In star-studded England, Kalvin Phillips shines the brightest
Had there been no pandemic and the European Championship been held as scheduled last summer, Kalvin Phillips would have been on vacation or at home following the tournament on TV. The Leeds United midfielder was a Championship player till last season, with no experience of top-flight football, until the team was promoted to the Premier League after 16 years.
But there he was on Sunday afternoon at London’s Wembley Stadium, dictating the game from midfield as England started their Euro 2020 campaign with a 1-0 victory over 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia in Group D. Phillips had a near-flawless outing, playing a box-to-box role rather than the deep-lying holding role he is employed in at his club by Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa.
In a star-studded starting line-up that featured four players who won the league in England this season, one who won the league in Spain and another who won the Champions League, besides skipper Harry Kane, Phillips never seemed out of place. He started build-ups, recovered the ball, made timely tackles and interceptions, and created space for teammates when needed in a cagey encounter between two cautious sides.
Playing against a team with multiple Champions League winners and a central midfield featuring the formidable trio of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic never fazed Phillips. He made his most notable contribution when he found Raheem Sterling in a small pocket of space inside the box with a brilliant ball early in the second half. The power in Sterling’s shot took the ball past the keeper, and proved the winner.
It was a game-changing contribution from Phillips at a moment when neither side seemed to be able to take charge. The all-round showing from the Leeds academy product was exactly what England boss Gareth Southgate would have expected of him when he gave Phillips his international debut last September. The authority shown by him on Sunday must have amazed even Southgate.
“Kalvin is a player who is so understated. He has had a fantastic start to his international career. I thought he was immense throughout the game,” Southgate told reporters after Sunday’s win.
“When he plays well, the level of the team increases greatly,” Leeds manager Bielsa had said in 2019, after the club missed promotion by a whisker. “To be able to hold onto a starting role in a team as strong as England is an important achievement, (playing) in a sector of the pitch where it’s difficult to shine. He deserves to be very proud of what he has been achieving,” Bielsa said of Phillips earlier this year.
Phillips’ match-winning performance on Sunday also helped paper over the cracks in England’s game. But there are a few areas Southgate will seek improvements in as the tournament progresses.
The England boss was criticised before the game by fans and pundits for his team selection with specialist right-back Kieran Trippier starting at left-back while Ben Chilwell didn’t feature in the squad for the game.
Trippier, the Atletico Madrid defender, though had a good game, helping his side shut out a dangerous Croatian right flank. Yet, the penetration that a more conventional left-back would have offered wasn’t difficult to imagine at times when England struggled to create or speed up tempo.
Playing at their home ground, England’s exuberant start that saw Phil Foden rattle the woodwork with a stinging shot from the right minutes into the game, seemed to almost overwhelm Croatia for a brief period. The beginning almost mirrored the way England’s frenetic start saw them go ahead early in their 2018 World Cup semi-final, only to be knocked out in extra time.
Croatia didn’t concede early this time and it didn’t take them long to slow down the game. Zlatko Dalic’s side quickly took the sting out of England’s attack, and what started in such intense fashion soon turned into a sluggish encounter.
Croatia didn’t create much though, despite managing to seize back possession in the second half. Sterling’s strike was the only goal as England picked up three points. The 17-year-old Jude Bellingham came on for England in the second half to create a slice of history as the youngest player to feature in the tournament.
For Dalic, it will be back to the drawing board before they face Czech Republic on Friday. Southgate might consider a change or two in his attacking set-up when they face old foes Scotland the same day.