A Leeds player all his life, Kalvin Phillips was already excited about fulfilling his dream of playing in the Premier League when a phone call from Gareth Southgate turned a special week into an unforgettable one.
“I was on my way to training when I got the call,” the 24-year-old midfielder says. “I was blown away. I have been mentioned in connection with England before but to actually speak to the manager was something I wasn’t expecting right at that time. I didn’t know what to say at first, but it was a massive moment for me to join up with the England camp. I feel very honoured to be here. I’m still being surprised by the tempo of the training, I can’t believe how fast it is, but I’ll get used to it. I’m always up for a challenge.”
Phillips has already proved that at club level by successfully converting into a specialist defensive midfielder at Marcelo Bielsa’s request. “I was a bit shocked when he first asked me to do that, because I saw myself as a box-to-box midfielder who scored a few goals,” he explains.
Bielsa wanted him as a one-man defensive screen, the deepest lying midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 formation. It took him a while, but Phillips has adapted to his new role and is now frequently described as his club’s stand-out performer. While his billing as the Yorkshire Pirlo may be a tad tongue in cheek it does emphasise his passing ability and the effectiveness of the switch Bielsa suggested.
“I was never going to say no to a manager like ours, but it was six or seven months before I properly understood where to stand on the pitch and how to read situations,” he says. “It was difficult at first, but we both stuck with it and it seems to have worked.”
Since Phillips has received his international call-up playing in that position, Bielsa deserves some credit for giving Southgate and England another defensive midfield option, though the player, an unused sub against Iceland, is not sure internationals are the first thing on his manager’s mind right now. “I think he will be pulling his hair out because a few of the lads have joined up with national teams and he wants to prepare for the game against Liverpool,” Phillips says of next Saturday’s Premier League opener.
“He puts a lot into his preparation, as you have probably heard, but it’s mostly the trainers we work with. We don’t really see him that much, and when he does have something to say or explain, he still uses an interpreter to get his message across. It sounds complicated but we are all used to it now and it seems to work. I’m not convinced he still needs an interpreter, I’m fairly sure his English is better than he lets on, but that’s the way he likes to work and no one at Leeds is complaining.”