When the England starting XI was leaked on Sunday morning, you would have been forgiven for greeting the news with something of a shrug.
Many did in fact, with the BBC pundits pre-match labelling Gareth Southgate’s decisions ‘safe’ and ‘conservative’, much based upon the assumption that two holding midfielders would sit deep, in front of England’s back four.
But it didn’t quite turn out that way. With one man in particular really making his mark as England started in the perfect fashion.
Phillips’ intensity behind England’s fast start
Bidding to win their first ever opening game at a European Championship, England started brightly, causing a suspect Croatia backline problems, with Phil Foden striking the post [0.07 xG] in the sixth minute and the standout – but somehow not man of the match – Kalvin Phillips testing the goalkeeper with a low-probability volley [0.02 xG].
That effort from the Leeds United midfielder was not atypical of his performances at club level: a potshot from the edge of the area after a half-clearance following a corner.
What was, was his tendency to travel into more advanced positions than we see on a week-to-week basis in the Premier League, where he very much anchors Marcelo Bielsa’s swashbuckling team.
If his inclusion in the starting line-up could be described as relatively surprising, the role he played was utterly so. The information his selection did accurately provide, though, was a pre-match glimpse into how the first half was likely to play out.
Gareth Southgate’s side picked their moments to execute the press, a strategy that Phillips is more than comfortable with, and often tasked with triggering given his role for Leeds. But England also knew exactly when to hold back against a dangerous Croatian midfield, protecting the home team’s most vulnerable area — defence.
As a result, Croatia created very little, recording just two shots equating to 0.07 xG in the opening 45 minutes.
Advanced role leads to key moment
After completing 100% of his 18 passes in the first half, it was Phillips who unlocked a Croatia defence that had frustrated England following the Three Lions’ positive start.
The Yorkshireman took advantage of the extra freedom afforded to him by his national boss, moving forward through midfield soon after the break, and finding space behind Croatia’s most talented unit to provide the assist for England’s winner.
Phillips fed Raheem Sterling perfectly for the all-important goal [0.51 xG], a vindication of his selection despite the questions raised.
That kind of production in the final third was a testament to his exquisitely well-rounded display, furthered by the assurance that Phillips can be more than trusted to defend a lead he helped manufacture.
Indeed, Croatia only managed to generate a total of 0.44 xG after England took the lead.
Phillips ‘impossible to drop’
It’s something we’ve seen all season with Bielsa’s excellent Leeds side, but the amount of ground Phillips covered while producing such a performance surely makes him impossible to drop for England’s match-up with neighbours Scotland on Friday night.
Southgate, whose team selection was justified, described the midfielder as “immense” post-match, high praise for a player who remains out of the betting for player of the tournament, despite the odds going as long as 350/1.
“I’m very happy with my performance but there are two more group games left,” said a slightly bashful Phillips after his impressive Wembley performance.
Understated is an understatement.
Raheem Sterling may have been man of the match, but Kalvin Phillips was the best player on the pitch.