The return to holding midfield has been kind to Kalvin Phillips. First he headed home a last gasp equaliser away at Middlesbrough to salvage a priceless point, then he backed up that display by playing a starring role in Leeds United’s 2-1 victory over Swansea City on Wednesday evening.
In the euphoria of victory superlatives and emotionally-fuelled compliments are often dished out through rose-tinted spectacles. Every fan is guilty of falling into that trap, but there is certainly a weight of credibility lying beneath the claims of those Leeds supporters who have tipped Phillips to play for England in the future.
Kalvin Phillips is an unbelievable footballer. He will play for England mark my words #lufc
— Murrier (@MurrierLUFC) February 13, 2019
Now, those who do not share the same level of enthusiasm for Phillips may well be inclined to call hyperbole and dismiss his credentials, but he offers something which no other English player can right now: a fine blend between deep-lying creativity and defensive intelligence in the pivot role.
Jordan Henderson was handed the responsibility of anchoring England’s midfield at the World Cup in Russia, getting the nod over an increasingly unpopular Eric Dier. Liverpool’s captain was largely praised for his discipline and willingness to compromise his playmaking quality to offer a shield in front of the defensive unit.
While the praise was fundamentally deserved, it was impossible to escape the feeling that he looked uncomfortable in the position and the Three Lions would have been markedly more balanced with a genuine defensive midfielder in the side.
Following the events which have unfolded this week, it would be difficult to argue that there is a better candidate than Declan Rice to operate in holding midfield when the next set of England internationals come round next month.
West Ham’s lynchpin has been a colossal cog for Manuel Pellegrini this season, patrolling the midfield with a maturity well beyond his 20-years of existence.
A complete performance against Arsenal shortly before his 20th birthday, which he capped by scoring the winning goal, forced the footballing world to take the boy seriously. The Hammers faithful had been barking loudest about his credentials to grow in the game for well over twelve months, but that performance finally made neutrals appreciate the seriousness of their claims.
It feels as if a similar pattern could be set to unfold in regards to Phillips’ development and, on current form, he should certainly be on Gareth Southgate’s radar.
The England boss has consistently showcased his progressive train of thought, opting to focus on the development of youth players and trusting in those who are willing to embrace his philosophy.
That he called up Mason Mount to the senior squad in October 2018 serves to vindicate that widely held belief, and his willingness to consider bringing Championship players into the fold gives Phillips hope of drawing serious interest from the England hierarchy – if not now then at a later stage in 2019.
Dier and Rice represent Phillips’ biggest competition to earning a place in the squad. In many respects the jury is still out on both players: Tottenham’s answer to Roy Keane commands a healthy contingent of sceptics and has been struggling with injury of late, while West Ham’s prodigy remains uncapped – for England, anyway.
Rice is undoubtedly a strong favourite to step into England’s defensive midfield role but places within the squad are up for grabs, and the current playing field could work in favour of the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ when Southgate selects his squad for the next round of England fixtures.