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The Yorkshire Pirlo: Phillips silences the doubters with dominant England display

17:22 SAST 2021/06/13
Kalvin Phillips Raheem Sterling Gareth Southgate England GFX
The Leeds United midfielder produced an energetic display in the sun that helped haul his team to victory in their Euro 2020 opener against Croatia

Much of the hype that has surrounded England heading into Euro 2020 has been built around their various superstar names.

Be it top-six stalwarts Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford or up-and-coming youngsters Phil Foden and Mason Mount, the Three Lions have a squad with more household names in it than at any point in the last 15 years.

And yet as Gareth Southgate's side kicked off their campaign with a 1-0 victory over Croatia at Wembley, it was one of his lesser-known players who stood above his team-mates with a towering performance.

Kalvin Phillips might not have even started were Jordan Henderson fully fit, but the Leeds United star took his opportunity with both hands in a performance that mixed his usual midfield grit with some attacking flair.

No more so was that evident than when Phillips - who Leeds fans have nicknamed 'The Yorkshire Pirlo' in recent years - showed quick feet to dart inside from the right before playing an inch-perfect pass into the path of Sterling, who nudged the ball past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic for his first goal at a major tournament.

Many questioned whether Phillips possessed the requisite ability in the final third to produce such an assist, given his rise at Elland Road has been built on playing as a holding player.

Under Marcelo Bielsa, the 25-year-old is asked to sit in front of the defence in a 4-1-4-1 formation, and while that does allow him to show off his passing range at times, his record of one goal and two assists over the course of his first Premier League campaign does not exactly jump off the page.

Some fans would rather have seen Jude Bellingham - who came off the bench late on to become the youngest-ever male player in European Championship history - or even Jack Grealish play in Southgate's preferred 4-3-3 system.

But Phillips played a key role, alongside Mount and Declan Rice, in controlling an area of the pitch that is Croatia's strength, given the presence of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic in their midfield.

Phillips completed every pass he made in the first half here, and had the best completion rate (93.9 per cent) of any England player who lasted the full 90 minutes.

No England player recovered possession more, either, with Phillips regularly putting his foot in to win the ball in the middle of the park.

"It's a great feeling to get an assist and a great feeling for the three points," he told BBC Sport post-match.

"I'm laid back - that's the kind of person I am regardless of what is thrown at me. I just try and take it in my stride. If I didn't have the team around me and the coaching staff around me to make me feel like that, then I don't think it would be possible."

While Phillips was England's standout performer in a display that Southgate described as "immense", there was little else to get too excited about from a Three Lions perspective, with their win built more on solidity than free-flowing football.

Despite a fast start that saw Foden hit the post and Phillips denied from long range by Livakovic, England struggled to create many clear-cut opportunities, with World Cup Golden Boot winner Kane enduring a quiet afternoon before being substituted late on.

Alongside him, Sterling was bright and caused problems with his runs in behind, while Mount and Rice were also impressive in midfield.

Tyrone Mings, too, proved himself an able deputy to Harry Maguire, as the Aston Villa man stood firm on the rare occasion that Croatia threatened Jordan Pickford's goal.

England's squad depth could yet be key for them going forward, and was perfectly illustrated by the fact that Jadon Sancho and Champions League winner Ben Chilwell failed to even make Southgate's matchday group of 23.

Phillips, though, showed a worldwide audience why Leeds fans have been raving about his ability for each of the past three seasons.

'The Yorkshire Pirlo' has arrived at Euro 2020. More performances like that, and expectation could - for once - become reality for England.