Amid the noise and the England chuntering two opinions matter for Leeds United's Kalvin Phillips
Kalvin Phillips has very little left to prove to Leeds United fans but the same cannot be said when it comes to England.
The midfielder’s job under Marcelo Bielsa has been to break up attacks, shackle creative players and get Leeds playing out from the back, and he’s done it brilliantly.
His dominance in the Championship was a huge part of the Whites’ successful promotion campaign and, although he obviously hasn’t enjoyed the same level of comfort on and off the ball in the Premier League, he’s proven very capable of operating at the highest domestic level.
England boss Gareth Southgate saw enough in the Championship to give the 25-year-old his first Three Lions cap before he had even kicked a ball in the Premier League.
And nothing Southgate has seen since has dissuaded him from the notion that Phillips is an international-quality midfielder, because he continues to call him up and use him when available.
Not everyone outside of West Yorkshire agrees with Southgate. His performance as a defensive midfielder in the 5-0 win over San Marino was assured and comfortable. As the game went on he looked more confident and throughout the 90 minutes he covered a huge amount of ground.
He looked after the ball well, won it back on the ground and in the air and even created a couple of chances. It evidently wasn’t enough, for some, however.
Against Albania, paired with Declan Rice, he had licence to go and get forward and made countless runs into space, some of which weren’t spotted by team-mates and some of which drew players towards him and opened up room for England to manoeuvre. Playing as a No 8 is something Phillips has done in the past, although not with any frequency for a long time at club level, and yet he again looked comfortable enough.
He kept the ball well, he was strong in the tackle and, in the second half especially, pressed with intensity to help keep England in the Albanian half of the field.
It was noticeable that when he was withdrawn, for James Ward-Prowse, England suddenly found the opposition more difficult to contain and Albania enjoyed their best spell of possession and territory.
Doing the job asked of you and fulfilling the expectations of your manager is not enough to make you exempt from criticism, not when you play for England anyway.
What Phillips will have realised by now, six games into his international career, is that pulling on the shirt, doing your job and doing your best is not sufficient in the same way it is when the shirt is a Leeds shirt.
His performances weren’t good enough or exciting enough for an element of the England fanbase, an element that exists outside of Leeds. “Shocking.” “Fraud.” “Technically far from England quality.” “Passes sideways.” “Spent the whole first half passing backwards.” A tough crowd, on social media anyway.
As a Northern Irishman, it has always felt like an England thing, to seemingly seek out and relish opportunities to criticise individuals who play for your side during international breaks but not for your side in club competitions. Growing up watching Northern Ireland struggle to score goals, never mind win games, I don’t remember the public or the press getting the knives out for the international team and individual players with the haste that was so evident across the water in England.
Phillips isn’t just falling victim to the filter of club loyalty and tribalism, however.
The perception that Southgate’s taste for pragmatism and defensive solidity is coming at the expense of a host of exciting attacking creators means Phillips will not be looked on favourably no matter how sound his performances are. They want Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Mason Mount and James Maddison tearing up opposition teams. Let them play, Gareth. Two defensive midfielders? Trying to be hard to beat and resolute with tournament football in mind? Treasonous.
This is England, the 1966 champions of the world. Act like it, Gareth. This noise, and that’s all it is, isn’t going to go away, even if the Euros go badly and Southgate goes away. It’s a national past-time, having an opinion and ensuring the world gets to hear it.
When pubs are full again, Phillips’ name won’t be uttered with the respect it commands in Leeds, in England’s other cities. He’s still got to prove himself to Liverpool fans, Manchester City fans and Arsenal fans. He may never. He plays for Leeds, after all and, as David Batty and others discovered before him, that can be some pretty heavy baggage to cart off around the world with you on England duty.
There will always be noise.
Yet Phillips needs only to listen to two opinions, the only two that count – Marcelo Bielsa’s and Southgate’s. Doing what the former asks of him brought him to international football. Doing what both ask of him will keep him there. Right now he’s doing exactly what is asked of him.