Kalvin Phillips’ rare skill set means his shoulder injury is a big problem for England

Before every World Cup, we receive the sad news that an important player has been injured. In 2018 it was Dani Alves for Brazil. Four years earlier it was the unlucky Marco Reus who was stretched against Schalke this weekend with fears of also missing the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. And in 2010 it was Michael Ballack who injured his ankle in the FA Cup final against Portsmouth.

Paul Pogba’s late operation this summer makes him a huge doubt for the World Cup and another midfielder who could be in doubt for the World Cup is England’s Kalvin Phillips.

England’s fear of injury before tournaments has a long tradition. In 2002, it was David Beckham’s metatarsus. In 2006 it was Wayne Rooney before Harry Kane’s ankle caused a stir in 2018.

Concern now turns to Phillips, who may need shoulder surgery to regain full fitness after a stop-start start to his Manchester City career. He has been struggling with his shoulder since suffering an injury during Leeds United’s last game of 2020-21. There were concerns he would miss Euro 2020 but he bounced back and played a key role as Gareth Southgate’s side reached the final at Wembley this summer.

England are not lacking in midfielders but the absence of Phillips would be a major blow to Southgate and England’s World Cup chances because he offers a combination of skills few others have.

Of the options Southgate has, Phillips is the best when it comes to playing dual roles. He’s very technical on the ball in terms of his passing ability and reach, but he also has strong defensive ability which makes his presence invaluable.

To illustrate this, we can use John Muller’s player role analysis, which redefines positions based on the type and location of a player’s actual touches. (You can read a full explanation of this here).

Under these conditions, Phillips is classified as a builder, a player who acts as the team’s primary circulation center in possession and a defensive stopper at the base of midfield.

We can also illustrate what he does on the pitch by looking at smarterscout’s ratings, which give players’ skills a range of ratings from zero to 99. These ratings relate to either how often a player performs a certain stylistic action (e.g. shots per touch) or how effective they are at it (e.g. how well they get the ball up) compared to others who do on their play position. His progressive passing numbers show Phillips’ dedication to playing the precise long passes that propel his team to the top.

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What does that mean in reality?

These passes help England when it comes to making quick substitutions, putting balls behind opposition defenses and making transitions, and that was evident during Euro 2020. On more than one occasion, Phillips’ accurate long passes put England in a scoring opportunity.

For example against Scotland, after falling down the right flank, Phillips spots Phil Foden’s run behind the Scottish defense and plays an inch-perfect pass to his current Manchester City team-mate…

…Foden has control of the ball, but misses the shot. The goal would have been disallowed anyway as Foden was flagged for offside but that doesn’t diminish the importance of Phillips’ ability to play those passes.

Another example is against Germany in the round of 16. After a cleared corner, Phillips spots Kieran Trippier’s run and plays the ball over the Germans to put Trippier in a great cross position…

…from which the defender finds Harry Maguire missing from close range.

Those passes are key for England when considering attacking options across the wing, whether it’s changing games to put the wingers in one-on-one situations or putting balls behind defense for wingers.

Another player whose spatial awareness benefits greatly from these passes is Mason Mount. The Chelsea midfielder’s awareness of where the space is and when to attack makes him an optimal receiver for those passes.

In this example, in the semifinals against Denmark, Phillips puts Mount in front of goal with a single pass that knocked out eight Danish players…

…before Mount dribbles inside to get the ball onto his left foot and his shot is blocked.

The importance of those accurate long passes isn’t just creating chances, they can also act as a tool to release pressure when England face a high-pressing opponent.

The other aspect of Phillips’ importance is his defensive skills. Phillips is an elite disruptor of enemy movement through tackling, fouling, blocking and clearing – he scores a 91 out of 99 in smarterscout’s data when it comes to disrupting enemy movement. Additionally, his 81/99 ball recovery and interception rating demonstrates Phillips’ ability to sweep balls up in the middle of the field.

The number of headers Phillips is about average for a defensive midfielder (number of headers: 53/99), but it’s interesting to see that he scores 88/99 when it comes to headers from set pieces, which is his further outlines potential importance for Southgate’s off-ball side.

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No wonder Pep Guardiola thought he was the perfect Fernandinho replacement. “After Fernandinho decided to go to Brazil we were looking for a defensive midfielder and thought he (Phillips) would be perfect for us.”

In reality, his City career has only just begun but Southgate thought he was perfect for England. So what could the manager do if he missed the World Cup?

If we look at Phillips’ colleagues in the national team we can see that they offer some useful skills, but none are a copy. Jude Bellingham’s impeccable ball ability could position him as an option, although he doesn’t offer the same level of progressive passing as Phillips (15/99), but the question is Bellingham’s defensive aptitude in this deeper role (interrupting opposing moves: 39/99, Ball recovery and interception: 47 out of 99).

The other thing to note is that Bellingham is more of an orchestrator than a builder. He prefers shorter, higher percentage passes in more advanced positions on the field where he can then injure the opponent – as we can see from those little bumps in the Creator and Box parts of the chart below – compared to Phillips’ longer passes.

Next up is James Ward-Prowse, a set piece specialist who’s central to Southampton’s build-up game and has the ability to play those progressive passes and change plays like Phillips (progressive passing: 92 out of 99). However, Ward-Prowse does not offer the same defensive skills as Phillips, performs fewer defensive actions (interrupting opposing movements: 33 out of 99) and is less effective in restricting ball development when he is the assigned defender (Defensive Effectiveness: 20 out of 99). 99).

His move from a creator to a distributor may show a higher likelihood of taking on a deeper passing role, but he’s still more active in the opposing half than the defensive third.

The third option is Jordan Henderson, a player whose intensity off the ball puts him at the center of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. However, Henderson’s profile is more suited to the right side of Liverpool’s central midfield rather than the deeper role – something Klopp realized towards the end of the 2018/19 season. “He likes that position (right side of midfield) so it’s my fault he played at center back for a year and a half but we needed him there,” said Klopp.

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Henderson’s runs into the box and his integration with Liverpool’s flexible right-sided triangle make him the perfect candidate for Liverpool, but England are asking him to play a different role, limiting his forward runs to allow – quite sensibly – a more assured approach to possession.

The manifestation of what Klopp said can be seen below. Henderson has evolved to be more active in the opposition half, receiving progressive passes and becoming central to Liverpool’s right-wing attacks. The slip-up in 2020-21 comes as Henderson had to mark for Fabinho when the Brazilian fell on defense from Liverpool’s injuries this season, and Henderson himself fell on defense to also mark.

The final option – and possibly the player who best complements Phillips – is Declan Rice. The West Ham midfielder is used to playing deeper like Phillips and has impressive defensive skills.

Rice’s ball carrying ability makes him a strong threat on transitions and when trying to dribble forward or dribble out of a pressing situation (Carry & Dribbling Volume: 94 out of 99), but he doesn’t offer the same progressive passing quality as Phillips (Progressive Passing : 25 out of 99), more intent on playing those safer passes (connection game volume: 82 out of 99) which make them a great addition.

Without Phillips, Rice’s presence is essential. He understands the defensive priorities of the position and has the skills needed to perform the role. Add to that his current run with the team, ball carrying ability and threat from set pieces, and the West Ham midfielder is sure to be in the starting XI.

That leaves us with three combinations – Rice and Henderson, Rice and Bellingham, or Rice and Ward-Prowse. The Henderson option offers a safer and more experienced option, or Bellingham could help England dominate possession more and be up front. Ward-Prowse is the least likely option, especially when Trippier makes the standard threat.

England will definitely miss Phillips if his surgery prevents him from taking part in the World Cup, but while neither of the substitutes are exact replicas, they offer different skills that could benefit Southgate’s side in other ways.

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