most complex tactical system outside of the Premiership. Perhaps more complex than a lot of Premier League teams too. Phillips performances have been so consistent over the last two season’s and is arguably the best player in the Championship this season. All this coupled with the fact he is more suitable to England’s current system than his counterparts. I think it is very plausible that he will get called up for the upcoming March friendlies. Southgate has also been to Elland Road to watch Phillips in person this season. So, its quite possible Phillips will get called up for this international break. Even if it’s just so he can get used to the set-up so next season he will be comfortable in and around the squad. Southgate has mixed and matched between Rice and Winks during the qualifiers and has clearly not found his favourite and best holding midfielder. So why not give Phillips a chance.
Kalvin Phillips is more suited to that holding midfield role in England’s system than any other player, regardless of division. He is currently playing more regularly than Winks and in a more attacking team than Rice. He has all the attributes these two have and more. Phillips has now been the most consistent performer at the Championship level for two years now and is more than deserving of an international call-up. We all know Phillips will be in the Premier League next season with or without Leeds. So if his division is the only argument against, then why wait a few months when you can introduce him already. He is Premier League and England ready. Southgate is the ultimate judge but he’d be a fool not to give him a chance in a position we are not strong in.
Credit to Wyscout for most of the statistics. Statsbomb for the radar and SmarterScout for the comparison. Credit to @FocusOnLeeds for the tackle map. Credit to @LFZtweets for the featured image too.
Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed.