How Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips earned his England call-up

Kalvin Phillips (right) celebrates scoring against Birmingham at Elland Road last season
Kalvin Phillips scored the only goal of their ‘centenary game’ against Birmingham last season

When Marcelo Bielsa first met with representatives of Leeds to discuss becoming their manager in the summer of 2018, his focus was not on the players he could sign but the ones already at his disposal. Near the top of the list was Kalvin Phillips.

In the copious and meticulous amounts of research done by the Argentine on the Whites’ squad, he recognised in the homegrown midfielder a player who had lost his way while charging box-to-box.

Instead, he would harness his clear physicality and previous untapped ability at number four. He would teach him discipline, to pick the right pass and always be in the right place at the right time. He would make him, in Bielsa’s own words, “the best in the league”.

Two years and an England call up later, Phillips has not only graduated top of the class in the Championship, but established himself as one of the finest players of his type in the country.

The ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’

Kalvin Phillips (right) in action against Arsenal in last season's FA Cup
Phillips has yet to play a Premier League game but did impress for Leeds against Arsenal in last season’s FA Cup third-round tie at the Emirates

Leeds supporters are well versed in Phillips’ story, but fans who never cast an eye over the English second tier would be forgiven for being a tad mystified by the 24-year-old’s inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s national squad.

This is a player who has never before represented his country at any age level and who has yet to play a single game in the Premier League (although that will soon be put right).

What those supporters have missed, though, is a player unparalleled at that level in his position over the last two seasons – one both adept at spotting danger and snuffing it out while also able to pick out an advanced team-mate with a pinpoint pass.

Such is his versatility and physical prowess, he has also adapted to dropping back to become a third centre-back in his manager’s fluid tactical system.

“You don’t often see someone who has the physical attributes which mean they can drop back one, but also play more advanced too,” former Leeds midfielder Michael Brown tells BBC Sport.

“He can play short and long passes, he has got a competitive edge and lots of energy and he is good in the air.

“That’s what makes him different because most holding midfielders can’t just drop into defence the way he does. I just think he has got everything he needs.”

Kalvin Phillips defensive midfield stats
In the last two seasons, since his positional and tactical shift under Bielsa, Phillips has topped the Leeds player rankings for tackles, interceptions and successful passes. He was also the second-ranked midfielder in the Championship for successful long passes last season with 163

It is these qualities that have seen Leeds fans nickname him him the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’ as a nod to perceived similarities between their home grown hero and legendary Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo.

This was the chant that greeted him on the steps at Elland Road as he emerged to celebrate with supporters after Leeds’ promotion back to the Premier League was confirmed in August.

The emotion was clear to see for a player who 12 months earlier was seriously considering joining Aston Villa in order to play top-flight football and a year before that was struggling to find a consistent place for himself, despite his clear talents.

Kalvin Phillips celebrates promotion to the Premier League with Leeds fans at Elland Road
Phillips is the latest in a line of defensive midfielders who have come through at Leeds to become a fan favourite, following in the footsteps of Billy Bremner and David Batty

‘He was always smiling’

Phillips is one of the stars of the recent Amazon documentary that followed Leeds during their 2018-19 season, as much for how he comes across as a person as a player.

In one early scene with his family, in which his grandma declares her love for Bielsa, his personality shines through – laid-back, happy, humble.

“I remember Kalvin coming through when I was at Leeds,” says Brown. “From a very young age, I could see straight away that we had a real player on our hands.

“And he was an amazing kid – someone who was very likeable because of his attitude and work ethic, which was fantastic. He could fit into any group, because he was very approachable – I remember he was always smiling.

“He’s a likeable lad but he’s got an edge as well, which is important because you need a bit of character, and be willing to fight for things.”

And Phillips has fought.

A triplet who sadly lost one of his sisters to illness at a young age, he was raised by his mother in Armley, a suburb of Leeds, and joined United at the relatively late age of 14.

Sacrifices were made to help him fulfil his dream. Doubters also had to be proven wrong, including one school teacher who wrote to his mother advising that he forget about taking up a scholarship with Leeds and focus on something less likely to end in failure.

Phillips has been defying critics since, including those Leeds fans who felt he had developed as far as he could and had little left to offer in the summer that Paul Heckingbottom made way for Bielsa.

His recent call-up prompted more negativity,external-link but he has clearly won over Southgate, who has regularly watched him for the best part of the past two years and was touched by the boyish glee that greeted him when he phoned to break the news of his inclusion.external-link

‘Now it is Kalvin’s chance’

(Left to right) James Milner, Fabian Delph and Lewis Cook
Phillips will join an impressive list of Leeds midfield academy graduates to play for England this century

Phillips’ integration into the England squad should be made easier by his tutelage under Bielsa and the similar formation with which Southgate tends to operate.

Declan Rice, Jordan Henderson and Harry Winks will provide the main competition for the midfield anchor role, but with only the first of those currently fit, Phillips’ chances of making his international bow against either Iceland or Denmark in the upcoming Nations League games are greatly enhanced.

And Brown feels he can potentially offer something different to his peers.

“He could link up play in a different style to other players who play in a bit more advanced positions, because he can sit and start attacks with a longer range of passing,” he said.

“I’ve seen some mixed reaction to his call-up, with some people saying he has only played in the Championship but he is a Premier League player all day long, so that is why Southgate wants to see him and that’s why he is in this squad.

“We have been waiting to see who masters that role, to sit in and be that holding player for England. There is Declan Rice, Harry Winks can do it too. Now it is Kalvin’s chance.”

Additional reporting by BBC Radio Leeds’ Adam Pope