How Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips turned the Wembley groans to cheers

At around quarter to one yesterday, a rumble swept across England.

Raheem Sterling of England celebrates with Kalvin Phillips. (Photo: Carl Recine - Pool/Getty Images)

It was the noise of people grumbling at Kieran Trippier being selected over actual left-backs, Tyrone Mings being preferred to Ben White and Connor Coady at centre-back, Raheem Sterling being chosen when Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were not, and probably most of all, Kalvin Phillips being picked in a team Jack Grealish and Jude Bellingham were made to watch from the sidelines.

Disagreeing with the team the England football manager picks has been a national obsession since time immemorial and Gareth Southgate gets it more than most not because he is bad at it, but because the depth of talent at his disposal means so many good players have to be left on the bench at the moment.

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In England’s first game of the 2020 European Championship, he emphatically played his cards right.

England's Kalvin Phillips battles with Croatia's Ante Rebic (left) and Marcelo Brozovic. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

On top of his individual selections, another stick to beat Southgate with is that he is too conservative. With such a plethora of flair at his fingers, many fans would probably be quite happy if he went all Ossie Ardilles and crammed as many attacking players onto the field as possible. But of all the many managers who pick England teams, only Southgate has to live with the consequences.

The 4-2-3-1 he opened the tournament with yesterday was all about balance, and Leeds United’s Phillips was fundamental to it.

If there were reservations in the noisy stands, the cheers of appreciation for the Leeds-born player suggested they were quickly forgotten.

Even as he warmed up he was made to feel at home, the stadium DJ playing Endor’s Pump It Up – a Leeds anthem. England wore wearing white shorts for the full Leeds look.

Kalvin Phillips of England battles for possession with Josko Gvardiol of Croatia. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Playing between holding midfielder Declan Rice and the ridiculously-talented “three-quarter line” of Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Sterling, Phillips epitomised the confidence his pretty inexperienced side, the tournament’s second youngest, brimmed with at the start.

Foden had already curled a fifth-minute shot onto the post when Phillips forced a save from Dominik Livakovic, calmly waiting for a corner to drop out of the air for him to volley, rather than snatching it like a 25-year-old who had never played international football this time last year should have, and as more experienced players on both sides later would.

A couple of minutes later he was taking the ball down nicely, seeing off the two men around him and finding a safe pass to a white shirt to appreciative applause.

There was a well-measured pass out to Kyle Walker and another to Foden, highlights picked out by Southgate, and a cheer as he dispossessed Josko Gvardiol.

He got forward at times, not something he is often required to do for Leeds, winning a free-kick, waiting alongside Foden for a Sterling cross and even being flagged offside.

As England’s early dominance cooled Leeds fans saw more familiar stuff, picking up the ball deep and spraying it, Walker and Foden fed from the right-back slot as the former pushed on, the latter in.

Although Croatia started the second half with their best spell of the game, Phillips was able to get back onto the front foot, chasing an excellent ball down the line and brilliantly finding Sterling to open the scoring shortly before the hour.

“It was a great weight of pass,” said the recipient admiringly.

Then it was back to a more defensive role as England hung onto their 1-0 lead in a way they were unable to when the sides last met in a major tournament, at the 2018 World Cup semi-final.

In the end there was a bit of everything.

“He brings a lot of energy to the team,” said Sterling. “He’s on the front and he’s always in the faces of opposition midfielders but at the same time he uses the ball well.”

“He’s just a very good footballer,” said Southgate.

No one will be groaning if Phillips is on Friday’s team-sheet against Scotland. After that performance, the only groans will be if he is not.