Kalvin Phillips is reflecting on 2021, a period of personal triumph in which he was named England’s Player of the Year. But there is also the here and now.
Maybe it is the status arising from such accolades that encourages the Leeds midfielder to speak so candidly about his team’s current struggle. He wants to be honest and, interestingly, the view from the outside — opposition managers have worked out how to exploit the fluidity of Leeds’ offensive style — appears to be shared by those on the inside.
Marcelo Bielsa’s team have won one game in eight and are two places above the relegation zone. There are mitigating factors, not least the injuries that include Phillips, sidelined until February with a hamstring problem, but the 26-year-old has a wider observation to make.
Kalvin Phillips has enjoyed a superb 2021 filled with personal triumphs for club and country
He does so when drawing comparison to last season, their first back in the Premier League and culminating in a deserved ninth-placed finish, winning much acclaim along the way.
‘One of the main things is that we’ve now played every team before. We are not new any more. A lot of teams are coming to us and knowing how to play against us,’ Phillips tells Sportsmail. ‘They are changing their formation two or three times every game, and it does cause us disruption in the way we play. There is a bit of confusion.
‘We’ve played like this for four years and I can honestly say we’re not doing as well as last year, but I also think we’ve been quite unlucky. Some games we’ve lost in the dying minutes, we maybe could have dealt with them better.
‘I’m not a person to blame people or blame the manager. I’m more a person who blames myself. I want to do as best as I possibly can for the team. But when I’m sat here injured I can’t do that.’
The Leeds United midfielder was named England’s Player of the Year due to his performances
Phillips played an integral role in England’s incredible Euro 2020 campaign over the summer
If rivals are picking holes in the system, though, is it not time for change? ‘No, we don’t change,’ says Phillips. ‘The manager is very stubborn in the way that he plays. He knows what he wants to do.
‘To be honest, I don’t know how we’d do if we tried to change because we’ve played in a certain way for so long. I don’t know how well we’d take it on board.
‘We’ll just stick to what we know and work as hard as we can and play the way we do. It’s exciting football, not just for us, but the fans. We don’t want to defend for 90 minutes and try to nick a late winner. That’s not how we play.’
It is, in many ways, an admirable stance. We are quick to criticise managers who do seek to spoil the spectacle. But is it the best policy when it comes to achieving survival? ‘I’m not too sure, we’ll see how it goes,’ says Phillips. ‘We weren’t the best team last year. We’re not the worst this year. We have a very good chance of staying up, once we correct a few things, like concentrating a little bit more at the end of a game. I think the points will start coming in.’
Leeds have collected just one point this month, albeit amid a devilishly tough run of fixtures, including a 7-0 drubbing at Manchester City. Phillips watched that game from the sofa on which he is now talking, although he was tempted to hide behind it.
However, Phillips acknowledges that his club, Leeds, are in the midst of a torrid run of form
The 26-year-old has been sidelined with injury as Leeds have fallen to one win in eight games
He says: ‘I was close to changing channel, I’m not gonna lie, but I had to stick with them. I watched with my girlfriend and she keeps quiet if she sees me getting angry. But City can do that to any team.
‘We’ve got a group chat and I told the lads afterwards that it’s one of those where it didn’t go great for us and we didn’t help ourselves, but also that we can’t dwell on it. We’ve got a good group. We are the type to focus on the next task.’
What should have been their next game — at Liverpool on Boxing Day — was postponed on Thursday following a Covid outbreak in the Leeds camp. Phillips is split as to whether a division-wide break is a good idea.
‘If we pause now I might be able to play more games,’ he says. ‘Also, all these postponements are messing up my fantasy team! It’s a difficult situation, though. I would prefer to carry on, because you don’t want fixtures building up at the end of the season.’
Phillips admits that he was tempted to change the channel during Leeds’ 7-0 defeat at City
The Englishman has insisted that ‘stubborn’ Marcelo Bielsa will never change his approach
Phillips last played in a 2-2 draw with Brentford on December 5. In the days before that game he denied suggestions of a fallout with Bielsa, who substituted him at half-time during a goalless draw at Brighton last month.
Phillips has previously credited Bielsa with his spectacular ascent from the Championship to the final of the European Championship, and he says: ‘Me and Marcelo get on well. He doesn’t accept anything less than 100 per cent. Sometimes he thinks I’m giving that and sometimes he doesn’t. I respect that. That makes me go home and think about ways I can get better.
‘Last month there was a stage when I wasn’t playing great. I was subbed off at half-time at Brighton. I wasn’t happy but I knew why he had done it. If I didn’t then he was always going to tell me.
‘For people to say we’d had a bust-up, it’s nonsense. The manager is someone you don’t want to get on the wrong side of and I don’t want to let him down. I want to do the best I can for him because he’s given me so much.’
Phillips has also stressed that rumours of a rift with the Argentine are absolute nonsense
Did Phillips agree with Bielsa in that he was not giving enough last month? ‘Sometimes there may be a language barrier (with Bielsa) but I always try to give 100 per cent,’ he says. ‘There will be some games during a season when I’m not playing well or not feeling great physically but as soon as I’m on the pitch I try to do the best I possibly can.
‘If I’m not playing well then fair enough, I’d happily take it on the chin if the manager says that. When I am playing well, the manager doesn’t really tell you how well you’re doing. He just wants you to get better.’
Phillips has certainly got better under the 66-year-old Argentine. We laugh at the juxtaposition of two consecutive lines on his Wikipedia page — PFA Championship Team of the Year (2020) and England Men’s Player of the Year (2021).
‘Going from Championship to Premier League to England Player of the Year, it was an eye-opener and made me realise, “I can do this”,’ he says. ‘Everything came together, the hard work taking me where I wanted to be. If I carry on doing that, who knows where I’ll end up.’
For now, the Leeds academy graduate wants to remain at his hometown club. There is talk of a new contract but also links to Manchester United and Liverpool.
‘I just want to focus on getting back fit,’ he says. ‘But I speak to the owner regularly. I want a new contract. I’m very happy here.’
The 26-year-old made his name on the international stage during England’s win over Croatia
Phillips, it is said, is valued at £60million by his would-be suitors. Fair? ‘I just think it’s mental,’ he says. ‘But I’m not gonna say that I’m not worth £60m!’
For a period this summer, as Phillips bossed midfields against Ballon d’Or winners such as Croatia’s Luka Modric, that figure looked conservative. That was the opening game of the Euros, in which he created the only goal for Raheem Sterling. ‘The Yorkshire Pirlo’ was born and, with it, came widespread praise. Back in his hotel room, Phillips allowed himself to indulge in some of it.
‘Mesut Ozil put a message on Twitter,’ he says. ‘Michael Ballack and Nigel de Jong, too. For them to recognise me was very humbling. It felt weird. I didn’t actually realise how many people saw the games.’
Did Phillips play it cool when those famous names posted messages of admiration? ‘Nah, I “liked” them all straight away! But that first game made me feel I was worthy of being there. I was happy for myself but more happy that my family got to see it.’
Phillips dominated and got the better of Madrid star and Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric
He was trusted by Gareth Southgate to run the midfield alongside Declan Rice this summer
Phillips has spoken with great sentiment about the influence of his mother, Lindsay, who raised four children alone. Even during 30 minutes or so of conversation with him, you appreciate what a good job she did. But he also remains very close to his dad, Mark, who is serving time at HM Prison Wealstun, opposite Leeds’ training ground.
He has a touching story to tell of a phone call with his dad during the Euros.
‘He watched every minute,’ he says. ‘It was so nice to speak to him. He was just telling me how proud he was. I could hear his voice breaking on the phone. All the emotions came down on him.’
Is that something his dad had to hide, considering his setting?
‘To be fair, I think quite a few of his friends in there were just as emotional as him!’
Phillips, by comparison, rarely looks flustered. One source of the likeness to former Italy maestro Andrea Pirlo, who sent him a personal message before the final at Wembley, is that he makes it all look so easy.
Phillips says he believed England could beat Italy ‘by three or four’ after Luke Shaw’s opener
He says he quickly came to realise Italy’s quality as England fell to a heartbreaking defeat
‘Nah, it’s not,’ he smiles. ‘I just have that laid-back demeanour that makes it seem like that. I can assure you, when it gets to 60 or 70 minutes, I’m blowing just as much as anyone else.’
Not that he looked at all fatigued during England’s journey to the final. Phillips played every minute bar the last 25 of the quarter-final against Ukraine, but they were already 4-0 up by then.
‘Every two seconds I was pinching myself and thinking, “Is this real?”,’ he says. ‘Every time I stepped out at Wembley. Every time we drove out of St George’s and had a two-mile queue of people. Driving to the final through London, every corner it was people clapping, waving, beeping their horns. It was crazy.’
Against Italy, England led after two minutes through Luke Shaw. Phillips could play it straight when asked what he felt in that moment. Again, though, he wants to be honest.
Phillips watched on as Italy celebrated which he says serves as fuel for motivation for the side
‘I thought, “We’ll get three or four here, we’re gonna blow them away!”. But then they started passing the ball and moving it from side to side. By half-time, I was like, “Jesus Christ, these are good”.’
Italy won on penalties after a 1-1 draw. There was a squad huddle, during which Gareth Southgate spoke, and Phillips stayed on the pitch afterwards to watch the Italians celebrate.
‘The manager said that he was proud of us, we’ve come a long way. He said it would hurt now but if we work as hard as we did during the Euros there is no reason why we can’t win something. He believes we can. But he told us to look at Italy celebrating, that is what it’s all about. So I did. I watched Italy lift the trophy and it made me feel like I want to be in that position.’
In the days after the final, Phillips learned what it is like to be an England star, photographed around the clock as he holidayed in Greece with his Three Lions team-mate, Arsenal’s Ben White.
The unflappable Phillips hopes that the next year will be even more rewarding than 2021
He meets such exposure with the same unflappable manner in which he plays. That is also true of headlines this month revealing he had suffered a head injury during a team night out in London.
He says: ‘It is what is, isn’t it? I went on the Christmas party and was enjoying myself with the team. I fell down a step by accident and hit my head… yeah, it doesn’t really bother me. I actually think the headlines and stuff are quite funny. I was fine, nowt really happened.’
The same cannot be said of his past 12 months. So, what does the next year have in store? ‘Leeds still being in the Premier League and hopefully winning the World Cup,’ says Phillips, and that is that.
Given his rise so far, you would be foolish to discount his ambitions.