Phillips impressed in his first major tournament appearance – and here's why

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After England’s win over Croatia Kalvin Phillips, making his debut in a major tournament, was asked if he felt as relaxed as he had looked. "To be honest I’m just laid back, regardless of what’s thrown at me," he said. 

Calmness radiated from his game and seemed to seep into his team-mates. This was a pleasingly unexpected way for an England team to start a European Championships.

Phillips was part of a deep midfield two with Declan Rice, the West Ham player deployed more as a bouncer for the backline. Phillips sat alongside him but had a more dynamic role than his Leeds incarnation of own half pass-sprayer .

He frequently combined defensive duties with attacking, sometimes in the same move, everything executed with the doggedness and energy levels you would associate with his club side, the most prolific pressers in the Premier League this season.

No player in the England shirt could match his number of successful dribbles, nor interceptions. Only Phil Foden had a superior rating for pass accuracy. 

Thirty seconds into the game Phillips tangled with Matteo Kovavic before tracking back, putting himself in the right place to mop up a loose ball and playing a nerve-settling pass to the feet of Raheem Sterling wide on the left.

Here’s how the rest of his game played out. 

2nd minute – movement, passing, shielding

With Croatia sat deep and England on the ball Phillips dropped back to show for Declan Rice, scanning to gauge what was around him just before receiving the pass. Here he is wearing white, in the centre of the picture:

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He played it back to Stones, the defender behind him, then immediately broke into a trot upfield. By the time it reached Walker at right back Phillips, number 14, is in the Croatia half and heading for space on the right-hand side:

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With Phil Foden on the ball on the right flank Phillips was now overlapping ahead of him, dragging a worried Kovacic out of central midfield for Croatia:

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Foden is tackled and dispossessed, at which point Phillips is so far advanced he’s mostly out of the camera shot. 

Eight seconds after playing a simple pass to a centre back in his own half he had driven his team from defence into attack and offered an attacking option for a pass which also worked as a diversionary run. 

This disturbed Croatia’s dangerous midfield three, forcing Kovacic to track back, and opened up space for Foden had he not lost possession. As soon as Foden had lost the ball Phillips hurried back, getting in the way of a Marcelo Brozovic pass at the top of the shot here:

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That was enough for the pass to miss its target, and England were back in possession. 

With Walker back on the ball, Phillips engaged in some mildly dark arts by stopping suddenly then standing firm for a second, to prevent Brozovic from joining the press gang on Walker, just above the ref here: 

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This sort of multi-disciplinary omnipresence was typical of Phillips’s all-action display. 

There was much the same a minute later, Phillips receiving a ball in the middle from Sterling, playing it back again to Stones then setting off on a run towards the right flank. Stretching the field, making the team more dynamic, giving England strength in numbers.

In the sixth minute Phillips was involved in a pair of triangular passing moves in Croatia’s half, on the right-hand side once again. In the first he offered the advanced run again towards the corner flag, in the second he stayed put. Each decision correct, given the shape of the opponents on both occasions.

8th minute – stand-in striker

Despite starting as part of a deep midfield two Phillips clearly had licence to roam, trusted by Gareth Southgate to be positionally flexible. Few defensive midfielders end up here during attacking moves:

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That’s Phillips as the most advanced player for England, taking up a position you’d expect from Harry Kane. He received the ball, held off Duje Caleta-Car and played in Raheem Sterling inside the box:

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This was a presentable chance for Sterling, but Caleta-Car recovered to force a corner. It was headed clear to Phillips, who connected beautifully with a volley from outside of the box:

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This was well saved by Croatian keeper Dominik Livakovic. More brilliance from Phillips in the next minute, when another high ball dropped to him in Croatia’s half, he pulled it out of the air neatly, immediately held off two Croatia players and played a safe pass back to Tyrone Mings.

A well-judged ball out to the right for Kyle Walker followed six minutes later, then a neat cushioned pass to Mason Mount. Shortly afterwards there was a ball won back from Brozovic, a foul won for England, then a ball-winning tackle on Josko Gvardiol wide on the left. 

On 18 minutes Phillips slid in on Kovacic on the edge of the Croatia box. A foul, but he got a shot off for good measure which needed a diving Livakovic save. 

It had been an excellent start. 

20th minute – a near miss

More telling attacking contributions. Phillips played a cute reverse pass out to Kieran Trippier overlapping on the left which did not come to much, but nearly scored shortly afterwards, moving into the vacant striker position vacated by Kane dropping deep. He’s on the move here, the second England player from the top of the shot:

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Mount found Sterling with a gorgeous pass into the box, who looked to find Phillips, subtly backing off from his marker in the middle:

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Sterling’s cross was slightly too weak, and Croatia were able to head clear.

There were two quick passes on 24 minutes, one short, one long before Phillips closed down two Croatia players wide on the left. When Trippier was beaten by the second, Sime Vrsaljo, Phillips attempted to prevent his cross but could not. The first minor blot on his previously impeccable copybook.

With Croatia coming into the game more, Phillips’ did more of a screening job, becoming destroyer rather than attacker.

Out wide beyond the right-back he was unable to prevent another pass into the box, but applied enough pressure for it to be a tame one. Rice intercepted.

Then Phillips provided the long ball down the right flank which brought Phil Foden’s second-best moment of a quiet match, a delicious piece of ball control. 

A few steady passes mostly in the centre circle, another run into the centre forward position (offside) and one more decent long pass down the right for Walker closed out Phillips’ half.

47th minute – tactical fouls

Tactical fouls are the purists’ anathema but entirely necessary in modern football. Teams managed by purist’s purist Pep Guardiola are among the best at breaking up play in this way, and Phillips made a couple in quick succession to set an uncompromising tone in the second half.

The first came after a throw, when Luka Modric had shielded Phillips with his back, then passed the ball to Andrej Kramaric who beat Sterling and Phillips with a neat dink into space towards the middle of the pitch.

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This might not look like much to worry about for England, but look at the position of Rice, just behind the referee. He’s one of seven England players in the Croatia half, well forward from his usual beat in front of the back four.

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He may have reached Kramaric to snuff out the move, but that would have meant leaving Kovacic (number eight by the centre circle) free to receive a pass. If either of them get the wrong side of Rice they’re suddenly running unchallenged at England’s back four.

Phillips had seen all of this and wasted no time in bundling Kramaric over.

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A clear foul, but a wise one.

There was a relentlessness to his work all afternoon. From the resulting free kick he spotted Kovacic, the free man about to receive the ball, quickly closed him down, put a hand on his back and forced him into a slipping pass backwards. Kovacic remonstrated with the referee, but this was the sort of borderline intervention which skirts the line of fair and foul. He was making the lives of Croatia’s midfielders a misery.

Another tactical foul followed on 51 minutes. England were even more exposed this time, with eight men in Croatia’s half and six ahead of the ball when Modric broke. 

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Again Phillips read the moment and intervened, stopping Croatia when and where they were most dangerous. 

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Three standard midfield passes between minutes 54 and 56 came next, before the highlight of Phillips’s match. 

57th minute – making the goal

Phillips stood just outside the centre circle in Croatia’s half, with Walker on the ball:

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Seeing space, he set off on a run towards the right-hand flank:

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Walker played an immaculate through ball, and Phillips rode a desperate challenge from Gvardiol:

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Beating centre back Caleta-Car with ease, Phillips spotted the vast expanse of open space that had emerged where a coherent Croatian defence should have been:

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His left-footed pass finds the runner, Sterling, who holds off a challenge to score the only goal of the game.

Raheem Sterling opens the scoring for England

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An assist in what would become England’s first ever opening game win at a Euros. Not bad for a player who has just completed his first season of top flight football.

Phillips’s next nine involvements were all completed passes, all in the middle third of the pitch. Nothing showy here, just minor moves to find space to receive the ball, steadily keeping possession ticking over and adding to the impression that England were in control of the game.

On 65 minutes he teamed up with Mount to win the ball from Brozovic, by now surely overflowing with fury about being so consistently shown up by Phillips. Mount took it forward an won a free kick just outside the box. 

Three minutes later there was a minor low point, failing to keep control of a Walker header which had needed a stretch to reach. On 74 minutes, deputising temporarily at right-back, he read a pass well, nipping in front of Perisic to cut it out before deliberately putting it out of play so John Stones could receive treatment.

In minute 78 Phillips battled to win a ball from two Croatia players near the halfway line but his pass lacked a clear target. 

In final 10 England were visibly running out of steam but Phillips was still finding the reserves to close down, make a nuisance of himself. There was some evidence he was tiring. Modric arguably got past him a little easily in Croatia’s half. During stoppage time, in Phillips’ final real involvement, he was beaten Gvardiol in midfield, albeit not in an area where he could do any damage. 

These were his worst two moments of the game. If those are the lowlights in a performance you’ve had a very good day. 

This was not a 10/10 display, one to tell the grandchildren about. Just a job well done by a thoroughly modern England player. Phillips is able to keep the ball, read a situation, manage a game and provide an occasional spark of invention. All are highly encouraging traits for his future, and for his country. 

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