Leeds United possess a youth academy of some repute. Their greatest eras have been punctuated by talent developed from within. Don Revie’s title-winning side of the 1960s featured the likes of Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Terry Cooper, among others, while David O’Leary’s Champions League and UEFA Cup semi-finalists of the 1990s included Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell.
This tradition has not been halted by the changing footballing landscape. While other top English clubs look elsewhere for prodigious teenagers and prioritise quality over potential, the Yorkshire side have produced England internationals and Premier League players on an almost annual basis.
Tottenham Hotspur left-back Danny Rose, Liverpool midfielder James Milner and Manchester City utility man Fabian Delph are the best of recent years. Others such as Aaron Lennon, Scott Carson, Jonny Howson and Tom Lees have carved out solid careers at or around the highest level of the domestic game, while Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor and Lewis Cook hope to follow in their footsteps.
Leeds’ current squad is a cosmopolitan group made up of many different nationalities and varying personal journeys, but there remains room for academy graduates. And Kalvin Phillips is the best of the current crop.
For those on the inside, Phillips’ promise was clear to see. In March 2015, former academy coach Jason Blunt told the Yorkshire Evening Post that: “Although [Phillips] has not got on for the first team yet, you can see he wants to stay in and around it. He stamps his mark on games. He’s athletic and a good footballer with a good range of passing and a typical Leeds midfielder who the fans tend to like.”
Within a month of that interview, the youngster had made his debut for the club’s first team, starting in a 4-3 defeat away to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Alongside him in the line-up that day were Byram, Taylor and Alex Mowatt, who is now on loan at Oxford United from Barnsley.
Phillips was in no way an overnight success, however, and he had to bide his time before establishing himself in the first team. He made just ten appearances in 2015/16 before starting half of Leeds’ league games last season. And this term, under new head coach Thomas Christiansen, he has reached a new level of performance.
Neil Redfearn, who handed the player his debut, commented on his displays earlier this season. “(Kalvin’s) had a good start, scoring a couple of goals against Bolton,” he said. “The pleasing thing for me is that he's starting to get forward a little bit more…and I think that's important. The Kalvin Phillips that I know has a goal in him and he's capable of getting double figures.”
With four goals in 13 Championship outings this season, the 21-year-old has evidently raised his game from an attacking perspective. He has been helped in this respect by Christiansen, who has handed him greater license to push forward. “When we’re building up I think he likes to play with Eunan (O’Kane) in the middle,” Phillips said of his manager. “He wants me getting forward and scoring goals. Because I only scored one last season I thought ‘I need to get more goals.’”
PHILLIPS’ STYLE OF PLAY
A tenacious tackler who plays with enthusiasm and aggression, Phillips broke through as a box-to-box central midfielder. This was the most obvious role for him, considering his blend of strength, competitiveness and sound passing.
In many ways he resembled a young Delph – a raw, combative, surprisingly strong and classy midfield pivot. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that his future may lie in a more advanced area of the team.
Christiansen has shown a preference for a 4-2-3-1 system since coming in. Within that shape, he has tended to opt for a central midfield duet of O’Kane and Phillips. But the latter, at least on recent evidence, could soon make the attacking midfield position his own.
One of the main criticisms of Leeds’ 4-2-3-1 system is that it is too open, particularly when away from home or up against strong opposition. With three playmakers packed in behind a lone striker, the centre of midfield can be overloaded and too easily played through. This was perhaps the reason behind the re-introduction of another academy graduate, Ronaldo Vieira, for the 3-0 win over Bristol City last weekend.
The 19-year-old was exceptional last season, winning a regular starting berth under Garry Monk’s auspices, but had struggled with injury throughout the opening stages of this campaign. However, with Christiansen undoubtedly sensing the need to shore up midfield after a run of three straight league defeats, the youngster made his first start of the 2017/18 Championship season.
With Vieira partnering O’Kane in central midfield, Phillips took up a more forward-thinking role. He responded brilliantly to the change, making multiple line-breaking runs, linking attacks and helping his side defend from the front. He made four key passes, one of which was an assist, while his pass accuracy of 77.8 per cent was higher than any of his team-mates. On top of that, he contributed two tackles and one interception defensively.
He is not what many would deem a classic No.10; he doesn’t possess a particularly refined touch, and he isn’t a spectacular dribbler. Rather, he is a truly modern attacking midfielder, an advanced ball-winner-cum-creator who leads the press defensively and connects play offensively. If he were looking for world-class influences on which to base his game, Arturo Vidal and Radja Nainggolan would be the obvious choices.
Phillips is a self-confessed Leeds fan, born and raised in the city. He visited Elland Road for the first time at the age of nine and has said it “would be a dream come true for me to be in the Premier League with this team.” Assuming he continues to progress at his current rate, that goal may not be far away.