Is Kalvin Phillips one of the finest midfield talents outside the Premier League? Many seem to think so.
One look at Kalvin Phillips’ career stats, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he only recently turned 24. Naturally talented and technically gifted, the Leeds United academy graduate has become the heart of Marcelo Bielsa's side in their bid to reach the Premier League.
On the subject of hearts, he's a player who wears his on his sleeve. Phillips made his first-team debut in 2015, but the signs of his potential had been evident long before his introduction to the big stage. After joining Leeds at the age of 15 in 2010, the midfielder signed professional terms with the club in the summer of 2014, aged 18, and during the 2014/15 season was given the captain’s role for both the Development Squad and Under-18 team.
His sharp passing and long-ball distribution caught the eye of many, as staff amongst the club predicted him to become a future first-team fans' favourite. And right they were.
Having established himself in the Development Squad, a number of matchday appearances as an unused substitute followed, before Neil Redfearn gave the midfielder his big break with a first-team debut in April 2015 - Phillips was 19 at the time and the latest graduate of a vibrant group of Leeds United youngsters working their way up the ladder.
Later that month, he retained his position in the Leeds United starting XI, making his home debut against Cardiff City, an occasion he also marked with his first senior goal. A new two-year contract was offered, accepted and signed to keep the Leeds-born midfielder at the club.
The 2015/16 season saw Phillips play only 10 league games, however he was very much involved from the start as Leeds kicked off the 2016/17 season under new manager Garry Monk, a campaign in which he would become an important first-team player at the centre of the Leeds United midfield.
A Young Player of the Month trophy and 40 appearances later, it turned out to be a breakthrough season for the youngster, as he firmly established himself in the side. The following campaign saw him go from strength to strength, finishing with seven goals and three assists, proving his best scoring season of his career so far.
He was a gifted footballer prior to Marcelo Bielsa’s arrival at Elland Road in 2018, but a change of position as part of newly introduced tactics has seen the Yorkshireman thrive under the Argentine in the past two seasons.
Phillips’ lost nearly a stone after Bielsa’s arrival thanks to improved diet and training regimes, making more than 40 appearances throughout the course of the season. He would go on to be included in the EFL Team of the Season, as Leeds narrowly lost out on promotion after defeat to Derby County in the Play-Off Semi-Finals.
A player very much on the up, this season has been no different, and it would be fitting that the winning goal in Leeds United’s centenary fixture against Birmingham City at Elland Road would be scored by home-grown Phillips.
Defensively disciplined, positionally intelligent and tactically aware, his playing style has earned him the nickname ‘the Yorkshire Pirlo’ from the Leeds fans in homage to the former deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo. But his clear potential on a football pitch isn’t the only thing that makes him special.
Leeds born and bred, Phillips used to go to Elland Road as a child to watch the club he supports. He now does all he can to give something back and help his local community. Not only has he made more appearances that any other player on the pitch, he was also recently named Leeds United's Community Player of the Year for a third year running.
A technically gifted footballer, Phillips may be known for the occasional ‘tough tackle’, and whilst often the ‘hardman’ on the pitch, he has a heart of gold off it, often going above and beyond when it comes to taking part in community projects.
Former England international and top-flight defender for Manchester City and Everton, Andy Hinchcliffe, is someone who has watched Phillips grow over the years, whilst regularly working as a pundit for EFL fixtures on Sky Sports. In an interview with The Athletic earlier this season he said: “To go from doing that to playing as a ‘one’ like he does under Bielsa is an enormous responsibility. It’s a very different job and one you need to understand inside out.
“What makes him stand out is his mental concentration. In his position you have to read the game and understand the game, take on board the ins and out of your role and dictate play. He makes what he does very easy but his position is extremely difficult to do well. His stats stack up very well and I don’t see many players in his exact position who look much better than him.”
Those are a strong set of words about someone who is still only 24 years old and playing Championship football.
The intensity that this Leeds United side plays with is something few teams can rival, and Phillips is key to that. Since his debut back in 2015, he has played more than 175 games for the Yorkshire club, in one of the most competitive leagues in Europe. He’s still only young and very much on his path to the top.
He may not have represented his country at any age level thus far, but his performances this season and continued development mean surely it’s a question of when, not if?