Gary Neville has explained why he believes Kalvin Phillips holds a key advantage over Declan Rice in the race to earn a place in England’s European Championship squad.
Phillips, 25, started all three of the Three Lions’ World Cup qualifiers during the international break. The midfielder played all but 19 minutes of the games against San Marino, Albania and Poland. Gareth Southgate’s side won all three and sit two points clear at the top of Group I. There is still a long way to go before England book their spot in Qatar but it was just the start Southgate wanted.
More pressing for Southgate is their 23-man squad for the European Championships. Phillips suddenly looks like a strong contender, moreso given injury concerns for West Ham star Rice and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson.
There’s every chance that all three could make the squad. However, if all three are fit, it could come down to a straight choice between Rice and Phillips.
Assessing England’s options in midfield, pundit Neville reckons the Leeds man has the edge. He also praised his performances under Marcelo Bielsa in a glowing appraisal of the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’.
“Phillips is better at passing the ball through the lines at Leeds,” he told Sky Sports.
“Henderson and Rice are good on the ball, but I think Phillips is the best out of the three on the ball in terms of accepting the ball and getting it off the back four.
“It has become a really important area for England to connect the back to the front. They’ve struggled over many, many years to be able to do that and get the ball through the midfield. Kalvin Phillips, under Bielsa, is used to getting on the ball all the time.
“Half-turn, pops it through the lines, into the likes of [Mason] Mount, [Marcus] Rashford, [Phil] Foden, [Raheem] Sterling – all those players who might play. So for me, I would go for Phillips alongside Rice [to start at Euro 2021],” Neville concluded.
Phillips admits to stage-fright
Neville’s assessment is certainly one Leeds fans will agree with. And there’s no doubting they are a far superior side when their homegrown midfielder plays.
The Yorkshireman has started 22 top-flight matches in 2020-2021, with Bielsa’s men 11th in the standings.
He has been rewarded for his efforts and now has seven caps for the national side. The first came against Denmark in the UEFA Nations League on September 8 last year.
Phillips now seems an established member of the squad. He still gets butterflies with the prospect of playing international football but concentrates on the job in hand to overcome them.
“Whenever I am called up or starting for England, the nerves are still there. But I just got my head down, worked hard,” he told The Mirror. “Through time, I’ve got more confident. But don’t get me wrong – the nerves are still there.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make it feel real. I’m very happy with how the last few weeks have gone. Hopefully I can keep pushing on to get more games.”