Phillips’ ability to switch deftly between defensive and attacking play in midfield will be invaluable to England’s Euros campaign, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
The hysteria surrounding the announcement of England’s starting XI before their opening Euro 2020 match against Croatia was just about the most predictably English moment of the whole day – topped only by the scenes of shirtless men bouncing around Wembley. The decision to play right-back Kieran Trippier on the left, combined with the omission of Jack Grealish from the line-up and Jadon Sancho from the bench, distracted from Gareth Southgate’s midfield choices. With Kalvin Phillips lining up alongside Declan Rice, this represented the dour defensive selection that many had feared. The assumption of many ahead of the game was that Phillips, if picked, would be tasked with man-marking Luka Modric.
Yet from kick off, it was apparent that this was not the case. Phillips had not been selected to line up alongside Rice, or stay touch-tight to Croatia’s 35-year-old playmaker. Instead, he was there to shift England’s press higher up the pitch and join attacks, with Rice sat deep as a screen ahead of the defence.
With Phillips playing slightly higher, Mason Mount, ostensibly occupying the number 10 role in the 4-2-3-1, also had license to shift closer to Raheem Sterling. Some of England’s best opportunities in the opening twenty minutes came as Mount and Sterling combined around the left hand side of the area. If Harry Kane had been keener to stay in the penalty area, more might have been made of those combinations. By shifting left, Mount opened up space for Phillips to move into in attack, whilst England’s two most enthusiastic pressers of the ball were well placed to win turnovers high up the pitch.
From the start though, it was clear that this performance was not just about Phillips’ positioning. When the ball fell to him from a corner in the 9th minute, he cleanly struck a volley which had to be pushed away by Dominik Livakovic in the Croatia goal. This was not the same player who only had five shots on target for Leeds across the entire Premier League season. By half time, he was the only player on the pitch to have a 100% pass completion rate. This was a man playing out of his skin.
There were times when the distance between Rice and Phillips was more of a hindrance than a help. The flat thirty minutes that encompassed the end of the first half and start of the second saw England stuck passing the ball slowly across the back line with Rice disconnected from Phillips and unable to find the progressive pass required to break Croatia’s mid-block. The selection of Trippier here probably did not help, with the right-footer naturally more comfortable with passing back inside rather than down the line. Meanwhile Kyle Walker, despite excelling defensively, struggled on the ball.
But what will be remembered is Phillips’ role in the England goal which perfectly justified Southgate’s decision to encourage him higher up the pitch. Kyle Walker’s ball forward saw Phillips glide past one Croatian player before cutting across a second to play an impeccably weighted ball through to Raheem Sterling. Sterling’s composed finish meant that England won the opening match at a Euros for the first time in their history; but the build-up was all about Phillips.
The advantage of using Phillips in this manner was even clearer as England entered the final twenty minutes with their one-goal lead and he began to tuck back into a deeper position, with the midfield bolstered by Jude Bellingham coming on. That flexibility – to step forward when on the front foot but have the right attributes to defend when required – demonstrated exactly why it made sense to have Phillips as the second midfielder, rather than putting Mount there, for example.
Phillips’ performance presents Gareth Southgate with another selection headache. As Jordan Henderson returns to full fitness, it would be natural for Southgate to consider selecting the experienced Liverpool man. But Phillips will be hard to drop after his performance against Croatia. Despite all the handwringing it causes on Twitter, however, those decisions demonstrate England’s incredible depth – arguably their greatest strength.
Wales grab useful point against Switzerland but defensive lapses should be a warning
Despite picking up a good point against Switzerland in a 1-1 draw, Wales should take heed of the way they were opened up several times by the hold up play of Breel Embolo.
Embolo has been tipped to have a break out tournament at the Euros and against Wales, he showed why. Several times, Switzerland played long passes through the centre of the pitch to Embolo’s feet who was dropping deep and taking his defender with him.Embed from Getty Images
He then turned his defender with ease and ran into the space beyond. Whilst they might not have capitalised from any of these opportunities, Turkey will have no doubt been looking on with interest. With Burak Yilmaz playing up front for them, the Turkish veteran will not be as fast as Embolo but he is also unlikely to be as profligate.
Scotland’s return to tournament football reminds them why it can be such a cruel mistress
In truth, Scotland did not do a whole lot wrong in their 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic. They created better chances than the Czechs with both Andy Robertson and Lyndon Dykes rueing opportunities they should have put away, whilst conceding what will surely be the goal of the tournament as a result of Patrik Schick’s record-breaking lob.
Scotland played the match at quite a frantic pace and that only increased when they went a goal down towards the end of the first half. It led to them snatching at shots and taking long-range efforts, one of which caused the rebound which saw the ball fall to Schick on the halfway line – and well, we all know what happened next.
With a shot accuracy percentage of just 20%, Scotland might have had more joy if they had been more patient in dangerous areas. As it is, they now face an uphill battle to get out of the group.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph