Leeds United and England's Kalvin Phillips calls for courage and risk taking ahead of Germany Euro 2020 clash
The ‘laid back attitude to everything’ noted in Kalvin Phillips’ 2007 Whingate Primary School report came in handy for the Leeds United and England man on Sunday afternoon.
As the nation’s media, assembled on Zoom and in person at St George’s Park, threw question after question about the huge historical significance of tomorrow evening’s Euro 2020 last 16 game against Germany and the quality of Toni Kroos, Phillips carried the same air about him as referenced in Miss Loney, his Year 6 teacher’s note of caution.
For the avoidance of doubt, she was a fan of the 11-year-old long before he won a legion of fans in West Yorkshire and far beyond.
“Kalvin is a very happy and popular member of 6L,” she wrote, in a report Phillips' mum Lindsay Crosby posted on the YEP Facebook page.
“His smile and cheeky chappy attitude can only make anyone in his company smile, including me.
“He has a laid-back attitude to everything and it can on occasions stop him achieving his potential. I hope he can work hard to achieve his best in all lessons in the future.”
As Phillips prepares to carry the hopes of a nation out onto the pitch at Wembley in front of 40,000 fans and a television audience of millions, it’s clear Miss Loney need not have worried.
Somewhere between his departure from primary school and his enrolment in international football, Phillips discovered that the only thing he should ever really concern himself with is that which he can control - his work rate.
And by working hard, in training and in games, everything else has generally taken care of itself, as a Championship title, a year of solid Premier League performances and 11 England caps attest.
The mantra he returns to, time and time again, is a simple one: “The only thing I can do is work as hard as I can.
“Every day I go out and try do my best.”
Phillips stuck by his tried and tested line and kept things simple when facing the media ahead of the biggest game of his footballing career.
As he pointed out, he hasn’t played Germany before and all of England’s past encounters with their historic rivals are irrelevant this week.
Reducing it to ‘just another game’ risks the accusation that he hasn’t got the right mentality for such an important game, but Phillips will try to tackle Kroos with the same ferocity he brought to battles in the Championship.
As Marcelo Bielsa has drilled into him, the identity of the opponent matters little.
“He looks at every [opposition] player to be high class, the ways they can beat us and hurt us,” said Phillips.
“Regardless whether it’s someone in the Premier League, the Championships or someone in the Euros, he wants us to beat them every way possible.”
Bielsa has been good for Phillips. The Argentine turned a box-to-box midfielder into a defensive destroyer, the rock upon whom waves of opposition attacks are smashed.
Phillips’ game at Leeds is relatively simple, albeit exhausting. He chases and harries, barges, blocks and tackles and then looks up to feed the flair players in attacking positions, spraying passes to the flanks or into the space ahead of Patrick Bamford.
At times it looks as if the local lad could play his role with his eyes closed, so natural does it come to him.
But international football and this Euro 2020 tournament especially, has complicated things somewhat. Southgate has played Leeds’ only current England representative in a more advanced role, in which a little more is expected in possession.
Phillips’ eyes are open to what is needed, against Germany, as part of a team yet to concede in the tournament but also yet to set the world alight offensively.
“[We need to] be more confident when we’re on the ball maybe, take a few more risks - me personally as well,” he said.
“I’m new to the team so I don’t want to be risking the ball too much and losing a bit of confidence but I’m in a major tournament so I’ve got to show what I can do and get in a position where that ball has got to be a risky pass.
“Even in training, if I’ve got time to turn and play Harry Kane, Raheem or any of the attacking players I’ll try and do that.
“I feel like when I’m in a position to get the ball, turn and get it forward there’s loads of options.
“It’s about being courageous and positive when you get the ball so I’ve been trying to do that since I’ve been here.
“I am a defensive midfield player but I love being on the ball. Regardless of whether I’m defending or attacking I want to do my best. I felt like I was new to the team and you feel like you don’t want to lose the ball in case anything happens, it’s in everyone’s head, no one wants to lose it and Germany go up the pitch and score.
“I feel as the games have gone along I’ve got more confident.”
Against Croatia in the opener Phillips shone, but insists he changed nothing about his game. He can’t guarantee a repeat against Germany, but he’ll try his best.
“On the day I couldn’t have been placed anywhere else, wherever I was stood I was in a position to win the ball back or make a different pass,” he said.
“I came off the pitch thinking I didn’t do anything different to what I normally do, anything different to what I’ve done in the Premier League over the last year. I had a few strikes at goal and got an assist.
“The coaches must have got it nailed on. “It’s a game I’ll always remember. I just want to try and replicate that performance against Germany.”
As for Kroos, who Phillips admits is ‘world class’ along with Germany’s flying wing-backs Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens, the job will be complex but Phillips is able to simplify it.
“It’s just a matter of trying to stop him and hopefully I can do that,” said Phillips.
“I don’t just think the game is going to revolve around him, I feel like he’s got other people in his team who can do different things.
“He’s a major factor in how Germany play and progress but it’s more about England and how we play against them and attack as well.
“I’m concentrating on trying to defend against the whole Germany team and do my job by neutralising as many people as possible.”
Miss Loney’s parting advice 14 years ago was to ‘keep smiling’ and Phillips has adhered to it.
But if he’s picked to take on Germany the cheeky chappy persona will disappear for 90 minutes. Kroos and co won’t find him to be laid back when he’s at their ankles, working hard and doing his best.
All England hopes that the rest will take care of itself.