There were raised eyebrows in certain quarters when England manager Gareth Southgate spent the night of Liverpool’s Champions League tie against Paris Saint-Germain watching a Championship game between Derby County and Blackburn Rovers.
Southgate had more in the way of England players to cast his eye over at Anfield but his trip to Pride Park was a final check on the talent of Mason Mount, Derby’s on-loan Chelsea midfielder who could make his international debut in a Nations League clash with Croatia tonight.
Mount, 19, played regularly in Holland’s top flight with Vitesse Arnhem last season but the absence on his record of a single Premier League appearance - and Southgate’s willingness to call him up in spite of that - might have pricked the ears of other Championship players.
Kalvin Phillips, in contrast to Mount, has never been capped by England at any level and is three years older than a skillful Chelsea starlet who Derby manager Frank Lampard has backed to eclipse his own international record but aided by the coaching of Marcelo Bielsa, Phillips is ranking as one of the better Championship midfielders this season.
Bielsa has shaped him as an out-and-out holding midfielder, in a deeper role than Mount occupies for Derby, and Phillips has kept United’s performances ticking over with the highest pass completion rate and the third highest number of passes in the squad at Elland Road.
It would, in spite of any of that, be a huge leap for Phillips to catch England’s eye but Southgate’s move to court Mount after only a few months on Derby’s books was a way of saying that the Championship was not entirely out of bounds.
“As a young kid I always looked at it,” Phillips said. “When I was young I always thought ‘I’d love to play for England’. But it’s never really run through my mind to be honest with you.
“If he (Southgate) is calling up Mason Mount, who’s done really well, then there’s always a possibility but I just keep my head down and get on with it.”
Phillips has been integral under Bielsa, to the extent that the Argentinian classes him as almost irreplaceable - despite having twice been compelled to substitute the 22-year-old in the first half of games.
“It’s hard to find another player who can do the same job at Phillips,” Bielsa said in August. “Maybe in that sense, we haven’t drawn our team perfectly. The best thing for us is if Phillips can play all the games.”