Leeds United, 2014–
Such are the qualities that Kalvin Phillips displayed in the middle of the Leeds midfield during the club's promotion season under Marcelo Bielsa, that he became only the third player this century to represent England before having made a single appearance in the Premier League. He started for Gareth Southgate's team in a Nations League fixture against Denmark in September 2020, four days before anchoring the Leeds midfield in a thrilling 4-3 defeat against Liverpool on the team's long-awaited return to the Premier League.
Phillips is a Leeds youth product who has made more than 200 appearances for the club since making his debut in April 2015. His rise, particularly under the guidance of the inspirational Bielsa, culminated in a stellar 2020/21 season for both club and country. A key figure in Leeds finishing ninth in the Premier League, he starred for England in the national team's run to the final of the delayed Euro 2020. His absence through injury for much of the 2021/22 season played no little part in Leeds' struggles in the often difficult second season back, and the ultimate departure of Bielsa.
"I think he's fantastic," said new head coach Jesse Marsch of Phillips. "You can see his quality, you can see his poise, you can see the confidence he brings to the group. The more that he can expand his presence on the pitch with and without the ball is just going to make us better and better. And his presence will be massive."
Phillips is a defensive midfielder with a superb passing range and great tactical awareness. Most often used as a single pivot at the base of a midfield, he withdraws into deeper positions to assist the team in building possession in the defensive third. A player with impressive stamina, he is also capable of offering consistent movements across the pitch to create forward passing options and avoid being screened.
His availability to receive contributes to his passing range, while his technique means he is capable of playing off few touches. As a result, he can combine and build while receiving the ball or under intense pressure. He can also break lines in central areas, accurately finding teammates making forward runs ahead of him (below). The speed with which he executes passes is a further strength, while his timing has improved since his arrival in the Premier League at the age of 24.
From his starting position in the middle of midfield, Phillips can manage the tempo of his team's possession. He looks to draw defenders to one side, before using his awareness of both space and his teammates' positions to change his body shape and switch play.
If he can improve his longer-range passing, so that his accuracy when playing over defences into a teammate on the move matches that when playing into feet or switching play, he can be even more influential. As is often the case for deeper-lying midfielders, it is in the attacking half where he is likelier to lose possession.
Phillips' understanding of movement, positioning and spaces makes him effective at stopping opposition counter-attacks, particularly in central areas. He often recovers possession by intelligently predicting where loose balls will arrive and making interceptions (below), and by anticipating his opponents' movements.
A combative player, Phillips is also impressive when duelling for possession – something he developed further during occasional spells operating in the middle of a back three. He stands only 5ft 10ins, but his reading of the game and athleticism mean he is also useful in the air. When possible, he looks to control aerial balls on his chest and use his qualities as a ball-player rather than head it elsewhere.
Phillips has most consistently featured at the base of midfield in the 4-3-3 that Bielsa preferred during his tenure. He links from defence and into attack, where the team's attacking central midfielders advance to to join their front three. As a result, he often has both time and space in which to operate and vary his movements to receive. Opponents are aware of his importance and often attempt to negate his influence by man-marking him. When they do, he draws them away from the ball so another teammate can move into his position and assist the build-up (below).
When he is under less pressure, Phillips looks to assist with wider combinations. Here, he receives from the full-backs before playing first-time passes through the inside channels. Fluid movements ahead of the ball, from either the attacking midfielders or wide forwards, give him options when doing so. The width of their full-backs also gives Phillips the opportunity to withdraw into or alongside the central defenders to receive the ball.
Bielsa's favoured wider combinations tempted pressure from opposing attacking players. In this situation, Phillips looked to take up positions from where he could support the ball without sacrificing his ability to receive. Should that pressure increase, Phillips' ability to combine in tight spaces helps the team progress from their defensive half. His one-twos and third-man runs around the Leeds full-backs also prove valuable here.
When Bielsa instead used a 3-3-1-3 shape, Phillips featured either as their most withdrawn midfielder or as the central defender in their back three (below). From there, he excels in breaking lines from deep positions and into his attacking teammates. If opponents change their pressing strategy to adjust to that, Phillips' versatility means his play from central defence instead focuses on initiating the wider combinations mentioned above.
Off the ball, his aerial ability is more intensely tested when playing in the back three. Here, he prioritises covering his midfield and delaying attacks over committing to challenges against fast or strong forwards.
It is when he plays as the defensive midfielder in the 4-3-3 that Phillips is so important to preventing the counter-attacks so many opponents look for because of Leeds' commitment to attack. Phillips covers the three central lanes particularly well, increasing his fellow midfielders' freedom to contribute to the expansive movements Bielsa demanded in the attacking half.
Phillips has been a vital part of the Leeds team since his ascension to the first team six seasons ago. His qualities and his form, both at club and international level, suggest there may be a bigger move to come further down the line.
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Author: The Coaches' Voice