Phillips is the only outfielder to have played every minute of the group stage for the Three Lions and when Southgate decided to bring on vice-captain Jordan Henderson for much-needed second-half minutes on Tuesday he opted against the more like-for-like choice of taking off Phillips and instead withdrew holding midfielder Declan Rice. It was a telling decision.
“We wanted to get Jordan 45 minutes so that was the decision and it also allowed us to play Kalvin more positionally,” explained Southgate after the 1-0 victory.
In an England career which is not yet a year old, Leeds-born Phillips has tended to play in front of a defensive midfielder, usually Rice, with more responsibility to link the team’s defensive unit to its attacking players.
Phillips created England’s opening goal of the tournament against Croatia from that position, and was England’s best player in another 1-0 win.
His job is different at Leeds, where as the defensive midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 the emphasis is on him to screen the defence but he also has a big role in starting attacks from deep. That is what he was able to do in Tuesday’s second half.
“I thought he was excellent, really good,” commented Southgate. “I like him in that role, the defensive pivot.
“His use of the ball was good, he found the right spaces to go and receive.
“He played it as I’ve seen him play it for Leeds, thankfully, and it shows how well he’s adapted to international football.”
With England already qualified for the knockout stages, Southgate was able to use the game to get valuable game-time into not only Henderson but also Sheffield-born centre-back Harry Maguire – two leaders whose experience he will want to lean on in the knockout stages.
It now creates some difficult decisions for Tuesday’s last-16 tie at Wembley, with Maguire’s deputy Tyrone Mings outstanding in the first two matches, and just two from Phillips, Henderson and Rice likely to play.
Before the tournament and Southgate’s glowing assessment, that decision felt a lot more predictable at least to those outside the camp.